Nepalese stand-up comedian Pranesh Gautam who was arrested on June 7th for posting a negative review video of the movie Bir Bikram 2 on his YouTube channel, meme NEPAL, was released on June 16th (yesterday) by the Kathmandu District Court, reported The Kathmandu Post. Gautam had appeared before the district court on June 14th. The 24-year-old comedian was arrested after an FIR was filed against him by the movie’s director Milan Chams who allegedly accused the YouTuber of defamation, libel, expressing sexist and racial remarks through social media while reviewing the movie. The director also accused Gautam of cyber crime.

Following this, several people including YouTubers social media users, stand-up comedians and rights activists spoke against his arrest. The protestors came together in Kathmandu’s Maitighar Mandala on June 12th and expressed their disappointment over lack of freedom of expression in the country.

What happened with Gautam?

Gautam was taken into custody under the Electronic Transaction Act and was put behind the bars for almost nine days. While speaking to media, Chams had said that he wanted to teach online platforms like meme NEPAL, a lesson. Later, he had also said that his intentions has been partially fulfilled.

This move was however criticised by other YouTubers and creators saying that it marks a threat towards the freedom of expression. The protesters walked with their mouths taped and carried placards and demanded the release of the YouTuber. According to the report, the members of meme NEPAL and other comedians also attempted to negotiate with the film maker. But Chams denied to any negotiation and even asked for complete shutdown of meme NEPAL’s operation as a precondition to withdrawing his compliant.

When the protests began grab attention (including on Twitter), a group of 10 film associations in Nepal came together and expressed their solidarity with Chams. In a press statement, the association said that the video released by meme Nepal did “injustice” to the film.

Pranesh Gautam’s arrest is not the first case which shows the government’s motive to control online speech. Earlier in April, Arjun Giri, editor of Tandav Weekly was detained and charged under same Act (Electronic Transaction Act) after a local businessman, Bipendra Batas, filed a defamation case against Giri. The case was filed after the weekly published a news on Batas’ involvement in a land-fraud case on April 5th.

Nepal’s increasing scrutiny over social media

While the Constitution of Nepal guarantees “freedom of opinion and expression” as a fundamental right under Article 17(2)(a), the government seems to be contradicting its own laws as it looks to impose further restrictions on the freedom of online speech.

In April, the KP Sharma Oli administration proposed a new Information Technology Bill 2075 (2018) of Nepal to keep a tab on the misuse of social media platforms. It aims to provide more power to the Department of Information Technology to impose excessive restrictions on platforms. According to civil rights advocates, the Bill is a way for the government to control online speech. The bill not only challenges freedom of speech online but also increase government surveillance over personal data.

Section 94(1) of the Bill, attempts to impose restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression in the social network. It provides restrictions on the publication of various kinds of content:

Undermines sovereignty: “Communicate such content that undermines the sovereignty of Nepal, geographical integrity, national security, national unity, independence, dignity or national interest or harmonious relations between federation and unit doing or causing to do or the incitement or encourage incitement for hatred, enmity or contempt on the basis of class, caste, religion, region, community or any other similar basis or attempt to do so or encourage for the conspiracy to do so.”

Incitement to violence: “Inciting the racial discrimination or untouchability, disrespecting the labour, inciting criminal activities, encourage to disrupt peace and order or publishing or transmitting any content prohibited to publish or broadcast by the prevailing law or doing or causing to do any act against public moral.”

Communication of threats and abuse: “Communicating any message with the intention of teasing, misleading, insulting, discouraging, threatening, creating hatred and enmity, or confusing the receiver.”

Advertising prohibited goods: “Publishing, broadcasting or exhibit an advertisement or goods that is prohibited by the prevailing law for selling or distributing.”

Defamatory content: “Without any evidence, performing any act that is realized as curse or disrespect pursuant to the prevailing law with the intention of defaming someone.”