Speech unfree

  • A new law on social media that will also protect free speech is an urgent need
Speech unfree

Jun 26, 2014-

In early June, Saptari’s Mohammad Abdul Rahman came across an interesting article on Facebook about the district’s improving security. Rahman decided to comment, writing: “How is it [security] improving when I have to pay Rs 50,000 simply to get back my own motorbike that had been stolen?” This innocuous comment seemingly rubbed the Saptari Police the wrong way, who arrested him for posting “negative” comments and held him in custody for 20 days. After which, he was brought to the Kathmandu District Court to be prosecuted under the Electronic Transactions Act (ETA) for “cyber crime”.

Rahman’s story gained widespread traction on social media, where many protested the police’s liberal interpretation of the ETA. The police, they argued, had infringed on Rahman’s freedom of expression, a right guaranteed by the Interim Constitution.

This is not the first instance of an individual being prosecuted for their actions over social media. Recently, bureaucrat Raju Prasad Sah was taken into custody for commenting “He should be shot in the back” on a widely-shared photo of Home Minister Bamdev Gautam stepping over a divider in the middle of the street while holding up traffic.

These instances raise important concerns about freedom of expression over social media. The ETA, which was drafted to regulate electronic financial transactions, states that any person publishing material “which is prohibited by prevailing law or which may be contrary to public morality or decent behaviour or...which may spread hate or jealousy” shall be liable for punishment. By any stretch, Rahman’s comment does not seem to contravene this provision, though Sah’s comment could be seen as a threat. This just goes to show that the Act is too vague in its formulation. Furthermore, it seems as if individuals are prosecuted over positions that major media houses take on a daily basis. The disparity between the free speech enjoyed by media elites in Kathmandu and individuals on the periphery, like Rahman in Saptari, is stark.

Given the recent spate of cyber crime complaints at the Central Investigation Bureau, there is an urgent need to draft a new law that specifically addresses social media. A comprehensive Act that clearly lays out the parameters of the limits to expression—like hate speech, slander and incitement to violence—must be formulated. However, this Act must not conflict with the broad provisions for free speech enshrined in the Interim Constitution. Currently, only the Kathmandu District Court has the jurisdiction to hear cyber crime cases. As the internet, and with it, social media, continues to pervade the Nepali landscape, it would be wise to delegate this jurisdiction to other district courts. The judiciary and the state organs need to internalise the fact that social media, albeit new, is fast becoming a public space, and an important tool, to share ideas and disseminate information.

Published: 27-06-2014 08:50

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