In Nepal’s TikTok ban there’s is more than meets the eye

During the festival of Tihar, Kathmandu, the national capital of Nepal, usually remains quiet. Offices, courts, schools and institutions remain closed. In the evenings and nights, the quietness gets punctuated by sounds of firecrackers, which are officially banned in Nepal. This year too, on November 13, there was a usual quietness due to Tihar. And then the government led by Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” burst the loudest firecracker — it announced a ban on the popular social media app TikTok.

Reason: “TikTok is disrupting social harmony.”

The move immediately drew sharp reactions, with many taking to social media platforms like X, formerly Twitter, as well as TikTok itself, until the ban came into effect, to call the decision an attempt to stifle freedom of speech.

The government has maintained that it decided to ban the social media app in the face of pervasiveness of content that it believed was threatening social harmony, stoking religious hate and violence, causing family disintegration and fuelling sexism and casteism.   

Minister for Communications and Information Technology Rekha Sharma said after the Cabinet decision on November 13 that TikTok had to be banned because it was disturbing social harmony, family structure and family relations.

The ban is now in effect, even as some users have resorted to VPN (virtual private networks) to operate the app. 

The move in question

While announcing its decision to ban TikTok, the government stopped short of citing any legal provision. 

The ban was announced days after the government passed “Directive on the Operation of Social Networking 2023”, which meant social media platforms operating in Nepal now onwards have to establish their offices in the country. 

In recent times, some virtual attacks have been observed on TikTok between Hindus, Muslims and some indigenous communities, leading to enforcement of curfews. As observed internationally, the platform has been even used to spread hate speech and misinformation and disinformation. Many countries have completely restricted or limited the use of TikTok, with India imposing a complete ban along with various other Chinese apps. 

Questions, however, have been asked why the Prachanda government took a decision in haste to impose a blanket ban just when it was working to “regulate” social media platforms. Experts say if the government believed the social media app was posing such a huge threat to society, then it would have followed the due course of making legislation accordingly, instead of announcing the sudden ban.

Baburam Aryal, an expert on cyber law, says the government’s decision to ban TikTok lacks the legal standpoint and that it also violates the constitutional provisions. “We don’t know yet on which legal basis the government decided to ban TikTok,” Mr. Aryal said. “On top of that, constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of speech and freedom of publication and broadcasting, including through electronic mediums, have been brazenly violated by this decision.”

What does TikTok have to say?

In a country of population around 30 million, until the ban there were over 2.2 million TikTok users in Nepal. The ban may not have a significant impact on the app, but Nepal joining a list of countries to limit its use could be a cause for concern for the Chinese-owned company.   

Requests to TikTok representatives for comments went unanswered.

However, its concerns over the ban were apparent from a letter it sent on November 13 to the Nepal Telecom Authority (NTA), Nepal’s telecoms regulator.

The social media app in its letters,, has expressed its dismay at the decision to ban the app. “We were as surprised as we’re sure the millions of Nepali citizens were, who have been a part of our community expressing their creativity and joy through the platform,” said Ferdous Mottakin, Head of Public Policy & Governance Relations-South Asia for ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, in the letter addressed to NTA. 

TikTok has claimed that it registered as a digital service tax payer in Nepal on August 29 this year and that it proactively removed 2.98 million videos from Nepal between October 2022 and June 2023. 

“The decision to block TikTok contradicts the Government of Nepal’s current engagement with us,” the letter says, acknowledging the letter it received from NTA regarding the ban. 

Aversion to criticism

Critics say the issue here is not that the government banned TikTok, the issue is the mala fide intention behind the move.

“The government seems to be testing the waters, starting with TikTok. If it is not restrained, you never know what all it will ban —Facebook and other apps,” said Dambar Khatiwada, a writer and commentator. “Imposing a ban on a social media app like this shows the intent of the government to rule in an authoritative style.”

According to Mr. Khatiwada, the Prachanda government banned the app not actually because it indeed was disrupting social harmony but because it had become an easy tool for the public to vent their angst at politicians.

“And they were rattled by criticism,” he said. 

By Mr. Prachanda’s own admission, the government decided to ban TikTok as per an understanding among political parties from across the spectrum.

“The decision was taken after extended discussions among parties in the government as well as the Opposition,” Mr. Prachanda said at a public function a day after the government announced the ban. 

Mr. Khatiwada says what the Prime Minister said makes things even more problematic. “Mr. Prachanda’s statement is a clear indication that Nepal’s traditional parties have the realisation that they have failed but they do not want to muzzle the dissenting voices,” he said. “And the silence of other parties over the ban of the social media ban is deafening.”

Mr. Prachanda has lately been continuously expressing his dissatisfaction at criticism of his government. 

His Maoist party played a crucial role in Nepal’s transition from the monarchy to a secular federal republic. The country, however, has been mired by musical chair politics that has given rise to frustration among the general public. Lately, Mr. Prachanda has been constantly saying that republicanism is under threat, which many say is his attempt to gloss over his government’s failure. 

Mr. Aryal says the way the government abruptly decided to ban TikTok amid the festival holidays itself is an indication that it’s so weak on its authority. “It may have thought the decision during the festival lull could pass without eliciting much criticism, but that was not to be,” he said. “It was clear from the day the ban was announced that it would be challenged in court.”

On Friday, when courts opened, at least 10 petitions were filed at Nepal’s Supreme Court challenging the ban of the social media app.

Mr. Khatiwada says the TikTok ban issue by the government should not be viewed in isolation. “This is part of a bigger exercise to silence free speech and it will boomerang on the government,” he said. “The firecracker the government has burst by banning the social media app is going to leave it with its fingers scorched.”

(Sanjeev Satgainya is an independent journalist based in Kathmandu)

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