Political parties struggle to curb cadres’ social media activityAttempts to discourage open discussions won’t help democracy, in view of experts.
In a statement following its standing committee meeting on Sunday, the CPN (Unified Socialist) directed its leaders and members not to make any remarks on social media against the party and its leadership.
“As people involved in the party and its organisations have been speaking and writing on social media and public media ignoring the party’s discipline, this meeting directs them not to make such remarks,” the statement reads. “If they continue to defy the party’s policies and instructions, they will be punished as per the statute.”
Recent debates in Nepal’s political parties have emphasised the use of social media. Some parties have directed their leaders and members to disseminate content that promotes the party's achievements on social media, while most have barred criticism against the party and top leadership.
Similarly, the central committee meeting of the Maoist Centre that concluded Sunday directed the party’s central members to make at least two posts on social media every day. However, while doing so, it emphasised the use of decent and dignified language, prioritising publicity of the party’s policies and achievements over criticisms and negative comments against others.
Likewise, the Nepali Congress central committee meeting held this month also discussed social media content. The meeting decided that whoever speaks or writes against the party and its leadership or shares such contents will be punished and dismissed from party responsibilities.
Party leaders have repeatedly been showing concerns about the remarks on social media. Speaking at an event on August 4, Finance Minister and Congress spokesman Prakash Sharan Mahat said the leaders can express their grievances, but not on social media. “Internal discussions can be held. All members should abide by the party’s decisions. If leaders begin lashing out against each other on social media, it sends a negative message about the party.”
The serious concerns of the traditional parties about social media use are closely linked with the rise of new political forces and leaders.
“Their recent concerns about social media indicate that the traditional political forces have also acknowledged the power of social media,” said Ganesh Karki, press coordinator of the Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP), a new party in parliament.
RSP’s strong emergence owes, to a degree, to its popularity on social media. Party leaders and lawmakers have been widely using social media since its inception—from discussing various issues to making their income and expenditure reports public.
Unlike traditional parties, Karki said, the RSP does not bar its leaders and members from criticising the top leadership, but encourages logical criticism and decent use of words. A policy related to social media is in the making, he said. “We encourage our leaders and members for the creative use of social media.”
The traditional parties, according to Karki, have been barring its leaders and members from making remarks against its top leadership, yet they have stayed silent and enjoyed when their leaders routinely traded petty and base comments against other parties.
The RSP is also not free from criticisms, however. After RSP supporters began trading derogatory comments in response to critical remarks against the party leadership, some party leaders have publicly requested the party members to refrain from such activities.
Observers say party members and leaders can criticise their leadership, but they must follow party discipline.
“It is not wrong to guide and direct the leaders about their social media usage, because they should be responsible to their party. But it seems that our political parties have been trying to discourage open discussions,” said Taranath Dahal, executive chairman of the Freedom Forum, a group that advocates free speech. “It will eventually weaken internal democracy.”
“As citizens and members of the intelligentsia, the leaders can express their views on issues, but while doing so they should be mindful of their party responsibilities.”
Political analyst Indra Adhikari said the party mechanism is the best platform for criticisms and grievances because social media is not regulated and people using it are not responsible to anyone. “But the main problem with political parties is that the leaders and central members are being denied the space and platform to speak up and express their views,” Adhikari said. “Parties are reluctant to hold regular meetings fearing potential criticism from party rank and file.”
She added, “Most political parties don’t form crucial party units and departments in the first place. Even if they are formed, these units remain passive, creating a vacuum for political communication.”
The Maoist Centre recently held its central committee meeting after 15 months while the Nepali Congress held its central committee meeting after a year. Both of these meetings were long overdue. Moreover, most of the traditional parties have not formed their crucial department and even those that have been formed have been left incomplete.
“I think imposing restrictions on leaders’ social media posts will not help foster a robust political culture,” Adhikari said. “A party should mobilise and activate its organisations first.”