Election Commission has stricter code of conduct but lacks mechanism to monitor it | #socialmedia

On April 5, several fringe parties and the main opposition CPN-UML refused to sign a commitment paper on adhering to the election code of conduct issued by the Election Commission. Their gripe was: they were not consulted while drafting the code of conduct and were being forced to sign it.

Two days later, some UML leaders led by the party general secretary handed over a memorandum to the poll body, taking exception to at least six provisions of the election code of conduct, which came into effect from April 8.

UML leaders had objected to the provisions saying they curtailed the freedom of expression of citizens.

UML had pointed out some ‘flaws’. According to the party, people should not be barred from posting election-related contents on social media, officials holding executive positions at government offices should not be barred from participating in election campaigns in their own constituencies, and people working for non-governmental organisations and private companies should not be barred from making election-related comments through electronic media.

The party has also objected to the code of conduct that bars candidates from using their election symbols and party flags anywhere else including on the internet except at their party offices, and the provision barring parties from disputing the decisions of the election officers.

Nepali Congress General Secretary Bishwa Prakash Sharma on Saturday raised the same issue.

The provision in the election code of conduct barring citizens from supporting poll candidates on social media violates people’s constitutional right to freedom of expression, he said. “And agreeing to abide by such codes might be a weakness on the part of the political parties while the commission itself might have been shortsighted in introducing such a provision.”

Any provision contradicting the constitution will be null and void, he said, adding, “Therefore I’m not obliged to follow it.”

According to Sharma, although some provisions of the election code of conduct, including the restrictions on the use of publicity T-shirts and vests, are logical, some other provisions cannot be implemented.

“Nobody is going to abide by the provision that bars citizens from endorsing their preferred candidates on social media, and the flag- and election symbol-related restrictions on candidates, among others,” Sharma told the Post.

There are many such impractical provisions in the code of conduct which the Election Commission itself cannot monitor effectively.

The commission has detailed various stringent measures but has not yet taken any action against the violators.

On Sunday, the Election Commission reiterated that it will take legal action against those violating the code of conduct regarding the use of social media. Spokesperson for the commission Shaligram Sharma Poudel said the commission has been trying to contact social media companies through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for strict implementation of the codes.

“The commission is making efforts to control misinformation, disinformation and hate speech,” said Shaligram Sharma Poudel, spokesperson for the Election Commission, during a regular press briefing on Sunday. “We are trying to contact various social media companies through our foreign missions.”

The only thing the commission has done so far is it has issued warning letters to political parties and individuals that were found violating the codes.

Commission officials said the CPN (Unified Socialist) was found using the party’s flags and children in its April 9 rally at Bhrikutimandap in violation of the codes. On April 29, the commission wrote to the party warning against repeating such activities.

It also warned the CPN (Maoist Centre) for using the picture of Nepal Electricity Authority Managing Director Kulman Ghising in campaign materials.

A similar warning was issued to the Rastriya Prajatantra Party after the party was found to have used children and party flags in its election rally in Hetauda on April 10.

Likewise, Congress leader Shashank Koirala and speaker of the Gandaki Provincial Assembly Netra Nath Adhikari received the commission’s warning for making public statements about their election expenses, which crossed the set limit.

Despite the commission’s efforts to implement the codes, it neither has proper mechanisms nor resources for the same.

Arpan Basnet, a CPN-UML cadre from Arjundhara Municipality-1 who was trying to take a consignment of party flags and flags bearing the party’s election symbol to Jhapa from Kathmandu but was barred from doing so, said he was not aware that such things are not allowed. The consignment was seized by commission officials from Bagbazar on Saturday.

“I was not aware of the code of conduct. I just wanted to distribute the flags to cadres and locals,” said Basnet.

A former election commissioner said the commission might have been attempting to implement the codes with good intentions, but it direly lacks resources to ensure an effective implementation.

“How can the election commission control the use of social media when the government itself has not been able to?” the former commissioner questioned.

Political parties and observers say the code’s provision allowing the use of just one party flag and one flag bearing an election symbol at one campaign office per local unit is impractical.

The commission, however, said the ban was aimed at limiting campaign expenses.

The Election Commission, on Saturday, directed all political parties and candidates to present the details of their social media accounts to the respective election offices within 24 hours of the publication of the final list of candidates. Political parties have been asked to provide their social media account details to the Election Commission while the candidates can do the same at the election offices concerned.

Some politicians have accused the commission of introducing impractical rules and being overly strict.

Congress General Secretary Sharma said: “The Election Commission should implement the code of conduct gradually, not at once.”

Sharma was referring to some ‘stringent’ codes that he said parties are unable to abide by immediately.

For instance, Section 5(c) of the code prohibits the inauguration or foundation laying for any projects by public office holders, but many politicians and officials were involved in such inaugurations after the election codes came into effect.

Likewise, Section 9 (a) bars teachers and employees of community- and government-run schools or colleges from participating in election campaigns, but this rule has been flouted in various districts without any action being taken against those involved.

“The code of conduct was prepared without proper consultations with the political parties and observers,” Kapil Shrestha, chairperson of the National Election Observation Committee, told the Post. “Maybe the commission was in a hurry.”

Shrestha said trying to control social media is against democracy and civil liberties, although the platforms need healthy control.

“Since 90 percent of the election commissioners come from government bureaucracy, they don’t trust politicians and cannot build a good rapport with them,” he argued. “They tend to focus on petty issues instead of taking strong decisions.”

Shrestha said the ongoing violations by political parties are serious and merely warning them for such actions is not enough. “The commission should take strict actions and impose fines,” Shrestha said.

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