Noble coronavirus (Covid-19) which was first identified within the outbreak of respiratory illness cases in Wuhan city of Hubei Province in China. Covid-19 and Coronavirus have been word of our mouth for a couple of months. As of the date and time while I am writing this blog 188 countries and territories around the world have been affected by the virus and there are more than 4 million active cases. (COVID-19 Map, 2020) After January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization has declared it as the situation of a global health emergency.
As of today (June 24 ), we do have 7875 active cases of Covid-19 in Nepal. (Ministry of Health and Population, 2020) The government of Nepal has put a nationwide lockdown in effect starting from the 24th of march and it is still ongoing. The whole world is tackling with COVID-19 with the utmost possible resources. Many developed countries are technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Autobots, Drones, Intelligent UV disinfectors, and many other ICT tools and technologies in the front line to fight with the virus and the pandemic. With lockdowns being in effect in most parts of the world, the internet has been a major tool of any lifestyle from e-learning to telemedicine to work from home.
In the same period, 2 very contrast notable incidents happened in Nepal which calls for internet freedom assassination in this pandemic. The first incident dates back to 31st of March when one of the News portal “Kathmandu Press” published news related to “Involvement of prime minister KP Sharma Oli’s IT advisor along with a son of Prime Minister’s advisor’s and Defense minister’s son in the procurement of medical equipment”. Upon publishing the article the editor of the news portal was reported to be contacted by Prime Minister’s IT advisor’s business partners to take down the news. After the editor of the News portal took his stand on not removing the news surprisingly the news was deleted by taking unauthorized access and made the backend of the news portal inaccessible for a couple of hours. The News portal of Kathmandu Press was developed by one of the companies of Prime MInister’s IT advisor Mr. Asgar Ali i.e. Shiran technologies. Following the incident, the editors of major news portals jointly condemned unauthorized news removal from the website of Kathmandu Press. (The Himalayan Times, 2020) After the joint condemnation of editors, a whole lot of pressure was crafted while Mr. Ali denied his involvement in taking down the news. On 2nd April Mr. Subash Sharma F1 Soft’s CEO (F1 Soft is the company that owns Shiran Technologies) published the statement mentioning that the news was deleted by one of the technical staff of Shiran Technologies and the company apologized about the violation of press and Internet freedom.
F1 Soft was one of the top fintech companies of Nepal which also owned the most popular mobile wallet service eSewa after the incident of news removal many users deleted their accounts on eSewa raising concerns about data security and privacy. With all these incidents the government and it’s regulatory bodies put silent masks regarding this issue and no actions have been taken when the vendor itself accepted having unauthorized access. This has raised a big question: If I managed to get unauthorized access and released a statement with an apology eliminating my legal and custody charges?
Another incident happened following the above incident on the date 26th of April Former Government Secretary Mr. Bhim Upadhya was accused of defaming the KP Sharma Oli Government and his Ministers through his social media. (The Himalayan Times, 2020) Mr. Upadhya was filed with the case of cybercrime by the District Attorney’s Office in Kathmandu. Afterward, the Central Cyber Bureau of Nepal Police arrested him because of his social media post of criticizing the Government and it’s ministers. (The Kathmandu Post, 2020) After being a hot topic in social media for a while, the government was pressurized to release Mr. Updahya, and later on, he was released on bail of Rs. 25,000. (The Himalayan Times, 2020)
While comparing the two incidents above one the first incident government and other bodies didn’t even play their role remained silent when someone has agreed to have unauthorized access breaching the security and privacy of online media. While on the second incident the government played a very significant role just over a social media post violating a person’s freedom of speech which has been guaranteed by the constitution of Nepal. This is not the first time the government has attacked the Internet freedom and freedom of speech. A few months back Rapper named Samir Ghising aka VTEN was arrested by Metropolitan Crime Division accusing him of his song in YouTube and photo posted on Facebook, similarly, another Singer Durgesh Thapa was also arrested on similar acquisition both were released after they deleted their YouTube videos. (OnlineKhabar, 2019)
There are many other cases, back in February popular folk singer Pashupati Sharma was forced to pull off his song from YouTube before 48 hours of upload as he was threatened by the youth wing of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). (Freedom Forum, 2019) Earlier a comedian was also arrested for his review of a Nepali movie. The government has been using the unclear provision of electronic transaction ac as a hoax to arrest anybody on cybercrime as there is no other provision for cyber incidents.
