How a video of a film review provoked police complaint against a meme pageFree speech advocates and online content creators say powerful people are misusing criminal laws to curtail freedom of expression
Nepal Police last week booked Meme Nepal after filmmaker Milan Chams filed a complaint about a video the popular meme page had posted about Chams’ recent release—Bir Bikram 2.
The filmmaker charged the meme page, saying the video insulted and defamed the movie and the artists involved. But comedians and rights activists say such complaints curtail freedom of speech online.
The week-old controversy comes amid growing criticism of stringent laws introduced by the government, which many say stifle critical voices.
The controversy surrounding Meme Nepal, which has over 1.1 million followers on Facebook, started when the page posted a video on May 22, a few days after the film’s release, where comedian Pranesh Gautam makes silly observations and comments about Bir Bikram 2. The video has over 120,000 views on Youtube.
He says the movie is unnecessarily loud, the story is strikingly similar to the Bollywood hit Sholay and that besides some good actors and plenty of drone shots of a village, it has “nothing new to offer.”
In the video, he is seen holding a knife, which he sometimes points to the camera, uses it to scratch his head and occasionally bangs on the desk as he rants about the movie. At one point he tells the viewers, “If you are looking for something new, the story offers nothing.”
Yet in the end, he calls Bir Bikram 2 “entertaining” and says people should watch it or else “these guys will beat me up,” almost prescient of how things would unfold for him after the video’s release.
Speaking to the Post, Gautam, the 24-year-old comedian, who is also an architect, said he had not expected such backlash because Meme Nepal is a satire page.
“Our only intention was to make people laugh,” said Gautam.
Gautam initially tried to laugh off the allegations but nervousness started to grow when the issue reached the police.
“It’s perfectly fine to not like it [the video], but that doesn’t mean anyone gets to infringe upon my right to free speech that doesn’t harm anyone,” he said, calling the allegations baseless.
As an online content creator, Gautam said he was used to ruthless comments and trolls on social media, who send nasty and sometimes threatening messages. But once he saw dozens of YouTube videos of Chams, the director, and others from the film industry with threats of legal action, claiming he was under the influence of drugs in the video and in at least one instance, calling him accused before charges were filed, the fear got to him. And the increasingly divided public opinion about the Meme Nepal video in the comment section on multiple interviews of the director multiplied the fear.
“Last week has been extremely stressful thinking about the possibility of jail time for doing our job as comedians,” said Gautam, who had a tough time explaining to his parents about the ongoing controversy and the personal attacks on his character.
Gautam and his team at Meme Nepal said the controversy has already started affecting their business, with some of their clients hinting at not continuing advertising on their page. Meme Nepal members say they are willing to engage with the director. Last Tuesday, they made an unsuccessful attempt during a meeting with representatives from the film industry.
“We felt helpless, they didn’t want to hear us out,” said Nirjan Timalsina, who started Meme Nepal in 2014. “It’s clear they don’t want this to settle down and set a precedent for other platforms like ours.”
Chams, the director of Bir Bikram 2, doesn’t deny.
He said he is in no mood to talk to Meme Nepal. Chams told the Post that he is determined to “teach a lesson” to platforms like Meme Nepal.
“I am doing this not just for myself, but for the entire film industry,” said Chams. “These kinds of elements harm the society and we need to get rid of them.”
The filmmaker said everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the way the video chose to present those opinions is what he finds extremely problematic. Among other things, Chams said the video tried to defame the actors, used foul language and showed a knife, which he says will have an adverse effect on the younger generation.
This, however, is not the first time pages like Meme Nepal and comedians like Gautam have courted controversy.
The content they’ve put up in the past have been repeatedly lambastated on social media for being homophobic, sexist and often for belittling people in the name of comedy. And there are some Nepali comics like Shreya Poudel, who says while she doesn’t support how the filmmakers chose to retaliate in Meme Nepal’s case, this should also be a moment for comedy content creators in Nepal to introspect if they are using similar stereotyping tropes used by movies they are trying to criticise.
