Speak your mindHallmark of a democracy should be the ease with which it allows proliferation of ideas, however unpalatable
Robert Penner, a Canadian man working in Nepal for a software company, maintained an active presence on social media, especially Twitter. Especially prolific during the Madhes movement and the promulgation of the constitution late last year, Penner adopted a take-no-prisoners approach to critical thinking, eviscerating official government statements for their contradictions and often blatant lies. He also took to task a number of newspaper reports and a chief editor or two. Naturally, he invited the ire of many who were unable to provide rebuttals to his criticisms and instead took the time-honoured route of ultranationalists—xenophobia. The charge levelled most often towards Penner was that he was a foreigner in Nepal and hence had no right to comment on Nepal’s ‘internal’ matters. (Full disclosure, I do not know Penner. My only interaction with him has been through comments on Facebook where he was very persistent with his questions seeking clarification.)
Freedom of expression
As of writing, Penner has been detained by the police, acting on orders from the Department of Immigration, who were responding to at least two petitions filed with the Hello Sarkar program (his visa has now been cancelled and has been asked to leave the country within two days). One petition (No. 30983), filed by an anonymous Twitter handle, @unitednepal1, only states that Penner violated immigration law. Another petition (No. 30899) is more specific, claiming that Penner violated Articles 28 (1) (e) (f) (g) (i) of the Immigration Rules. Under Article 28 (“Circumstances where visa may be cancelled”), (1) (e) states: “If his or her presence seems to cause an adverse impact on peace and security of Nepal or mutual harmony between the people of Nepal”; (f): “If his or her conduct is found suspicious or if he or she carries out, or causes to be carried out, any undesirable activity”; (g): “If his or her presence seems to result in an adverse impact on the social and culture environment in Nepal”; (i): “If he or she carries out any other act which is not in consonance with the purpose for which the visa was issued or the purpose for which the visa was obtained ends prior to that time”.
The gist of these articles seems to consist of an “adverse impact” on social harmony and security.
Penner might have been persistent, even to the point of annoyance to some, but one would be hard-pressed to find evidence where he was actively disrupting social harmony or threatening security. There are no threats of violence, misogyny, ad hominem attacks or ‘trolling’ to be found on his page. There is however a persistent attempt to gain clarification, often with a bullish stubbornness that allowed little room for nuance or interpretation, except for a strict adherence to the ‘facts’. But that is no crime and it is certainly no reason to expel the man from the country.
To be clear, Penner had an agenda. His was not a wholesale objective criticism of all that was happening in the country, without bias. He had his sympathies and they were very clear, even though sometimes obfuscated under the rubric of rationalism and logic. He was in favour of the Madhesi demands for rights and he was against the government touting the new constitution as ‘the best in the world’ and critiqued it widely for discriminatory clauses, especially towards women’s rights to pass on citizenship. In the most recent saga of Kanak Dixit vs the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), he maintained an overt scepticism against Dixit, siding obliquely with the authorities. In this case, he even professed rare faith in the government and Nepal’s justice system, contrary to every other time he had taken the same institutions to task for their past failures.
These were his opinions and he held them openly. Let us not attempt to paint the man as a rare voice of objectivism in a country riven with ‘interests’. But holding opinions, however unpopular, cannot be grounds for detention. As of yet, he is in custody and under investigation. So it is to be hoped that the broad universal freedom of expression will prevail over narrow definitions of what constitutes societal harmony and security.
The bigger picture
This issue, however, is bigger than just Penner. This current government has been undoubtedly intolerant of dissenting opinions. Just recently, Mohna Ansari, a commissioner at the National Human Rights Commission, was taken to task by the prime minister over her comments in Geneva during the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. The prime minister, according to Ansari, took affront to her criticisms regarding the loss of life during the Madhes movement, including that of protestors and policemen, and discriminatory clauses in the new constitution. The PM reportedly made his displeasure known in a manner not befitting the executive head addressing members of a constitutional body.
It is becoming clear that holding opinions that contradict the state narrative can open you up to all kinds of unpleasantness, whether it is from unidentified users on Twitter or from the government and its various organs. Penner being taken into custody does not bode well for those who would deign to speak their minds. The hallmark of a democracy should be the ease with which it allows the proliferation of ideas, however unpalatable they may be. A democracy believes in ideals that are universal, like freedom of expression; it is an autocracy that believes that freedoms are to be granted at the whim of the rulers. As an unbiased investigation should show, Penner did not incite violence, he did not advocate disharmony, he did not pose a threat to peace and harmony. But many believe that as a foreigner, he cannot be allowed to express his views on what is considered Nepal’s matter. Of course, comments from foreigners that profess only positivity for Nepal and its new constitution are no problem; it is criticism that is problematic. The reports filed against him and the authorities’ decision to follow up on those comments by taking him into custody thus hints of xenophobia and paranoia. If the state truly holds the higher moral ground, as it seems to believe, then it should have thicker skin.
Whether Penner is released without charge or deported from the country (which would be greatly unfortunate and objectionable), the case sets a dangerous precedent. Penner is not a Nepali citizen but because he is Canadian, there are more protective layers for him. The most the government can do is deport him. Or take Kanak Dixit, who is a very influential man. If people like these can be picked up and held in custody on trumped up charges, things look much bleaker for Nepali citizens who are without Dixit’s clout and Penner’s passport.
Rana, a former op-ed editor at The Kathmandu Post, is the author of the book City of Dreams