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Nepal’s Communist Government Tightens Its Grip on Civil Society

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The Pulse

Nepal’s Communist Government Tightens Its Grip on Civil Society

A new set of draconian laws is setting Nepal on a troubling trajectory.

Nepal’s Communist Government Tightens Its Grip on Civil Society
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ MShades / Chris Gladis

The 2015 constitution of Nepal ignited hope in ordinary Nepalis that a new era had finally dawned on the nation. That hope, however, didn’t last long after the rise of Communist Party of Nepal (CNP). Starting last month, not only is Nepal’s civil space shrinking, but the pillars of democracy, like freedom of the press, equality, and liberty, are facing the hammer of new draconian laws.

The new National Integrity Policy proposed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) is set to tighten the Nepal government’s grip on international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The proposed policy was first formulated on June 8, 2017, when Sher Bahadur Deuba was the prime minister. The proposed document has lays out 13 policies for NGOs and 25 for INGOs in a 23-page paper and aims to strictly monitor them. Moreover, its policies expand to diplomats, constitutional bodies, professors, teachers, doctors, private sector firms, and cooperatives. Also, legal and structural bodies will be activated to monitor the aforementioned sectors.

According to the Association of International NGOs (AIN), 142 INGOs are operating within the nation today. The NGO Federation of Nepal and the AIN believe that the new Nepal government wants to control their activities. The government is now trying to restrict Western INGO influence in Nepal. The new government, with a two-thirds majority, is weary of Western-funded INGOs and critics believe China and India may have influenced Nepal to introduce the new law.

Additionally, INGOs have to take permission first from the Finance Ministry to get approval for their annual budget and programs and also take permission to include a number of foreign nations working in their organizations. Most importantly, INGOs are barred from sending their reports to their headquarters without the government’s approval. Also, the registration of INGOs and NGOs will be canceled if they fail to reregister within three months. INGOs will also not be allowed to engage in projects that influence the drafting of laws and policies in Nepal. In the past, the Nepal government has accused INGOs of engaging in anti-Nepal activities. And it is no secret that Western INGOs are accused of influencing lawmakers to make Nepal a secular nation and remove the monarchy after 2006.

Chinese and Indian Influence at Work?

Similarly, the new criminal code in the country also prohibits INGOs and NGOs in spreading religion (particularly Christianity) and, if found to be doing so, organizations would be banned immediately. INGOs are also barred from working on issues like human rights policy and advocacy. Analysts argue that Prime Minister K.P. Oli is appealing to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with these measures. It is no secret that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian government doesn’t like the spread of Christianity in Nepal and has tacitly told Nepali leaders to punish religious evangelism. India is still nursing its wounds as it failed to preserve Nepal as a Hindu country after the end of the monarchy.

China, on the other hand, is also skeptical of western INGOs in Nepal as they work for the cause of Tibetans and China sees Tibet as a core security concern for its internal stability. The Nepali government and other critics are also uncomfortable with INGOs involved in advocating the separation of the southern plains and the incitement of identity politics.

Interestingly, China and Nepal have signed a memorandum of understanding to “run projects in the field of community development, livelihood, disaster management, skills-oriented training, and education and health services.”

However, only last week the government softened its approach toward international agencies. Nepal’s government is currently discussing the draft with stakeholders. But critics fear that some INGOs and NGOs will cease functioning due to the government’s surveillance-cum-control. Most importantly, INGOS will have to bear extra bureaucracy due to the proposed law. Smaller NGOs have to incur additional administrative tasks and a few might engage in corruption. On the other hand, most INGOs and NGOs have been accused of putting the money in their pockets. Many INGOs believe that the government doesn’t have sufficient capacity to read the files of all 142 INGOs operating in Nepal.

