Kathmandu: Nepali singers, comedians, and vloggers have often been subjected to self-censorship, some of them even jailed for expressing opinions through the mediums of arts. In some cases, they have been asked by the authorities and pressure groups to remove the ‘objectionable’ contents or make changes in their works. Here are some cases from recent times.
In June 2019, comedian Pranesh Gautam was arrested for making a satirical review of the film Bir Bikram 2. Gautam was taken into custody under the Electronic Transaction Act. Gautam’s fault was that he made a satirical video review of the film and uploaded it to YouTube.
He was released only after a public outcry by the artists, rights activists, and media fraternity. Gautam had to remove the video from YouTube.
Pashupati Sharma, a prominent Nepali folk singer, also faced major backlash due to his lyrics in the song “Lutna Sake Lut”. The song was a satirical jab at political leaders and government officials for the corruption, negligence, and abuse of power that is prevalent in Nepal. The song was vehemently opposed to by the Youth Federation of Nepal, the youth wing of the then Nepal Communist Party. Due to vehement political statements made online as well as personal threats made to him, Sharma removed the song from online platforms.
In March this year, Prakash Saput released “Pir”, a song about the lives of those who fought during the Maoist insurgency. The video shows how some that fought for the Maoists are now in positions of power, while others are still living in hardship and being ignored by the government as well as the top Maoist leaders. The video featured a snippet of an ex-Maoist female combatant being involved in sex work.
The video received severe backlash from the Maoist Center party as well as others. Sapit removed the controversial section from his video, saying he didn’t want the controversy to overshadow the message of the video.
Apoorwa Kshitiz Singh was recently taken into custody for his alleged derogatory remarks against the Newari community. Singh had made jokes about Newari culture, cuisine and tradition in a YouTube video. Singh’s remarks were deemed racially insensitive, which led to a demand for his arrest. Several Newari people marched to the Metropolitan Police Range in Kathmandu to file a case against Singh for the alleged hurtful, insensitive and disparaging comments made against them and their culture.
Apoorwa was released on bail only when he was found infected with Covid-19. He has been freed for treatment. It is uncertain whether he will be taken back to custody after recovering from Covid-19.
These are some of the cases of arrests and backlash against the artists on various charges, even while the constitution of Nepal has safeguarded people’s right to expression. Article 17 of the constitution has safeguarded the “freedom of opinion and expression” of the citizens.
Ananta Luitel, a prominent advocate, says that the Constitution of Nepal has protected our freedom of speech and expression unless it is defamatory or is inciting violence. “Excluding slanderous comments, calls to violence, comments against religion, etc, the Constitution of Nepal allows its citizens to express their opinions. Articles 16, 17 and 19 of the constitution protect the right to opinion and expression of every Nepali citizen,” he said.
As for the Electronic Transactions Act, Luitel said, “If the content published online is malicious or published with the intent to harm a person or organization, the prosecution can take place after investigation, not before.”
Speaking on the arrest of Apoorwa Kshitiz Singh, Luitel shared, “Artistic expression is protected by our constitution unless it is explicit or violent in nature. If any artist is arrested based on the art that they have put forth, that is against freedom of opinion and expression.”
Freedom of expression in artistic creations sometimes takes an indecent turn when the language used in them lacks decency, maintains Shree Ram Paudel, media critic and educator who teaches Journalism and Mass Communication in Tribhuvan University. According to him, creative artists need to care about public decency and respect for language. That said, Paudel says our authorities are getting more intolerant of criticism. “Our authorities, political as well as state, have become intolerant. They are guided by the idea that criticism should be crushed with power. The mindset seems to be ‘I will have them conduct themselves according to my way,’” he said.
Regarding the controversy on the comedy video of Apoorwa, Paudel says that it is not so objectionable. “There is a tendency among those in power that people should think the way they think. And they demand or take action against those who don’t think their way,” said Paudel.
Intriguingly, what is acceptable to a majority of people in society does not seem to be acceptable to those in power. “If you ask me, the songs of Prakash Saput or Pashupati Sharma had greater social acceptance. It was not accepted only by those who wanted to do politics in it,” he said. “Apoorwa’s case was made controversial by those who wanted to do communal politics in it.”
Paudel has observed that most people to be arrested or persecuted are those who do not have connection with power centers. “Criticisms by those with connection with power centers are not questioned.”
While asked if Nepal Police, while arresting artists in such cases, should take a pause and reflect on whether the case really amounts to a punishable offense before jailing the artists right after the complaint is filed, Paudel said that Nepal Police seems to be manipulated by those in power. “In such cases, the judgment of Nepal Police does not seem to prevail independently, they seem to be politically influenced. They often cite the orders from above and they never mention where those orders from above actually come from,” he said.