Nepal government is although coming with a new bill to replace Electronic Transaction Act, but the bill has itself been very controversial as some of the vague sections in the bill might subject to authorize some authorities very powerful. This bill is capable of imposing fines up to 1.5 million rupees to anyone accused of posting content that could promote crime on any online medium. Some of the clauses in the bill can be used to curtail internet freedom. Recently amidst the lockdown government has passed “Special Service bill” which allows the National Investigation department to collect information and Tap phone conversation without a court order and it raises serious concerns over privacy breach. The annual Media report 2019 Freedom Forum mentioned that 38 Journalists reported being either arrested, detained, or questioned by police in 2019. (Freedom Forum, 2019)
It is high time in Nepal that the government is attacking Internet freedom, Freedom of Speech, and hitting privacy concerns hard. The government has lined up one bill at a time previously it passed a similar controversial bill, now Special Service Bill and then IT Bill. This is the time we need to raise voice to democratize the freedom of speech and Internet Freedom guaranteed by our constitution.
New technologies are often called the two-edged sword likewise the internet freedom has also played a similar role in democratic societies. In many recent representative cases of Internet freedom in Nepal and south Asia which I have also mentioned in my previous blog government trends seem to have regulation and more control over internet freedom whereas people seem to demand exercise for democratic internet access. Some instances show that the evolution of the internet has reached such a level that protests are very popular in social media and they seem to affect different state-level decisions as well. In the case where Bhim Upadhya was arrested after so much of dispute in social media authorities released him on bail so did happen in all of the cases above. Following the scenarios, internet freedom has played a vital role in creating trends over people’s perception with a wide range of coverage that mainstream media never got into. Those trends have helped states to amend their decisions in the welfare of the public and nation as well. In the name of regulation, the government should not use it as a missile to attack people’s voices violating the freedom of speech online.
- COVID-19 Map. (2020, June 14). COVID-19 Map. Retrieved from https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html
- Freedom Forum. (2019, Feb 18). ‘Following threats, popular folk singer Sharma pulls video from YouTube’. Retrieved from http://freedomforum.org.np/following-threats-popular-folk-singer-sharma-pulls-video-from-youtube/
- Freedom Forum. (2019, December 31). Annual Media Report 2019. Retrieved from http://freedomforum.org.np/annual-media-report-2019-2/
- Ministry of Health and Population. (2020, June 14). Corona Info- Ministry of Health and Population. Retrieved from https://covid19.mohp.gov.np/#/
- OnlineKhabar. (2019, October 24). Kathmandu police arrest rapper VTEN – OnlineKhabar. Retrieved from https://english.onlinekhabar.com/kathmandu-police-arrest-rapper-vten.html
- The Himalayan Times. (2020, April 02). Editors jointly condemn unauthorised removal of published content. Retrieved from https://thehimalayantimes.com/kathmandu/editors-jointly-condemn-unauthorised-removal-of-published-content/
- The Himalayan Times. (2020, April 27). Former Secretary Upadhyaya released on bail. Retrieved from https://thehimalayantimes.com/kathmandu/former-secretary-upadhyaya-released-on-bail/
- The Himalayan Times. (2020, June 7). Former Secretary Upadhyaya released on bail. Retrieved from https://thehimalayantimes.com/kathmandu/former-secretary-upadhyaya-released-on-bail/
- The Kathmandu Post. (2020, April 26). Attorney’s office file a court case against former government secretary Upadhyaya for cyber crime https://tkpo.st/2S8ZH8a. Retrieved from https://kathmandupost.com/national/2020/04/26/attorney-s-office-file-a-court-case-against-former-government-secretary-upadhyaya-for-cyber-crime
About the writer
Ananda Gautam (NetMission Ambassador of class 2019/20, Nepal)
Master’s Degree in Information Technology, Islington College