The government intimidated the judiciary to only accept genuine cases of defamation and libel so that people do not misuse laws.

This, according to foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji, is a part of the recommendation made by the United States during the United Nations Human Rights Council conducted in May this year in Geneva.

He confirmed that UNESCO and US made recommendations to Bhutan, as the council reviewed its human rights record.

“The UNESCO made an alternative report to the report that Bhutan submitted,” he said. “Therefore, Bhutan doesn’t have to respond or comply with the report.”

He said the Bhutanese team didn’t even accept the report while presenting the country report to the council. “But the USA recommendation stated the need to prevent the misuse of the articles of defamation.”

An online news agency reported that Bhutan was encouraged to decriminalise defamation and place it in the civil code in line with international standards.

“In the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNESCO noted that defamation and libel were criminal offences under articles 317 and 320 of the Penal Code. Those offences carried a punishment of fines and a maximum of three years of imprisonment,” it stated.

It also stated that US made the recommendation to prevent the misuse of defamation laws to unduly constrain freedom of expression both online and offline.

Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji said decriminalising defamation and libel would entail changing the law itself. “If it is useful to the country, we will change it, but it would take time, as it has to be first presented to the parliament.”

He, however, said that our laws are clear and section 318 clearly specifies what construes defamation.

Section 317 of the Penal Code 2004 states, “A defendant shall be guilty of the offence of defamation, if the defendant intentionally causes damage to the reputation of another person or a legal person by communicating false or distorted information about that person’s action, motive, character, or reputation.”

Section 318 states that a bonafide expression made in the public interest; a criticism of a literary work or product; an appeal through lawful means or in good faith for redressing a grievance; a bonafide complaint by the defendant against one’s own superior officer or about an employee serving under the officer; a bonafide complaint by or to an agency or authority of Bhutan to redress a grievance; a formal report of a supervisor or superior officer concerning the work or performance of an employee; or instances where the Court, based on relevant facts and circumstances, considers the statement made to be reasonable, would not be considered defamation.

According to section 319, the offence of defamation shall be considered a fourth-degree felony if the defamation includes murder, armed robbery, terrorism or treason; or a petty misdemeanour if the defamation includes any matter other than murder, armed robbery, terrorism or treason.

A defendant shall be guilty of the offence of libel, according to section 320 of the Penal Code, if the defendant defames another person through the means of writing, drawing, or photographing.

The grading of the offence of libel is similar to that of defamation.

According to statistics maintained by the police, there were 10 defamation related cases reported to police in 2018. There were six defamation cases, three libel and a case of blackmail reported last year.

There were 13 defamation related cases reported in 2017, four in 2016, eight in 2015, six in 2014 and two in 2013.

Tashi Dema