Outrage as poll authority cracks down on negative campaigningCritics say Election Commission misunderstood citizens’ rights to free speech and vote.
Anup Ojha & Ayush Gurung
On October 25, the Election Commission issued a statement urging members of the public to refrain from making “negative” comments on prominent leaders, or risk legal action.
The statement came following posts on social media including Facebook groups and pages and on Twitter with the primary theme, “No, Not Again”, calling on voters to reject certain politicians, particularly those who have become prime minister at least once.
In the posts, the groups mainly targeted veteran political leaders including the incumbent Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba; CPN-UML Chairman KP Sharma Oil; CPN (Maoist Centre) chair Puspa Kamal Dahal; CPN (United Socialist) chief Madhav Kumar Nepal and senior leader Jhalanath Khanal; and Nepal Samajbadi Party chief and former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai, who is not contesting upcoming elections.
In its statement, the country’s apex election body said that any individual found making negative remarks on social media would face a fine of Rs100,000 or five years imprisonment or both under section 47 of the Electronic Transaction Act (2008), section 23 (1) of the Election Commission Act (2017) and the Election Code of Conduct.
Soon after the notice was published, political leaders, rights activists and the general public took to various social media platforms to express their dismay and concern at the commission’s decision.
UML leader Bhim Rawal voiced his opinion on the matter by taking to Twitter on Wednesday, where he wrote: “If we are not allowed to debate who we want to or don’t want to vote for, why doesn’t the Election Commission declare the so-called prominent leaders victorious immediately?”
Rawal further added that the decision was a violation of Article 17 (Right to Freedom) and Article 19 (Right to Communication) of the Constitution of Nepal, 2015.
Also, Dr Govinda KC, a social activist who has been seeking reforms in medical education, issued a statement urging the commission to withdraw its statement.
“We urge the Election Commission to realize its mistake and withdraw the statement," read KC's statement. “If it fails to do so, we will ignore the commission’s warning and disobey it in a non-violent manner to protect the political rights of citizens.”
According to the administrator of the “No Not Again” page on Facebook, the campaign has amassed more than 28,000 likes and 33,000 followers. It has gone all out in support of independent candidates. The “movement” had started weeks before the dates for the general and provincial elections were announced.
Though the page administrator did not wish to reveal the identities of those operating the page, Dambar Shahu, coordinator of “Swatantra Ummedwar Abhiyan” (Independent Candidates Campaign), said the viral posts and the Facebook page are part of their campaign.
Shahu’s team has been campaigning across the country to field independent candidates in a coordinated way for the upcoming elections.
A day after the Election Commission issued the statement, the “No, Not Again” group published its own statement on Twitter, giving a clarification.
“The motive behind the creation of this page is not to defame anyone. We have no ill-intentions,” reads the statement.
The group had given further clarification on how citizens are affected by political instability, rising poverty, unemployment and corruption.
“Even after multiple political movements, the country showed no signs of improvement. The main reasons for this, we felt, are the repeated election of the same candidates, youths languishing in party politics and being given very few to no chances to attain public office,” the statement added.
It said that while they had not asked the citizens to vote for a specific candidate, they are urging the people to bid farewell to old politicians and give a chance to newer ones.
When the Post contacted Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Thapaliya to inquire about the commission’s reaction to the group’s campaign, he said the language used by the group ‘No, Not, Again’ was intolerable and defamatory.
“While the language used by the Group in its press statement is good, it had used derogatory words earlier for former prime ministers and top leaders,” said Thapaliya.
He said the Commission has zero tolerance for misinformation, disinformation and hate speech.
“Every individual has the right to support their respective political parties, but they can’t speak ill of them. They should refrain from tarnishing the reputation of particular individuals,” added Thapaliya.
Experts say that the Election Commission’s statement is not in line with the freedom and rights granted in Article 17 of the constitution. Article 17 (2) (a) of the constitution states: “Every citizen shall have the freedom of opinion and expression.”
Bhimarjun Acharya, an advocate who specialises in constitutional law, blamed the commission for its lack of understanding of the citizen’s right to free speech and their voting rights.“Dissent is an integral part of democracy. The Election Commission should not curtail it because the Supreme Court has allowed voters the right to reject (candidates),” said Acharya.