Nepal's TikTok ban is the first step towards more government control on social media

Photo by cottonbro studio via Pexels. Used under a Pexels license.

Photo by Cottonbro Studio via Pexels. Used under a Pexels license.

On November 13, 2023, the Nepali government imposed a blanket ban on Chinese social media platform TikTok, alleging that the platform was fostering social discord among Nepalis. However, rights groups and the civil society labeled this ban as unconstitutional and undemocratic.

TikTok gained popularity in Nepal during the Covid-19 pandemic, with claims that the platform encouraged hate speech and intolerance. According to Nepal's Minister for Communications and Information Technology Rekha Sharma, TikTok was disrupting “our social harmony, family structure and family relations.” The Nepali government reached out to TikTok multiple times regarding offensive content, but received no response, leading to the blanket ban, with which Nepal joins a growing list of countries including India, the UK, the US, the European Union and Pakistan.

The rise of TikTok in Nepal

As of January 2023, Nepal had 15.85 million internet users in a population of 30.55 million. Among them, 12.60 million were social media users, with Facebook being the most popular platform, boasting 11.85 million users.

Launched in August 2018 by Beijing based technology company ByteDance the video-focused platform TikTok gained popularity for its ability to optimize and display short form video content according to users’ preferences. Critics argue that the AI and algorithms it employs are addictive and unethical. TikTok, with 1.218 billion global users, ranks sixth among all social media platforms.

Experiencing tremendous growth in recent years, TikTok has become a dynamic space for creators, influencers, and businesses. Although there is no official figure for TikTok users in Nepal, experts estimate around 2.2 million as of 2022. A 2022 survey by Sharecast Initiative Nepal, involving 5,582 respondents, revealed that 56 percent of the sample group used TikTok.

More control on social media

On November 9, 2023, Nepal introduced the Directive on the Operation of Social Networking 2023 a 15-point rule aiming to regulate social media through administrative measures. In this directive, the government mandated that international social media platforms establish a liaison office in Nepal or appoint a focal person within three months. Additionally, these platforms are required to register with the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, with non-compliance risking a ban in the country.

As the number of internet users grows, harassment of people for their activities online have also increased. In July of this year, one person from Jhapa District, Koshi Province, Nepal, was arrested for creating and publishing indecent TikTok videos featuring the president and the prime minister. Furthermore, over 200 police personnel were penalized in July for making TikTok videos in Uniform. However, the government's immediate concern reportedly revolves around Durga Prasad, a former opposition party member and businessman, who has initiated a slanderous campaign on TikTok against the mainstream parties, advocating for the reinstatement of a Hindu monarchy in Nepal.

While Nepal has legal measures for online libel, slander, and defamation, including the National Penal Code 2017 and the Libel and Slander Act 2016, most accused individuals face charges under Section 47 of the Electronic Transaction Act 2008.

In August this year, the government introduced a new National Cyber Security Policy to address specific cybercrimes and emerging threats. The directive outlines a list of prohibitions for social media users, including the ban on words, audio, video, or images that spread hate speech or defame/disrespect others. It also prohibits the creation of fake user IDs and includes various measures, criticized by some as contradictory to the Electronic Transactions Act (ETA) 2008 or the new Cyber Security Policy. Many perceive the directive and the TikTok ban as the initial steps in a government initiative to control social media and suppress freedom of expression in Nepal.

Widespread criticism

In Nepal, the ban has sparked widespread criticism. Gagan Thapa, the general secretary of the Nepali Congress, asserts that it was executed for political purposes.

Nepali online outlet Nepal Drishtikon posted:

Nepali civil society organisation Freedom Forum released a statement, signed by individuals and civil society organisations, contending that the ban impedes citizens from engaging in online conversations and participating in the global digital community. They argue that existing constitutional laws can effectively address issues arising from contentious social media content, and a blanket ban violates the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, as stated in Article 17(2)(a) of the Constitution of Nepal.

The international rights-focussed organization Access Now also published a statement:

Constitutional law expert Bipin Adhikari posts on X (formerly Twitter);

User Parakram Rana says:

The Kathmandu Post, quoting internet service providers, reported a 20 percent increase in internet use in the week after the TikTok ban, possibly due to the installation of VPN apps to bypass the ban. However, the Nepal Telecommunication Authority (NTA) is intensifying its TikTok ban by directing ISPs to block VPN and DNS apps.

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