11/20/2023 Nepal (International Christian Concern) — The Nepalese government announced earlier this month that it would ban TikTok in the country, citing insufficient content moderation by the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform. The cabinet of ministers, which made the decision, said it had repeatedly asked that the platform restrict hateful content but had been ignored. Nepal sits on China’s southern border, loading decisions like this with geopolitical significance.
Nepalese officials said that TikTok content was promoting religious hatred, violence, and sexual abuse and had led to real-world clashes requiring police intervention. Videos on TikTok have stoked tensions between the Hindu majority and religious minorities over cows, which are considered sacred in Hinduism, according to the officials.
India, which lies south of both Nepal and China, banned TikTok in 2020 after a border dispute with China. India’s large internet-connected population make it an important market for global technology companies and social media platforms.
In contrast to India, Nepal’s decision to ban TikTok was based on the promotion of internal harmony rather than an attempt to pressure China, according to Bhadra Sharma for the New York Times. Nepal’s population of 30 million pales in comparison to China and India’s, each with 1.4 billion.
TikTok’s popularity in Nepal has risen in the last several years, with the 2.2 million reported active users.
In nearby Myanmar, social media has a sordid history of stoking religious tension. There, Facebook managed to gain a significant following after the country began opening to the outside world in 2010 by partnering with local providers to preload Facebook on new phones and grant users free internet access to the social media platform.
In 2016, with 40% of the country able to access the internet, 38% said, in a poll, that their primary source of news was what they saw on Facebook. “Even Burmese slang reflects the fact that in Myanmar, Facebook is the internet,” according to a 2020 article in Foreign Policy. There, “the word for ‘going online,’ line paw tat tal, is synonymous with ‘active on Facebook.’”
Unfortunately, Facebook’s growth in the country did not come with corresponding content moderation capacity. Hate speech against the Muslim-majority Rohingya minority quickly soared—a pattern perpetuated by certain Buddhist extremists and many across the Buddhist-majority country who believed the misinformation they saw on Facebook.
Researchers and activists who spoke with Facebook to warn them of the rising anti-minority hatred spreading on their platform were largely ignored. Aela Callan, a researcher, met with Facebook in 2013, and learned in that meeting that Facebook had only a single Burmese-speaking content moderator to manage content produced by millions.
Sadly, the religious hatred fueled physical violence, worsening, and furthering what would eventually be condemned as a religious and ethnic genocide against the Rohingya.
Though Nepal shows no signs of violence or extremism at the scale seen in 2010s Myanmar, it is familiar with religious repression, as discussed in a recent International Christian Concern (ICC) report. More work is still to be done, including by the Nepalese government which bans religious conversion and often leaves religious minorities on the margins of society.
August and September saw a string of violence against Christians in the country. Two churches in the southern Nawalparasi district of Lumbini along the border with India’s Uttar Pradesh state were vandalized one weekend in September. Photos and videos reviewed by ICC showed broken windows and other signs of violence around the property, including damage to fencing and a broken motorbike.
Another photo shared on social media showed two men, identified as pastors, being assaulted on the street. Gathered locals smeared the pastors’ faces with a sticky black substance in an act described by local ICC contacts as a cultural sign of hatred and disrespect.
ICC learned that the attacks in Lumbini are the sixth and seventh such attacks against churches in Nepal in a two-week period. “It’s spreading like wildfire,” a Nepalese civil society leader said about the recent spate of attacks. Perpetrators, seeing little to no response from the authorities, “are encouraged to act more,” he told ICC.
News of another incident of men assaulting Christians, this time in Janakpur, appeared just days after the attack on the two pastors in Lumbini.
In Kathmandu, the country’s capital city, two men were arrested and taken to court for preaching on the street in September. Though the country’s constitution ostensibly protects religious freedom, it does so in vague enough terms to allow a law today that criminalizes proselytization.
Chapter 19 of the Muluki Ain, or general code of Nepal, states that “no one shall propagate any religion in such manner as to undermine the religion of other nor shall cause other to convert his or her religion.” Religious minorities are regularly arrested and charged under this law, which goes beyond its neighbor India’s bans on forced conversions to criminalizing participation in the act of conversion in any way at all. In Nepal, proselytization carries with it the threat of up to six years in prison and later deportation in the case of foreigners.
The U.S. Department of State highlighted its concerns with Nepal’s anti-conversion and anti-proselytization laws in a report published earlier this year. “Multiple religious groups in the country,” the report said, “[continue] to reiterate that the constitutional and criminal code provisions governing religious conversion and proselytism [are] vague and contradictory and [open] the door for prosecution for actions carried out in the normal course of practicing one’s religion.”
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