In Ram Kumari Jhakri’s arrest, analysts see Oli administration’s intent to curb free speechThe leader of the Dahal-Nepal faction was arrested on charge of crime against the state, before she was released later, for her comments on the President, but legal experts say police stretched the law a bit too far.
A curb on freedom of expression is one of the signs of creeping authoritarianism, and the KP Sharma Oli administration on Thursday tried to do exactly that, putting its penchant for ruling with the iron fist on full display, once again.
Police arrested Ram Kumari Jhakri, a leader of the Nepal Communist Party (Dahal-Nepal) faction, on the charge of crime against the state for making remarks against the President.
Jhakri, who rose to prominence during the 2006 people’s movement, had on January 29 compared President Bidya Devi Bhandari with the former queens, calling her “bada maharani” (her majesty). While speaking at a programme in Gorkha, Jhakri had also challenged Bhandari to leave Sheetal Niwas to contest elections. She then went on to say that Bhandari could even go to Balkot—largely understood as Prime Minister Oli’s residence, because his house is located at Balkot, Bhaktapur.
Legal experts and proponents of free speech have described Jhakri’s arrest as yet another move by the Oli government to threaten his opponents. It shows that the Oli administration can go to any extent to attack opponents and critics, according to them.
Senior advocate Shambhu Thapa said that existing legal provisions do not allow authorities to arrest anyone just for making statements.
“Every citizen has the right to question authorities and people in power. Freedom of expression is guaranteed by our constitution,” Thapa told the Post. “Had people not questioned the previous regimes, we would be under their rule even today.”
Article 17 (2) (a) (Right to freedom) of the Constitution of Nepal states that “Every citizen shall have freedom of opinion and expression.”
Jhakri’s arrest on Thursday for speaking against the President comes at a time when the Oli government is planning to introduce a directive to regulate the use of social media and social networking sites. This plan has met with massive criticism for it intends to curb freedom of expression on social media.
Outrage poured against Jhakri’s arrest also because the Oli administration over the years has been trying to curb freedom of expression.
Some of the bills, including the Media Council Bill and Information Technology Bill, that the Oli administration wanted to introduce contained some regressive provisions aimed at curtailing freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
While legal experts questioned Jhakri’s arrest, they also wondered why the police invoked the offences against the state chapter of the National Penal (Code) Act.
The arrest warrant issued by the police said Jhakri had to be detained for interrogation for crime against the state under Section 58 of the National Penal (Code) Act.
“Actually we had taken her into custody for interrogation following a complaint by the All Nepal Women’s Association for making false accusations against the President during her speech in Gorkha,” said Superintendent Krishna Prasad Koirala, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Crime Division, Minbhawan.
Section 58 (1) of the National Penal (Code) Act says: “No person shall intimidate, whether by using any kind of force or not, show fear or terror to, or otherwise over the President or Parliament of Nepal with intent to prevent or restrain the President or Parliament of Nepal from performing any of the functions required to be performed under the constitution or law or compel the President or Parliament of Nepal to perform the functions in any specific manner.”
Thapa, the senior advocate, however, said there was no need to invoke Section 58 to arrest the Jhakri and that the move was guided by malafide intentions.
“Section 58 of the penal code clearly says if the President is compelled to do or not to do…. but Jhakri had simply criticised her,” said Thapa. “Criticism of the authorities and people in power is part of democratic processes.”
Jhakri made her foray into politics as a student leader. She became the first woman president of the All Nepal National Free Students’ Union, the student wing of then CPN-UML, in 2008. Until May 2018, she was an active member of then UML—the party from which the country got Oli as prime minister and Bhandari as the President.
Oli’s House dissolution move on December 20, however, resulted in a split in the Nepal Communist Party, which was formed in May 2018 after a merger between the UML and Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Maoist Centre.
Dahal, along with former UML leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal, decided to part ways with Oli. She was a Member of Parliament in the currently dissolved House under proportional representation system.
Jhakri is now with the Dahal-Nepal faction.
At Wednesday’s mass gathering organised by the Dahal-Nepal faction, Jhakri appeared on the stage with her mouth taped, in a symbolic protest against the Oli administration’s attack on freedom of speech.
After removing the tape, she said, “We are allowed to speak. In the governance system we have ushered in, we should be allowed to speak. We are free to speak against totalitarianism.”
Of late she had been facing vicious and vitriolic attacks for her Gorkha speech targeting President Bhandari.
At Wednesday’s programme Jhakri said that she had criticised the President because she was acting like an assistant of the executive head.
After widespread criticism, Jhakri was released later on Thursday evening.
Koirala, the police official, said since she was taken into custody for interrogation, she was released later.
“In her clarification, she has said that her respect for the constitutional President is intact,” Koirala told the Post. “We then decided not to move the case forward.”
In her response to the police, Jhakri said that what she spoke in Gorkha was purely a political statement.
“I have my full respect for the constitutional President and I stress that everyone should abide by the constitution and law,” she wrote in response to a police query if her statements were meant at disrespecting or threatening the President.
Jhakri’s arrest on Thursday brought leaders of various political parties, except the one led by Oli, on the same page, who unequivocally demanded her immediate release.
Leaders from across the spectrum—the Nepali Congress, Janata Samajbadi Party, Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Bibeksheel Sajha Party and Jhakri’s own party–condemned the Oli administration for the arrest, saying such an act was a direct attack on people’s right to free speech guaranteed by the constitution.
Free speech advocates say regimes with authoritarian tendencies often employ various methods to suppress freedom of expression and media freedom and shrink civic space.
Immediately after assuming office, Oli had tried to ban protests at Maitighar Mandala, in a move aimed at shrinking civic space. Oli’s contempt for free media has been evident from his various statements, where he is heard damning journalists who are critical of him.
“Today’s move is nothing but an attempt by Oli to threaten his opponents with a message that he could take such steps against anyone who criticises him,” said Om Prakash Aryal, an advocate. “What Jhakri spoke does not even qualify as libel or slander, but the government showed its vindictive tendency by arresting her.”
Ever since Oli dissolved the House of Representatives, largely out of spite after he found himself cornered in his own party, he looks more determined to wreak vengeance on his opponents.
Many say the move of arresting a leader from the opposition faction and charging her with a crime against the state could be a precursor to more such acts by the Oli administration in the future, as it is facing severe criticism for attacking the constitution and democracy.
“Our constitution does not bar anyone from criticising anyone holding public positions,” said Taranath Dahal, director of Freedom Forum, a civil liberty group that advocates free speech and media freedom.
“Jhakri’s arrest is part of a larger plot this government is hatching to silence all those who stand up for free speech and democracy.”