I am thousands of miles away from Bhutan. Like me there are thousands of Bhutanese across the world. Though we are all away from our country, we are eagerly waiting to participate in the upcoming National Council and National Assembly elections. We (most) would like to exercise our franchise of voting. To vote, we have the right to know about our candidate(s). Voting is not merely about filing up postal ballot or pressing the voting machine. It is the biggest decision each one of us would make for the next five years, a half a decade to elect a person who would represent us in nation building and more so in building a vibrant democracy in the country.
Being away from home, the only way to know about candidates is either through formal or informal medium. Media whether social media or mainstream media are more formal way of knowing about them. Informally, either the candidates or their relatives or supporters reach us through social media or other means to support that candidate. The best avenue for us to know about our candidate is through mainstream media as they are expected to inform the nation about each candidate in a fair manner.
The recent news of media being directly or indirectly pressured by the Office of the Media Arbitrator instituted by the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), including asking apologies and action taken reports is a worrisome and a cause of big concern. Such steps have sent shock and panic among the media fraternity about freedom of press, radio and broadcast in the country. It is not only those working in the media, but we, the voters are equally weary of such steps by the media arbitrator. ECB must remember that, thousands of Bhutanese cannot attend the candidate’s zomdu in person and the only way to get more information about how our candidates perform and what they want to do for the nation can only be accessed and assessed through media reports. Otherwise, it would be like voting blindly based on connections, relatives or family members and not based on the merits of the candidates. Is just watching half an hour clip of their debate, which is often inaccessible online to those of us abroad adequate for voters to take informed decision? When there is no information, how does ECB expect us to take informed decision as a voter? If the voters are deprived of information about our candidates, the very principle of voting and election is nullified. Democracy is threatened and democratic values and principles lost.
As a voter, we want our media to not only to tell us the profiles of candidates and their manifesto, but to go beyond to find out the past good deeds and bad histories of our candidates. As a voter, we can understand and make our decisions more carefully. Media is recognized as the fourth estate. The right to freedom of press, radio and broadcast are explicitly recognised, as fundamental rights by the Constitution so is the right to information and right to vote.
The freedom of media is not the freedom of media per se, it is the right of people and media is a medium through which these rights are given to people. Right to information must in electoral sense mean right of the people to know about their candidates, political parties in place and what they can do for the nation. Informed decision means, voters know about candidates, their strengths and weaknesses. Does the Office of the Media Arbitrator have the authority to curtail these rights in the Constitution? Do such steps by the Office of the Media Arbitrator promote the citizen’s right to information and make informed decisions in the electoral process? When voters are deprived of the right to know about their candidates, where is free and fair election?
If media make mistake whether intentionally or unintentionally, the Office of the Media Arbitrator or ECB should respect the laws of the country and follow proper procedure by reporting it to Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) since BICMA is the statutory authority, authorized by the parliament to regulate the media. The Office of the Media Arbitrator or ECB should report to BICMA to take actions against those erring media. Media Arbitrator’s office is established under the delegated legislation and has no authority to override laws passed by the parliament or the power to curtail or restrict constitutional rights of the people or media. Media Arbitrator or ECB does not have unfettered power and must act within the limits of the electoral laws specially, if any steps by ECB or its authorized agents infringe on the rights of citizens in making informed decision. Interference of any kind by the Office of the Media Arbitrator or ECB on the functioning of media without involving BIMCA or Journalist Association of Bhutan (BICMA) or the Media Foundation could only set a wrong precedent and induce threat and unnecessary self-censorship among the media and ultimately failing their role as the fourth estate. Further, such direct interference would encourage many other institutions in the country to directly interfere in media functions and deprive their right to independence and freedom.
It is therefore, highly recommended that ECB and its agents during the election has the duty to conduct the elections in free and fair manner but shall not in any manner curb the rights of the media. Democracy shall not be the mere process of voting but of making informed decision by exercising the right to information. It is only through information that an informed decision can be made and media must continue to work without fear and favour in informing the nation.
Sonam Tshering is a law lecturer currently pursuing his master degree in law from George Washington University Law School (USA).