It’s a big irony that Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who spent 14 years in jail during his fight for democracy, looks like the dictators he once fought.
--BY SHANT SHARMA
The country has come to such a pass that a few things need to be told directly. Prime Minister KP Oli has been gradually proving right those critics who claimed that he harbours authoritarian ambitions. Successive events over the last three months since he assumed office clearly indicate that his administration wants to establish a totalitarian grip on power through every means possible.
The hard-won freedom of expression, press freedom, human rights and civil liberties are in great danger in Nepal, not because of anyone else but because of the government itself. Piece by piece, Oli’s administration is taking away the people’s freedom, and the country is seemingly headed towards an elected dictatorship.
Almost the entire nation ridiculed and laughed at the use of the phrase ‘mero sarkar’ (my government) by President Bidya Bhandari who used the phrase to refer to the Government of Nepal while presenting the government’s policies and programmes for fiscal year 2019/20 in parliament on May 3. The monarchs of the past would use the same term on such occasions.It is worth noting here that President Bhandari hadn’t used pronounced ‘mero sarkar’ while presenting the government’s policies and programmes the previous year. But this time, she said ‘mero sarkar’ as many as 21 times during her speech, courting criticism from all quarters.
But PM Oli, who is the official writer of the document, defended the use of the controversial phrase by President Bhandari. “The heads of states in many countries use the phrase ‘my government’,” Oli said, giving the example of India. The PM sounded as if the use of the controversial phrase by the head of state of republic Nepal was a must.
Words and phrases do also carry regional, geographical, historical and political meanings and connotations. For example, India calls its local governments ‘gram panchayats’ and ‘nagar panchayats’. Can we too call our local government units ‘gaun panchayats’ and ‘nagar panchayats’? No! Because the term ‘panchayat’ carries an authoritarian connotation in Nepal. So, whatever the heads of states in India or the rest of the world might say, ‘mero sarkar’, in the Nepali context, is an ugly attempt to copy the former royals. (Reminds one of ‘Animal Farm’, a famous novel by George Orwell!)
But our all-knowing PM Oli called those criticizing the use of ‘mero sarkar’ by President Bhandari ‘kupamanduka’ (frogs in a well), a Sanskrit word used to describe a person who considers his knowledge horizon as the limit of all human knowledge, much like the frog in a well thinks the well to be the entire world.
But it is now perhaps clear who the kupamanduka is!
Weakening Human Rights
Authorities under the Oli administration have prepared a Bill to amend the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Act of 2012. The provisions in the Bill, which has already been registered in parliament, will not only weaken the NHRC, the constitutional rights watch body, but also limit its presence only to the centre. Words like ‘autonomous’ and ‘independent’ have been removed from the NHRC Act’s preamble.
While the bill has proposed scrapping the 10 regional and sub-regional offices of the NHRC, it has also granted more discretionary power to the Attorney General (AG). The bill proposes that the NHRC should make recommendations for filing court cases to the Office of the Attorney General, and if the AG tells the NHRC to conduct further probe in certain cases, the latter should comply with the order. The bill also states the AG will have the authority to take a final call on filing cases against alleged human rights violators.
The AG is the chief legal advisor to the prime minister, handpicked by the prime minister and remains in office only as long as the prime minister wants. The Bill has also curtailedthe financial autonomy of NHRC, making the finance ministry’s approval mandatory before any human rights investigationby the rights watchdog.
Muzzling the Media
Ever since it was set up, the Oli administration has been coming up with various laws to silence the media. Restriction efforts were initiated by the government when it revised the civil and criminal codes in August 2018. The codes bar journalists from recording personal conversations and taking pictures of people without prior consent, even if they are public position holders. Violations can lead to journalists being sent to jail for upto three years and paying fines up to Rs 20,000.
As if these restrictions were not enough, the government on May 10 this year, registered two Bills in parliament – the Bill on Mass Communications and the Bill to Amend and Integrate Media Council Act. The mass communication Bill has proposed confiscation of media equipment, fines up to Rs 10 million, and 15 years imprisonment for media persons found publishing contents “undermining national sovereignty and national integrity.” Since there is no clear definition of what “contents undermining national integrity” entail, many suspect that the government could use this provision to take action against any journalist they dislike.
The other Bill drafted to revise the existing Press Council Act has proposed the imposition of Rs one million fine if any media house, publisher, editor or journalist is found publishing news content “tarnishing the image of any individual.” It also proposes punishment for violating the code of conduct which includes suspending press pass of mediapersons and downgrading the classification of print media outlets. The Bill also proposes to form a committee under a government secretary to recommend the chairperson of the proposed Nepal Media Council, which stakeholders say will relegate it to a branch of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.
The bills with provisions such as confiscation of media equipment, prison sentences and hefty fines, if passed as law, will kill free press. A matter of particular concern is also the fact that even social networking sites have been defined as media. It means that even social media users may be put behind bars if they post anything critical of the government.
Shortly after Oli was elected prime minister for the second term in April 2018, his administration declared several public places in Kathmandu including the famous Maitighar Mandala as “no protest areas.” Maitighar Mandala has been the prime space for political protests in the capital.
Oli, whose democratic credentials are in tatters, has already centralized power under his control, bringing multiple government offices directly under him. He is creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to force and coerce human rights and civil society activists and even journalists into toeing the government’s line, leaving no room for criticism.
In March this year, the government registered yet another controversial Bill in parliament – the Bill on Work, Responsibilities and Rights of National Security Council, which has proposed allowing the prime minister to mobilise the army at his own discretion. The bill provisions that the National Security Council chairman (the prime minister) can mobilise the army if the council fails to meet “due to some unforeseen circumstances.”
From May 9 to 15, Prime Minister Oli paid a week-long visit to Vietnam and Cambodia, two Southeast Asian countries which have been on the international radar for their illiberal regimes lacking freedom. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, on whose invitation Oli visited Cambodia, has been ruling the country since 1985, becoming one of the longest-serving dictators in modern world history. (Hun Sen had invited Oli to visit Cambodia when he was in Kathmandu last December to attend the controversial Asia Pacific Summit.)
The main opposition, Nepali Congress (NC) seems to have realized the dangers ahead. “Communists across the globe have one thing in common. They believe in one-party system and want to rule in an authoritarian fashion,” says NC leader and former foreign minister Prakash Sharan Mahat, “The Nepali communists, including Oli, though they have risen to power through elections, have already shown that they love the authoritarian way of doing things like in Vietnam and Cambodia. The visit to these two countries was perhaps aimed at learning a lesson or two in dictatorship.”
NC which finds itself in the weakest position in its entire history following its humiliating defeat in elections held last year for all three-tiers of government, did launch a ‘Nationwide National Awareness Campaign’ aimed at revamping the party on May 8. But the bitter truth is the campaign has failed to gather momentum.