Robert Penner and Freedom of Expression

I truly admire the rare service Mr. Penner provided to Nepal’s suppressed groups by bringing to light the issues of exclusion, discrimination, and government abuse. He gave a powerful voice to people who could not make their own case to defend their freedom. Most of it applied to Madhesi people who have been turned into stateless by Nepal Government’s extreme policies of exclusion and repression.

However, Mr. Penner, as a foreign citizen and in Nepal on a working visa, should have been careful about visa regulations and how he should conduct himself in a foreign country, as an opinion-maker, especially when it concerned issues involving extremely sensitive matters such as Government’s heavy-handedness in dealing with Madhesi protests.

As a national, one can write and speak whatever he/she wants under the freedom of expression provided in a democracy, and Nepal Government–however otherwise abusive–must know its limits on how it can respond to such dissenting views or nonviolent protests carried out in the street.

CK Raut’s campaign is an example, that Government has done everything in its power to quiet him down–arresting, jailing, and taking him to court. But the Government has, as until now, abided by democratic norms to restrain itself from going too far—locking him up for forever and, may be worse, making him disappear. Panchayat Government ruled for 30 years, most of it through excessive rights violations, a course of action normal in places that do not have democracy. But Nepal is governed under a democratic system and is bounded by limits on government power in dealing with dissenting views and other such expression of dissent.

Mr. Penner, despite his very humane instincts and compassion for the victims of Government’s overreach, should have known his limits as a foreign citizen–actually a visitor and guest to the country–what he can do and what he can’t.

Of course, Mr. Penner shouldn’t have been arrested or jailed but, certainly, Government has every right to ask him leave the country. In canceling a foreigner’s visa for whatever reasons, Government is not going beyond the norms of democracy.

In my own case, in Fiji, I was a faculty at the University of Fiji for six years from 2002 to 2008, and wrote in public media mostly on economic issues but, at times, also commented on social and political issues dealing with status of Fiji Indians who suffered similar discrimination as do Madhesis in Nepal.

A few of my political write-ups got Government’s attention which it found objectionable enough to ask me leave Fiji. However, the University Administration intervened in my favor, citing faculty’s rights for academic freedom. That was the end of the story and I stayed in Fiji, working as a university faculty.

Probably, Mr. Penner would have had a better defense if he had worked for a university and wrote as an academic.

Sukhdev Shah

Mr. Shah has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Hawaii and worked for IMF in Washington DC from 1973 until retirement in 2002. He is currently a faculty member at NOVA College in Virginia.