Organisations gear up for protest against IT bill saying it will curb freedom of expressionEven within the ruling party, some leaders have been raising voices against the bill.
While the House of Representatives has been held hostage to the indecision of the ruling Nepal Communist Party on selecting the Speaker candidate, stakeholders have started consultations to protest against the controversial bills under consideration in the federal parliament, including the IT bill.
The Federation of Nepali Journalists—an umbrella organisation of the country’s journalists—has started consultations with stakeholders including the Nepal Bar Association of legal practitioners and the NGO Federation of Nepal besides other journalists’ organisations. Stakeholders have started discussing the bill fearing that it could curtail freedom of speech online and increase surveillance of personal data.
The Development and Technology Committee of the House of Representatives passed the IT bill on December 29 without major changes. After the full House endorses the bill, it will be passed to the National Assembly. The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has comfortable majorities in both the House and the Assembly.
Even within the ruling party, some leaders have been raising voices strongly against the bill. One vocal critic of the bill is NCP Standing Committee member Rajhuji Panta, who was a former general secretary of the Federation of Nepali Journalists. Addressing an interaction on Friday, Panta claimed that the IT bill infringes on constitutional provisions, including the freedom of expression and press freedom.
“There must be enough discussion before the parliamentary committee endorses the bill,” Panta said. “We have fought for this right for long. The bill must not be endorsed without changes.”
During the consultation meeting organised by the FNJ at its head office in Tilganga, several stakeholders and journalists urged civil liberty organisations to jointly take to the streets to safeguard citizens’ right to expression.
Chairman of the NGO Federation of Nepal Jitram Lama is against all the controversial bills presented by the Oli administration. “We must jointly organise protest programmes in the seven provinces against the bills that are introduced with an aim to curtail civil liberties,” Lama said at the discussion organised by the FNJ.
“Time has come for us to speak up now, to save the party we voted for and for personal freedom and our rights.”
Lama claimed that the bill regarding the management of organisations was more draconian than the IT bill. “Once the law related to organisations comes into effect, the existence of FNJ will also be at stake, let alone other organisations like Aama Samuha and Tole Sudhar Samiti,” Lama said. “We know that everywhere in the world the governments having absolute majority tend to set controls through stringent laws.”
NGO Federation of Nepal, the umbrella organisation of non-governmental organisations—most of them supporters of the ruling NCP—has also been working in coordination with around 40 federations in the country.
Another strong civic organisation, Nepal Bar Association is also raising voices against the controversial bills. “We are preparing to hold protest programmes after consulting with the FNJ and other stakeholders,” said Bar Vice-chairperson Rakshya Basyal.
Stakeholders and experts are also concerned over the government’s intention to curtail people’s rights in the guise of the bill related to information technology, which is actually meant to regulate digital transactions.
At the discussion, advocate Om Prakash Aryal questioned the intention of the government, as the bill was focused more on curtailing citizens’ freedom of expression than regulating digital transactions and managing data. “The major objective of the bill should have been controlling hacking and cyber terror, but that has become secondary with only a maximum of three years jail and Rs 300,000 fine,” said Aryal. “The primary objective of the bill instead seems to be curtailing people’s right to expression, with five years of jail and Rs 1.5 million fine for just teasing someone online.”
He said the bill, however, does not have any concrete provision for cybersecurity. “The bill could be misused to strike against political opponents anytime.”
While a number of journalists have been facing the brunt of clause 47 of the Electronic Transaction Act, journalists’ organisations and other civil liberty organisations are fighting against the government’s autocratic move.
The three organisations have agreed in principle to fight for the changes in the stringent provisions of the IT bill.
Party leaders said there is still a chance of amending the provisions—if the government is ready for it.
“When conflict arose during the tabling of the Media Council Bill, I had taken initiatives for its amendment. But this time around, the bill has already been passed by a parliamentary committee,” said Subas Nembang, deputy leader of the NCP Parliamentary Party. “But if the government wants, the bill could again be sent to the same parliamentary committee for review.”
Maheswor Dahal, chairman of the NCP-affiliated Press Organisation Nepal, too says bill could undergo some changes if the government felt pressure from the stakeholders.
But for that to happen, the government too has to be willing. However, as the Minister for Communication and Information Technology, Gokul Baskota, has been claiming that there is nothing wrong in the IT bill.