You are free to speak, but…

The constitution of Nepal in Article 17 guarantees every citizen “freedom”. On the list is ‘freedom of speech’. But, provided that there is a list of exceptions. You are entitled to free speech but not anything in the list.

Screenshot of the English translation of Nepalese constitution

Complimenting this, The government has proposed a bill in Federal Parliament of Nepal that will restrict freedom of expression. It has proposed to introduce harsh punishment for posting “improper” contents on social networking sites. In the popular media it says, the bill will criminalize people who post jathabhaawi (improper content).

So what does this improper content mean? The term ‘improper content’ itself is a very ambiguous term and there is no universal definition for these. The phrases such as ‘that disrupt the harmony’ is also an ambiguous term that people can interpret in their own terms. But the most important thing is who gets to interpret this term and what sort of demography has the power to impose ‘their improperness’. The ban on porn is an example how the power holders see ‘improperness’.

Glimpse of the draft bill
P.C. Kathmandu Post

We are aware about the demographic hegemony at decision making and implementation process. The curtail on freedom of expression will shove the vulnerability of marginalized groups to further extent.

A patriarchal individual has always seen feminism and anyone calling out the torment of patriarchy and harmful masculinity as something that ‘breaks the harmony of gender’, ‘breaks families’ and ‘disrupts society’. Be it marital rape, citizenship in mother’s name or women’s bodily autonomy, people who have internalized the values where women’s choices and autonomy requires control, they have always labeled its critiques as what disrupts the society.

LGBTIQ+ people are the ones who have used social media to express themselves to full extent. That is something impossible for millions there in the physical world. People’s biological sex, gender identities and sexual orientations are not accepted. LGBTIQ+ people are subjected to violence, discrimination and at worst even to social boycott and murder, just because of their sex, gender or sexual orientation. That is why for about a million of LGBTIQ+ people, anonymous social media account have become a safe space and network. The bill puts LGBTIQ+ people into vulnerability. Even some of the political leaders and parliamentarians have spoken queerphobic narratives. The law will snatch away all the spaces LGBTIQ+ people have on social media, because for a homophobic heteronormative guy on the chair, two men kissing might be an ‘improper scene’.

Any voices that raises against status quo narrative of nationalism, or say Parbate Kura-Daura Suruwal-Khukuri kind of nationalism, will automatically be portrayed as ‘breaking the nation’. In the eyes of the state, indigenous movement, Madhesh movement or any resistance by minority ethnic groups have always been something that ‘will break the nation apart’. The ideological debates on federalism, ethnicity and colonial issues of Nepal have very visibly been targeted by the state and dominant ethnic group with this ambiguous term. The new bill seems to directly targeted the indigenous and ethnic groups. The idea isn’t about the ideological differences the citizens of Nepal have, but it is about how power dynamics and dominant media have seen and portrayed indigenous people. It has always been okay to chant extremist Hindu nation narrative, extremist Daura Suruwal or Nepali language only narrative. It has always been okay and ‘for the nation’ to promote the Panchayati regime’s nationalism narrative or disregard the ethnic diversity. But when anyone points out the ethnic disparity and criticizes the ethnic power dynamics, they have been openly commented as “ones who are trying to break the nation”. No matter what issue indigenous people raise from their perspective, it always falls into that category of “breaking nation”. The bill using ambiguous phrase like “disrupting harmony” will  not just completely cut off discussion and opinion dissemination on ethnic issues, but will also criminalize those people who posted it. It isn’t an uncommon scene in the hills and in the rulers located in Kathmandu to portray Madhesh movement as very pro-India, led by Indians or anti-Nepal. With upsurge of Madhesh movement, social media has become an essential medium to express Madesh ideologies. Madhesh ideologies face similar attitude as of the indigenous ethnic groups.

Glimpse of the draft bill
P.C. Kathmandu Post

The similar situation is also for the Dalits, who have criticized the caste system and Brahminism. Any critique on the social system of patriarchy is automatically portrayed as ‘very woman centric’ and ‘anti-men’. Any critique on the social system of Brahminism/Baahunwaad has always been portrayed as ‘anti-Bahuns’.

Social media has great power in the digital world. It gives access and voice to people who cannot access the institutional media. There are instances of movement beginning through social media. #StopMasturbusing, #MeToo, #SaveNepaValley, #GSM5bude, are some instances of movement that began through social media. Many marginalized groups have begun using social media to voice their narratives, what necessarily might not be acceptable to privilege and dominant groups.

Surfacially, the provisions of the bill might seem beguiling. However, the complexity of social structure and reality, the vague lines of defining and the use of ambiguity in social existence of disparity on many grounds, will take different turns on the bill.

Of course, the issues of hate speech, character assassination and cyber crime are important issues we need to talk about. However, these cannot be an excuse to curtail freedom of speech. The people in power need to understand the complexity of a structure and not view ‘usage of social media’ itself to be ‘improper’. The most important issue is ambiguity ‘improper’, and people in power to be defining it. Moreover, curtailing freedom of expression on social media will not contribute to elimination of hate speech, character assassination and whatever the government claims. Online spaces are just digital manifestation of the physical thoughts.

There has been instances of biases and government’s tyranny about what to censor and what not to censor. People have been arrested for drawing arts and making memes on government for their incapability to achieve what they promised. However, commenting misogynist and diaplhically harassing female actress. I remember how a popular Youtube channel had presented a transphobic narration as comedy. When it comes to misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, indiphobia and ballant spill of discriminatory narratives on marginalized groups, it is never an issue. The curtail on freedom of expression in social media will not result to elimination of any social problems or evils, more speech on them will.

While proposing the bill like these, the stakeholders have never bothered to discuss with diverse people in this country. In many instances government puts up a blanket decision ‘for the sake of their simplicity’ or maybe ‘for the sake of their inability to understand the complexity’.

In catch all, anything that criticises or calls out the disparity of hegemony and power dynamics based on gender, sexuality, caste, ethnicity, geography and so on, has always been ‘breaking harmony thing’ for the status quo, and unfortunately are the ones who would be brining ‘improper content’ into action in their own terms. The bill has further undermined the vulnerability of marginalized groups in Nepal, giving power to the status quo narratives, through use of ambiguous phrases and terms, open for interpretation of the state holders.

Hashtag #FreeSM is the social media campaign against problematic provisions of the bill

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