Whilst Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s Monday speech at the Oxford Union in the United Kingdom valorized the significance of freedoms, rights, and democracy, back home, his government continues to be criticized for what many see as an authoritarian turn, stifling freedom of speech and steadily encroaching on human rights.
In his speech at the Oxford Union, Oli said that as someone who had invested over five decades fighting for democratic rights, and as a result, been imprisoned for 14 years, including four years in solitary confinement, he knew “how important access to education and freedom of speech are for people and society to grow, build and prosper.
Right away, Nepalis on social media began to call out the prime minister, pointing to the recent arrest of a comedian for a satirical review of a film as an example of the shrinking space for dissent.
“Hold a comic for custody for a film review and go to international unions and talk about freedom of speech? Hypocrisy at its best” declared one user on Twitter.
On Twitter, Mohana Ansari, member of the National Human Rights Commission, declared that while Oli’s speech celebrating freedom of speech was appreciated, “Nepali citizens want to see the similar at homeland, too. #Freedomofexpression and #HumanRights are guarded.”
The Oli administration has been roundly criticized for attempting to force through a number of controversial bills, including a Media Council bill and an IT bill, that many says could be used to stifle criticism and muzzle the media.
In his speech on Monday, Oli unsuccessful to mention that his government is in the process of making laws to control and suppress the media, declared Bishnu Nisthuri, former chairman of the Federation of Nepali Journalists.
“The government is planning to bring forth yet another mass communication bill,” said Nisthuri. “We’ve been asking the government to respect and honor the preamble of the constitution, but in the name of the constitution, the government is presenting arbitrary bills, one after another, so our protest aims to protect press freedom and freedom of expression.”
Nisthuri was referring to a persisting protest led by the Federation of Nepali Journalists who have been challenging that the government withdraws the Media Council bill, about which numerous national and international media organizations have expressed serious concerns.
In his speech, Oli went on to express a “staunch” belief in democracy, saying, “As a staunch fighter for democracy throughout my life, I believe the alternative to democracy is ‘more democracy’.
Many planners, however, say that the Oli administration is exhibiting “authoritarian” tendencies, especially when it comes to dissent and criticism. Since coming to power with a comfortable majority in February 2018, Oli has increasingly focused power in his office, bringing a number of crucial departments under his direct supervision. These include the National Investigation Department, the Department of Revenue Research and the Department of Money Laundering Investigation, among a number of others.
Oli then spoke about social justice, which he stated was at the “core of our polity.”
“Unity in diversity is our strength,” he said at Oxford. “We have established the basis of a non-discriminatory, inclusive and participatory democracy to bring everyone onboard for socio-economic transformation.” But on Sunday, a quiet gathering protesting a controversial bill—that, critics say, seeks to “destroy” the guthi, a centuries-old Newar tradition—was met with excessive force, with cops employing water cannons and baton charging protestors. Locals and heritage conservationists see the bill as an attempt to “grab” land that is held by the guthis, which lease out the lands to raise funds to keep cultural processions and festivals and maintain national infrastructure.