While Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s Monday speech at the Oxford Union in the United Kingdom valorised the importance of freedoms, rights and democracy, back home, his government has been criticised for what many see as an authoritarian turn, stifling freedom of speech and steadily encroaching on human rights.
In his speech at the Oxford Union, Oli said that as someone who had spent over five decades fighting for democratic rights, and as a result, been imprisoned for 14 years, including four years in solitary confinement, he knew “how important access to education and freedom of speech are for people and society to grow, develop and prosper.
Almost immediately, Nepalis on social media began to call out the prime minister, pointing to the recent arrest of a comedian for a satirical review of a film as an example of the shrinking space for dissent.
“Hold a comedian for custody for a film review and go to international unions and talk about freedom of speech? Hypocrisy at its best,” said one user on Twitter.
On Twitter, Mohana Ansari, member of the National Human Rights Commission, said that while Oli’s speech celebrating freedom of speech was appreciated, “Nepali citizens want to see the same at homeland, too. #Freedomofexpression and #HumanRights are protected.”
The Oli administration has been roundly criticised for attempting to push through a number of controversial bills, including a Media Council bill and an IT bill, that many say could be used to stifle criticism and muzzle the media.
In his speech on Monday, Oli failed to mention that his government is in the process of making laws to control and suppress the media, said Bishnu Nisthuri, former chairman of the Federation of Nepali Journalists.
“The government is preparing to bring forth yet another mass communication bill,” said Nisthuri. “We’ve been asking the government to respect and honour the preamble of the constitution, but in the name of the constitution, the government is introducing arbitrary bills, one after another, so our protest aims to safeguard press freedom and freedom of expression.”
Nisthuri was referring to an ongoing protest led by the Federation of Nepali Journalists who have been demanding that the government withdraw the Media Council bill, about which numerous national and international media organisations have expressed serious concerns.
In his speech, Oli went on to express a “staunch” belief in democracy, saying, “As a staunch fighter for democracy throughout my life, I believe the alternative to democracy is ‘more democracy’.
Many analysts, however, say that the Oli administration is displaying “authoritarian” tendencies, especially when it comes to dissent and criticism. Since coming to power with a comfortable majority in February 2018, Oli has increasingly concentrated power in his office, bringing a number of crucial departments under his direct supervision. These include the National Investigation Department, the Department of Revenue Investigation and the Department of Money Laundering Investigation, among a number of others.
Oli then spoke about social justice, which he said was at the “core of our polity.”
“Unity in diversity is our strength,” he said at Oxford. “We have established the foundation of a non-discriminatory, inclusive and participatory democracy to bring everyone onboard for socio-economic transformation.”
But on Sunday, a peaceful gathering protesting a controversial bill—that, critics say, seeks to “destroy” the guthi, a centuries-old Newar tradition—was met with excessive force, with police employing water cannons and baton charging protestors. Locals and heritage conservationists see the bill as an attempt to “grab” land that is held by the guthis, which lease out the lands to raise funds to hold cultural processions and festivals, and maintain infrastructure.
Social justice has been a bone of contention for many critics of the Oli government, ever since he came to power.
A number of human rights surveys have said that civil liberties are increasingly being curtailed in Nepal, with greater policing of social media and laws that could limit freedom of expression. The most recent report, by the New Zealand-based Human Rights Measurement Initiative, had given Nepal a score of 3.9 out of 10 on freedom of opinion and expression, calling the situation “very concerning.”
Oli referred to “technology” numerous times in the speech, especially “disruptive technologies” that have characterised the fourth industrial revolution.
“At the technological level, new means of disruptive technologies must be used for the sake of empowering people. After all, it was not technologies that created democracy; it was democracy that created technologies,” he said.
While a succinct turn of phrase, the Oli administration’s actions have not so much as celebrated technology as they have tried to muzzle it.
The proposed Information and Technology Management bill includes several controversial provisions. If passed, government bodies, from local, state and federal levels, will have the authority to direct ISPs to take down content without permission from the courts. The bill is expected to have dire consequences, on everything from privacy to freedom of speech online.
At Oxford, Oli stressed on the word “democracy” and that his was a “democratic government” multiple times, saying that a “Democratic government must be responsible and accountable to the people. It should be transparent as well.”
Again, Oli’s actions back home have been anything but transparent. A recently-drafted security policy, which could have far-reaching consequences for society at large, has been shrouded in secrecy, with the Defence Minister categorically refusing to make the document public. Even within Oli’s Nepal Communist Party, members have raised concerns about Oli’s unilateral style of working, with little input solicited from the broader party. Some have even said that the ruling party leaders are using “fear and coercion” to control dissenting party members, pointing to a lack of internal democracy within the Communist Party.
Human rights activists have long criticised the Oli administration for its overreach in numerous instances, meddling in affairs that have long been sacrosanct, like the culture and traditions of Kathmandu’s Newar community. But it is Oli’s stifling of freedom of speech that is the biggest cause for concern, they say.
“The prime minister should respond through action, not words,” said Krishna Pahadi, a human rights activist. “It seems the only purpose of the media council bill is to control and punish the media that does not obey them [the government]. The bill will curtail the freedom of expression but the prime minister is covering up at an international forum.”
“Oli is blackmailing the media,” said Pahadi. “He is opting for a very straightforward formula—either you are with us or you face action.”
Despite the prime minister’s assurances of upholding democracy to a packed house in Oxford, rights activists remain skeptical.
“The prime minister’s statement was misleading,” said Pahadi. “Freedom of expression is at risk. This is just the beginning.”