A popular comedian was arrested in Nepal for publishing a disparaging “satirical” video review of a new film on YouTube, triggering a criticism of the K P Sharma Oli-led government.
Pranesh Gautam, 24, an architect and part-time comedian who posts videos on a popular satirical page called Meme Nepal, was arrested and detained by police on June 7 for a video he uploaded two weeks earlier poking fun at a new film, Bir Bikram 2.
In the now-deleted video, uploaded on May 22, Gautam compared the film’s storyline to the Bollywood hit Sholay, described the film as “unnecessarily loud”, criticized the acting of the film’s stars, and called the direction weak. Besides some good actors and plenty of drone shots of a village, it has “nothing new to offer”, he declares.
Throughout the video, he is seen holding a knife, which he sometimes points to the camera, uses it to scratch his head and occasionally bangs on the desk as he rants about the movie. At one point he tells the viewers, “If you are looking for something new, the story offers nothing.”
Yet in the end, he calls Bir Bikram 2 “entertaining” and says people should watch it or else “these guys will beat me up,” almost prescient of how things would unfold for him after the video’s release.
Prior to its deletion, the video review had amassed over 125,000 plays on YouTube.
Watch the now-deleted YouTube video, reposted:
The film’s director and producer, Milan Chams, complained to the police about the bad review, claiming the video negatively impacted the movie’s sales and the director and actors’ reputation. Gautam was arrested soon afterward and charged under Nepal’s Electronic Transaction Act.
Cyber law expert and advocate Baburam Aryal calls this an extreme misuse of power. “This shows that the police administration is not adhering to the law,” he says. “This is an example of how the administration can misuse power. Such an action by the police is a travesty in a democratic society. Such acts decrease the creative potential of a society and push the country towards dictatorship.”
The police posted a photograph of Gautam on their Facebook page saying that he was arrested under the law “for using YouTube to spread wickedness and defame the film industry.”
“An arrest warrant was issued against Gautam and he will be investigated for cyber crime related charges because of the video he made,” announced Superintendent of Police Kedar Dhakal.
One would think that Nepal’s filmmakers and producers would be outraged by this gross misuse of the law. Maybe many were, but several leading film industry figures, instead of upholding Nepalis’ right to free expression, visited the Kathmandu police station where Gautam was jailed to insist that the young comedian be sternly punished. Chams, the film director, insisted, “These kinds of elements harm the society and we need to get rid of them.”
Gautam said he had not expected such backlash because Meme Nepal, which has over 1.1 million Facebook followers, is a satire page. “Our only intention was to make people laugh,” he said.
Gautam initially tried to laugh off the allegations but nervousness started to grow when the issue reached the police.
“It’s perfectly fine to not like it [the video], but that doesn’t mean anyone gets to infringe upon my right to free speech that doesn’t harm anyone,” he said, calling the allegations baseless.
As an online content creator, Gautam said he was used to ruthless comments and trolls on social media, who send nasty and sometimes threatening messages. But once he saw dozens of YouTube videos of Chams, the director, and others from the film industry with threats of legal action, claiming he was under the influence of drugs in the video and in at least one instance, calling him accused before charges were filed, the fear got to him. And the increasingly divided public opinion about the Meme Nepal video in the comments section on numerous interviews of the director multiplied the fear.
“Last week has been extremely stressful thinking about the possibility of jail time for doing our job as comedians,” said Gautam, who had a tough time explaining to his parents about the ongoing controversy and the personal attacks on his character.
Gautam had said he didn’t go to the police station because the authorities hadn’t been clear with him or his representatives on why he had been summoned to the police station. Gautam said he hasn’t been able to sleep or think properly, which has affected his health.
“I know I am not in the wrong. We never intended to hurt anyone with the video, but fear has gripped me so badly, I don’t know what to say,” he said, “ I had no idea I would be this scared.”
Gautam said that while he is thankful for all the messages of support, it still doesn’t change how he feels about the possibility of facing jail time.
“I have already said goodbye to my parents and girlfriend, just in case I end up in custody,” he said days before being detained.
Gautam and his team at Meme Nepal said the controversy has already started affecting their business, with some of their clients hinting at not continuing advertising on their page. Meme Nepal members say they are willing to engage with the director. Last Tuesday, they made an unsuccessful attempt during a meeting with representatives from the film industry to reach out to Thams.