Recently, on September 7, the United Nation’s Department of Political Affairs office was shut down. In April, Governance Facility, an ambitious $40 million project funded by the Danish, British, and Swiss governments aimed at promoting democracy and justice, announced it would close shop in December 2018. Moreover, the Communist Party of Nepal is not comfortable with the truth and reconciliation process in the country since the Maoists have joined the government and do not wish to be prosecuted for their war crimes. They would make sure to shut down any international agencies that are advocating for this. Caritas Switzerland’s Nepal office gave notification recently too that it would not continue its project due to funding issues. However, the organization declined to say if it was due to the new law.

Federalism in Nepal is already becoming a costly affair. Citizens are concerned about who will fund various programs when international agencies leave Nepal. There’s also an anarchic fear that an empty space would be created and that China and India will fill that void soon. Chinese INGOs have already entered Nepal now. This might lead the government to become more authoritarian since it would have an absolute control over international agencies.

Growing Concerns on Press Freedom

Similarly, on August 17, the Nepal government introduced a new civil and criminal code law, also known as Muluki Ain 2074, which replaced the 55-year-old laws of the nation. While the new laws were praised to be progressive, adhering to the modern society, a few sections of Nepali society, including journalists, have expressed their concerns.

The new criminal code will effectively gag Nepal’s press freedom since the law prohibits releasing of private information, satirizing, or disrespecting government officials, and taking photos of individuals. The laws might be open to interpretation by the court, but the punishment would incur up to a three year jail term and a fine of 30,000 rupees ($260). Additionally, Section 293 states that those found listening to private conversations and recording without authorization will land a two year sentence with a fine of 20,000 rupees ($174). Furthermore, Section 295 states that anyone found distributing, circulating, and taking photos of others without their consent will lead to three years in jail and a fine of 30,000 rupees ($260). These new provisions have disturbed investigative journalists, journalists, and particularly photojournalists.

Article 307 (1) of the Criminal Code Act also punishes anyone found guilty of character assassination with a two year jail term. Journalists, in this case, would face an additional one year term. Moreover, the government registered the Individual Privacy Bill (Section 298), which states that a person’s privacy, residence, data, et cetera, are protected by the law. The law also adds that a person revealing someone else’s email, electronic files, and so on will face up to a three year jail sentence or up to a 30,000 rupee ($260) fine — or both.

Gajendra Budhathoki, the news editor of Karobar Daily, says, “The old laws had to be updated but the new criminal code law, specifically regarding press freedom, is against Nepal’s constitution.”

“Since there are press freedom and right to information provision mentioned in the 2015 Nepal constitution, the new criminal code is a deliberate move to undermine the authority of Nepal’s constitutional provisions,” he adds. “It took four years to write the criminal code, but it seems to go against the constitutional rights of the press. It’s up to the Nepal parliament to amend these laws and bring in par with the constitutional provision.”

Journalists and media analysts fear these new laws make investigative journalism and photojournalism almost impossible. However, Budhathoki says only fear and rumors are being spread now. “No one is aware that they can go to the court. If someone files a petition in the Supreme Court against the provisions of the criminal code, the SC is likely to approve it.”

Similarly, new provisions also treat doctors as criminals. Section 232 of the Criminal Code Act punishes medical practitioners for the death of a patient during surgery. They can be punished with a three to five year jail term and a fine of 30,000 rupees ($260). Section 8 of the General Code punishes doctors for negligent surgery with a jail term of two years and a fine of 500 rupees ($4).

With decreasing civil space and freedom for journalists, doctors, and international agencies, Nepal risks becoming an autocratic nation closed to the international community, particularly Western states, and when this happens the Himalayan nation will transform into a playground for China and India. The end result cannot be predicted immediately, but a nation importing a quasi-democracy and an authoritarian regime model is certainly not good news for those who believe in freedom, democracy, and human rights.

Arun Budhathoki is a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu. He’s the editor-in-chief with Kathmandu Tribune. His works have appeared in India Today, The Huffington Post (India), Daily O, The Citizen (India), Republica, The Kathmandu Post, and Asia Pacific Daily.