Nepal's response to rapes: Ban pornography

Nepali activists taking part in protest rally, demanding for justice after the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl, in Kathmandu, on Aug 25, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

KATHMANDU, NEPAL (NYTIMES) - For months, the government of Nepal has struggled to contain public anger over a rise in sexual assaults in this small Himalayan nation - up 60 per cent over the past five years, officials say.

A tipping point was reached after the rape and killing in July of a 13-year-old girl in western Nepal. Across the country, thousands of people demonstrated in the streets and accused the police of tampering with evidence to protect the attacker.

Under pressure, the government went back to a tactic it tried years ago but then abandoned: It banned pornography.

This time, it added harsh fines or prison sentences for Internet service providers who refuse to comply.

"Pulling down such websites inside Nepal has become necessary," read an official statement in September about the ban.

Many in Nepal thought otherwise.

Nearly as quickly as the ban was announced, news outlets ran blistering editorials that characterised the measure as "a diversionary tactic to hide the government's incompetence in prosecuting rapists" and a "misguided attempt at vilifying and scapegoating sex".

Critics of the ban questioned whether there was any link between pornography and Nepal's sexual assault numbers, and if it was even possible to prevent people from accessing the websites, given the profusion of firewall-evading software.

Several years ago, a smaller-scale pornography ban in Nepal faded out amid a lack of enforcement. Last week, data released from a popular pornographic site that was blocked under the new ban already showed a rebound in traffic.

Mr Binay Bohra, managing director of Vianet Communications, a large Internet service provider in Nepal, said the ban was an impossible ask, but there was little choice except to comply.

Some 20,000 websites have been blocked, he said, and there are still "millions" more to go.

"The sword of Damocles is hanging over our heads," he said.

Mr Mahendra Man Gurung, secretary of Nepal's Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, which announced the pornography ban, acknowledged in an interview that the measure "may not resolve all problems".

But he argued the ban was simply one of several steps that have been taken to curb increasing cases of sexual crimes.

This year, the government set up an office to address concerns about women's safety. Its duties include helping to expedite court proceedings for rape cases and monitoring the investigation of sexual assaults.

"Ninety-nine per cent of people have welcomed the decision," Mr Gurung said of the pornography ban.

Pornography is banned or heavily filtered in many countries, especially in stretches of North Africa and the Middle East, where conversations about limiting online access are often framed around religion.

Resistance to these restrictions is also common. When India's government instructed service providers in 2015 to block more than 800 pornographic websites, the ban drew pointed rebukes from free-speech advocates, some of whom argued that the order violated parts of the Indian Constitution. Days after the ban was announced, the government relaxed it.

There is a growing body of research that suggests a connection between pornography consumption and sexual violence, though studies are divergent.

Ms Julia Long, the author of "Anti-Porn: The Resurgence of Anti-Pornography Feminism," wrote in a 2016 editorial in The Washington Post that "what would be seen as sexual violence and brutality in other contexts is par for the course in pornography".

Blocking pornographic websites does not necessarily translate into lower rates of consumption, though. With the development of software like virtual private networks or Tor, users can easily circumvent firewalls.

"Anytime you push a legal industry underground - one with billions of users - you push legal users into those underground spaces as well," said Mr Alex Hawkins, a spokesman for the pornography website xHamster, which was blocked in Nepal under the ban.

Mr Hawkins said millions of users in countries where the site is technically blocked, including Thailand, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, still find ways to visit.

In 2013, when Britain mandated an opt-in measure, which required users to obtain access to pornographic material from their Internet providers, traffic to xHamster from British users increased, he said.

In the days after Nepal's ban was announced, Mr Hawkins said his team observed a temporary dip in traffic, but by last week, the numbers had largely rebounded.

The Nepali government's first try at banning pornography came in 2010, when officials said the capital's many cyber cafes had become illicit meeting spots for packs of bored men to watch lewd videos and plan crimes. Some 200 pornographic websites were subsequently blocked.

Mr Bijaya Kumar Roy, a director of Nepal's government telecommunications authority, said the 2010 ban had worked for a while, but that, eventually, the police had shifted priorities and Internet service providers relaxed their filters.

This time around, Mr Roy said, Internet service providers who did not follow the order would be fined and face possible penalties under an Internet law that carries up to a five-year jail sentence. All 115 Internet service providers in Nepal have been individually contacted about the ban, he said, and reminders were on the way.

Around Kathmandu, however, reaction on the street seemed mixed.

Street food vendor Sunita Ghimire thought the ban was a good move, saying that more children were becoming addicted to "dirty things", as mobile phone use in Nepal shot up.

Mr Balram Shrestha, the owner of a cyber cafe, was less convinced, calling the ban "another populist announcement" from a corrupt government looking to make money through fines and bribes.

"Politicians have a single throat despite having two different mouths," he said.

Ms Amrita Lamsal, a women's rights activist in Kathmandu, said the ban failed to address the problems of a culture in which women were increasingly coming forward to report sexual assaults, which may help explain the rising numbers, but were still met with nonchalance, suspicion or hostility.

In the case of the 13-year-old girl who was raped and killed in western Nepal, Ms Lamsal questioned why local law enforcement had washed the girl's clothing, which may have contained DNA evidence from the attacker, who has still not been caught.

In August, when residents in the area gathered to protest against the killing, the police fired into the crowd, killing a teenage boy and injuring a few others.

Ms Lamsal said the pornography ban was not so much a solution as it was a deflection from graver issues.

"Police, police, police. The problem is with the police," she said. "Half of the rape cases could be eliminated if they acted with sincerity."

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