Stringent IT law to replace Electronic Transaction Act

  • Advocates of press freedom concerned over its effects in digital age
- TIKA R PRADHAN, Kathmandu

Nov 27, 2018-

The government has drafted a law governing the Information Technology sector that will replace the Electronic Transaction Act-2008 commonly known as the cyber law.

At a time when the ETA-2008 has been ‘terrorising’ people, authorising their detention even for posting reports on social media, the government is coming up with the legislation introducing more stringent measures that could “seriously affect” journalism.

Section 87 of the IT Bill states that “inappropriate use of the electronic system” would attract fines ranging from Rs300,000 to Rs1 million and jail between one and 10 years or both. Stakeholders have expressed serious concerns that the authorities could interpret the bill’s ambiguous clauses differently, affecting the journalism sector.

Section 294 of the Criminal Code prohibits revelation of private information without permission, including that on public figures, while Section 57 of the IT Bill similarly prohibits such activities done using the information technology.

Explaining the significance of such provisions, Subash Dhakal, an under-secretary at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology who was involved in drafting the law, said illegal acts were criminalised by the Criminal Code but they did not address illegal acts committed through different media. “For instance, this law will be attracted if someone advertises illegal materials using digital platforms,” he said.

The government has been arresting journalists for sharing news items on social media. Stakeholders had demanded amendment to Section 47 of the ETA-2008, which says “publication of illegal materials in electronic form shall be liable to punishment with fines not exceeding Rs100,000 or imprisonment not exceeding five years or both”.

The clause explains that any person publishing or displaying any material legally barred from publication on electronic media will be punished.

Punishment is warranted also when the materials published go against public morality or decent behaviour or when they spread hate or jealousy against anyone or jeopardise the harmonious relations subsisting among the peoples of various castes, tribes and communities.

Police officials were for endorsing the provisions without changes while advocates stood for removing the stringent and vague provisions that could affect freedom of expression while civil servants wanted the clauses clearly defined.

Under-secretary Mahendra Shankhi said the new law will criminalise content shared on social media or online platforms if they violate the law.

“Citing illegal and criminal activities increasing in society through social and online media, we have incorporated stringent measures to track and punish them,” he said.

Officials also claimed that Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli wants the law passed at the earliest. Recently police arrested Hari Prasad Manandhar, editor of pathibharaonline.com, for publishing distorted news on the prime minister’s health.

In September, police interrogated Editor of Drishti Weekly Shambhu Shrestha over a report revealing that some lawmakers had transferred the ownership of land owned by the Harisiddhi Brick and Tile Factory in Lalitpur to private individuals. Many other journalists have been targeted and punished citing Section 47 of the ETA.

“Since the prime minister was also interested in this law, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology has been pressing Law Ministry officials to complete their task at the earliest,” said Under-secretary Dhakal. The government is preparing to table the law in the winter session of Parliament. Law Ministry officials are currently working on it.

The law threatening curbs in press freedom comes after the Criminal Code and the Privacy Act criminalised a number of issues affecting journalism.

Since all the content of traditional media is disseminated through digital platforms now, experts say the provisions of the new law, if endorsed as they are, will adversely affect journalism in the country.

The preliminary draft of the law will replace provisions of the Data Protection Act as its scope covers e-governance and cyber crime. “There are several provisions affecting freedom of expression but the government has not discussed it with any stakeholders,” said Taranath Dahal, chairman of Freedom Forum, a non-government organisation.

Expressing serious concerns over the proposed legal provisions, Dahal, former chairman of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, appealed to the journalism fraternity to press the government to change such provisions.

“All expressions made on any form of media must be regulated by media laws only,” he stressed.

Published: 27-11-2018 07:31

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