“The acceptance and openness of creators towards criticism should go up, while the proportion of belittling in comedy to gain more likes, views and applauses needs to go down,” said Pokharel, who is an editor at StartUps Nepal and also does stand-up comedy.
However, Nepali film industry’s heavyweights refused to introspect and engage.
Akash Adhikari, chairperson of the Producers Association of Nepal, who was among the several people present at Teku police station last Tuesday to meet with the representatives of Meme Nepal, said the video was an attempt to sabotage the entire Nepali film industry and Gautam needed to be punished by law for misusing social media.
Speaking to a YouTube channel last week at the Hanumandhoka police station, Adhikari said, “Don’t we have laws in this country, don’t we have human rights? If he [Gautam] goes unpunished, not only me but the entire film industry will be here.”
Film critics say the recent case of Meme Nepal isn’t surprising given how intolerant the Nepali film industry has grown towards the slightest of negative reviews.
“Resorting to threats has become commonplace in our film industry,” said Bishnu Sharma, secretary of Film Critics Society of Nepal. He said he has also been at the receiving end of Nepali celebrities because of his reviews.
“Filmmakers can’t accept criticism,” he said.
Critics and filmmakers like Sharma say members of the Nepali film industry need to stop taking criticism personally.
“As long as people comment on our work and not on our personal lives, we should be okay with it, or why to put your film out there in public if you can’t take criticism,” said Abhimanyu Dixit, a film critic and filmmaker, who also writes film reviews for the Post.
Another filmmaker, Suchitra Shrestha, who was also at the police station last week with Adhikari and members of the film fraternity, perceived the video made by Meme Nepal in a different light.
Speaking to a YouTube channel, she expressed concerns about YouTube videos like the one posted by Meme Nepal.
“These videos on YouTube are promoting things that don’t benefit our family and society, we need to completely get rid of them,” she said. “This has happened to Milan ji today, we might be next.”
And that’s the exact sentiment brewing on the other side of the battle line, among comedians and online creators in Nepal’s nascent but growing digital content landscape. They say seeing the support of Nepali film industry's heavyweights for a person trying to get Meme Nepal has shaken them like never before.
On May 29, nearly a week after, the controversy began simmering, as over two dozen Nepali content creators, ranging from meme pages to popular YouTubers and video content producers, issued a statement condemning the attempts to undermine their “right to free speech”.
Among them is KookyDunk, a collective formed over a year ago, which produces videos and memes laced with humour and social commentary.
Seeing one of their fellow content creators and frequent collaborators, Meme Nepal, which is housed in the same building as KookyDunk, they felt an urgent need to address the attempts at muzzling voices like theirs.
“Actions like these and laws which allow for powerful people to silence critics are reminiscent of the Panchayat era,” said Suyog Shrestha of KookyDunk. “Does that mean satire and humorous content will be permissible once a year only during Gai Jatra, like in the yesteryears?”
Nepali comedians and other online content creators say they’ve already started self-censoring themselves sometimes and the growing climate of fear has affected their creative process.
Stand-up comedian and writer at KookyDunk, Yozana Magar, said it has become tricky to produce content with the fear of a possible criminal charge hanging over one’s head.
Last month while working on a parody news show she and her team pulled out a segment about the death anniversary of the late communist leader Madan Bhandari, fearing backlash and possible legal action.
“We are now forced to find ways to make sure the message, whether it’s political satire or social commentary, hits home, while also making sure we get away without any legal headache,” said Magar. “It’s scary even as an individual when you can’t speak how you feel.”
Advocates of free speech say the threat to free speech didn’t grow overnight. The increasing role of social media in political processes, especially since the last elections, has made the state wary of the power of social media, which is now considered a political threat, said advocate Babu Ram Aryal, who specialises in cyber law.
“Booking people for a film review is extremely problematic,” said Aryal. “Powerful people are so easily misusing criminal law to curb freedom of expression in Nepal.”
He said the state mechanism has become more control-oriented, which will not just affect journalists or bloggers or online content creators, it will end up affecting the thought process and instill fear in the general public too. “People need to understand that this a threat to democracy,” said Aryal.