It may not be a triumph calling for celebrations, but businessman Penjore, a thorn as he may be among authorities, has won the defamation case the Royal Bhutan Police charged him for.
The criminal bench of the Thimphu dzongkhag court dismissed the defamation case. It ruled that whatever the defendant said or posted on social media was in the interest of the public. If that was not enough, the court found that Penjore had posted the truth where he, as a citizen, had the right to reveal the truth. In other words, right the wrong. The defendant had pointed out wrongdoings in an organisation and challenged institutions to take action or take accountability. The choice of words or the tone may be harsh – attracting the attention of authorities, but the truth, as we say hurts. Not many challenge institutions even if they feel they are wronged.
The Thimphu dzongkhag court’s decision, even if it is not as interesting as other recent cases, could be taken as a victory for free speech. At a time when what is posted on social media- truth or not- could land someone in trouble, including risking jobs or careers, the judgment, even if not intended, supported free speech.
The defendant is not compensated for the 16-day he spent in detention. We can surmise that the compensation he asked for was not the main intention. He wanted justice. Tormenting it may have been, but the defendant had shaken off the serious allegations institutions like the Office of the Attorney General and the Royal Bhutan Police charged him for. If this can encourage Bhutanese to speak against or point out shortcomings in our systems, it should be welcomed.
What is also notable from the judgment is that we are not broadening our perspective. The case arose because the defendant accused (shamed in his own words) the OAG and the Bhutan National Bank’s executives of cheating and collusion.
After the judgment, many are questioning if authorities will go after officials and institutions after finding what Penjore accused them of was right, especially when they (court) found out that the defendant revealed the truth. Many would write off the case as an individual versus institutions or organisations. What we can note is what happens when an individual is proven right in a court of law after accusing an institution of lapses.
The big question, after the judgment, is will the courts go after the officials- police, OAG and BNB. What if they are found guilty of what the defendant posted on social media? Who will take up the case? Will the system be corrected after an individual was dragged to court for sedition and defamation- both of which were dismissed?
Many are quick to write off the case as an individual’s frustration. But there are points worth pondering. The accusation pointed to accountability, even if it arose from personal vendetta. If the judiciary could prove him innocent, there could be failings in the system.
The judgment, like many say, should not end with the defendant not ending up paying compensation or serving a jail term. It should go beyond the verdict. In other words, it has opened a way to investigate systemic failings. This is not new. In 2009, some public officials took a businessman to court for alleged defamation but the court dismissed the case stating that the public figures are subject to criticism. Many are questioning why the national land commission officials, retired or superannuated, are not taken to task after several cases of encroachment of State land where they (NLC officials) were at the centre of the cases.