The Development and Technology Committee of the parliament has passed the information technology (IT) bill despite opposition from the main opposition party Nepali Congress (NC) and the civil society.
NC lawmakers had proposed amendment to ask the social media users to remove the offensive post instead of punishing them while Prem Suwal of Nepal Workers and Peasants Party had proposed lesser punishments but the ruling CPN ignored the amendment proposals and passed the bill through majority.
The bill has many ambiguous words that can be misinterpreted to harass the commoners. Clause 94 states that subjects that adversely affect public decorum and morality, and misleads the recipients should not be written or broadcast on social media. What adversely affects public decorum and morality cannot be strictly defined leaving the government free to interpret that.
The bill has prescribed punitive measures even for offenses that can be punished as abusive language by the General Code.
"This seems to be an indirect attempt at regulation of social media users," NC lawmaker Bahadur Singh Lama said putting a different opinion. He stated that the bill will encroach freedom of citizens and compromise their fundamental rights. "This shows bad intention of the state to crush freedom of expression."
Senior advocate Satish Krishna Kharel has commented that the bill has been brought by those in power with an intention of controlling expressions against them. "One must gather evidence and present that to the court in case of abusive language. But the whole state apparatus runs to gather evidence as per this bill," he stated.
"If anyone uses abusive language against a woman in person, the woman has to move the district court and present the evidence herself. But the government looks for evidence and the state fights the case if someone posts anything against a minister on Facebook," he elaborated.
The bill has disproportionately harsh punitive measures against social media users. It treats demeaning someone on social networking sites almost on par with physical attack on the country's president.
The General Code has a provision of jail term of five-ten years for any kind of attack or enticement to attack on the president. The IT bill has a provision of jail term of up to five years or a fine of up to Rs 1.50 million or both for demeaning any person on the social media.
The Criminal Code has a provision of a jail term of one year and fine of Rs 10,000 for physical assault on someone or impairing the organs including breaking limbs dousing the eyes and so on but the IT bill prescribes harsher punishment for defamatory social media posts.
The punishment for abusive comments against individuals in the social media is also harsher than the jail term of up to one year and fine of up to Rs 10,000 prescribed by the Criminal Code for publishing or broadcasting pornographic materials.
The General Code prescribes jail term of up to two years or a fine of up to Rs 20,000 or both for use of abusive language against any person. If the bill is passed as it is there will be separate punitive provisions for use of abusive language in person and in social media.
The General Code has a provision of jail term of six months or a fine of up to Rs 5,000 for flashing, and using abusive language and signs but the bill proposes a jail term of five years and a fine of Rs 1.50 million for using language considered abusive by the prevailing laws on the social media
The government claims that the law has been brought to control vulgarity. Minister for Communication and Information Technology Gokul Baskota had showed a vulgar post about Prime Minister (PM) KP Sharma Oli and President Bidya Devi Bhandari during the committee's meeting in June, and stressed that harsh punishment is required to control such posts.
But the opposition parties have accused the government of trying to curtail freedom of expression. The main opposition NC has been opposing the bill and its central committee meeting had urged the government to take back the bill.
But the ruling CPN has forced it through the committee. The bill will now be tabled in the HoR for endorsement. It can still be amended in the National Assembly even if it is passed by the HoR as it is.
It will, however, become a law if it is passed even by the National Assembly.