The wounded director, however, said he is in no mood to talk to Meme Nepal. Chams told the Kathmandu Post that he is determined to “teach a lesson” to platforms like Meme Nepal.“ I am doing this not just for myself, but for the entire film industry,” said Chams. “These kinds of elements harm the society and we need to get rid of them.”
“We felt helpless, they didn’t want to hear us out,” said Nirjan Timalsina, who started Meme Nepal in 2014. “It’s clear they don’t want this to settle down and set a precedent for other platforms like ours.”
Advocate Rastra Bimochan Timalsina, who represented Meme Nepal during a meeting at the Teku police station two weeks ago, had received a call from police late Sunday evening, informing him that an arrest warrant had been issued against Gautam and that he would have to appear at the Teku police station on Monday afternoon. Timalsina, who is also a YouTuber, told the Kathmandu Post that the police didn’t clarify the grounds on which the warrant had been issued.
“The police didn’t tell me anything clearly but I think they might have used certain sections of the Electronic Transaction Act to book Pranesh for the video,” Timalsina said. “There is a high chance he might be kept in custody.”
Gautam was granted bail on June 13 after a week in jail, but the authorities have not dropped the case and he is still in custody. If convicted, Gautam could face up to five years in prison and a $900 fine.
This is the latest of at least seven cases since the current government came to power in early 2018 in which authorities have misused legislation designed to prevent online fraud to persecute ordinary speech.
Ironically, the arrest occurred just three days before Prime Minister Oli’s address to the Oxford Union in London, where he extolled on the importance of democracy, freedom and human rights. In his speech, Oli said a person who had spent over five decades fighting for democratic rights and served 14-year jail sentence knew “how important access to education and freedom of speech are for people and society to grow, develop and prosper”.
In addition to abusing the Electronic Transaction Act, the Oli administration has been criticized for attempting to push through a number of controversial bills, including the Media Council Bill and the Information Technology Bill, that many say could be used to stifle criticism and squeeze the media.
The proposed IT Bill, amendments to the Penal Code, and the new Media Council Bill all show a creeping and steady infringement on freedom of expression in Nepal. There is an attempt to stifle dissent and alternative opinion with jail time and fines under the guise of discipline and ‘sensitivity’.
A report by Freedom Forum found 104 incidents of violations in 2018 alone with multiple journalists and editors being booked under the Electronic Transactions Act – a law created for monitoring online banking transactions. Currently, the IT bill allows the government to sentence the accused to 5 years in jail and up to a Rs150,000 (around $2,150 USD) fine for ‘improper’ social media posts. What constitutes as ‘improper’ is so broad, however, that anyone can be hauled in, critics say.
“In his speech on Monday, Oli failed to mention that his government is bringing laws to control and suppress the media,” said Bishnu Nisthuri, former chairman of the Federation of Nepali Journalists. The organization is demanding that the government withdraw the controversial Media Council Bill.
“The prime minister should respond through action, not words… It seems the only purpose of the media council bill is to control and punish the media that does not obey the government. The bill will curtail the freedom of expression,” said Krishna Pahadi, a noted human rights activist.
International human rights law guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression. Any restriction on free speech must be extremely limited and proportionate, and imposed rarely only for certain important reasons such as protecting public safety.
Annoying a film director by criticizing his movie doesn’t even come close to meeting these criteria.
Additionally, Nepal’s Constitution guarantees freedom of expression as a fundamental right. There are primarily two issues at work here in Gautam’s case:
- First, the misuse of the Electronic Transaction Act when separate laws for libel and defamation exist. This Act has been used numerous times in the past to arrest journalists, comedians and satirists on trumped-up charges. The vague provisions of the Act, especially Article 47, have allowed it to be applied to situations that it was never meant to address.
- Second, Gautam was well within his rights to review creative work. Impertinent language and crass humor are no grounds to arrest someone.
The manner in which Gautam has been treated, using incarceration as a form of humiliation and torture, is reprehensible. In the short-term, Gautam must be immediately released; but in the longer term, the Electronic Transaction Act itself must be rethought and amended to uphold the freedom of speech.