Public institutions providing information are doing neither favour nor providing freebies. In a democracy, the government is accountable to people, not otherwise.  It’s their democratic duty and constitutional mandate to ensure unhindered access to information on their functions and decisions.  

His Majesty said, “Media will be vital in keeping people well informed and in encouraging debate and participation – key to a vibrant democracy.”  The recent notifications and sanctions, including the demotion of public servants for speaking to media or posting on social media undermines the role of media a democracy.

The Kuensel this week rightly pointed out that “Officials with information are scared to talk to the media, including on social media. There is no room for criticism going by how people talking to the media are treated. Civil servants cannot criticise the office they work for. If they do so in mainstream or social media, they pay for it.”

The Constitution guarantees the explicit right of media including electronic. It also guarantees the Bhutanese the right to freedom of speech, opinion, and expression and the right to information.   Article 1 (1) states that “Bhutan is the Sovereign Kingdom, and the Sovereign power belongs to the people of Bhutan.”

The only limitation provided by the Constitution on freedom of media or citizens from exercising these rights is reasonable restrictions, not absolute restrictions.  Article 9 (7) mandates the state to “develop and execute policies to minimize inequalities of income, the concentration of wealth, and promote equitable distribution of public facilities among individuals and people living in different parts of the Kingdom”

However, if public officials who are foot soldiers of government can not speak to the media or on social media, how will electorates know about the fulfilment of the promises of the government? It is no secret that our media are already exercising self-restraint and censorship, the new developments will further deprive the public’s right to information and hold the public servants accountable.

Supreme Court of India said: “freedom of the press is the heart of social and political discourse. The press has now assumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education for the society. The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot  make responsible judgments. To check malpractices which interfere with the free flow of information, democratic constitutions all over the world have made provisions guaranteeing the freedom of speech and expression laying down the limits of interference with it.”

If the public authorities continue to come up with such administrative regulations, the media either as an individual entity or through the Journalist Association of Bhutan must exercise the right to challenge such restrictions in the interest of the nation and democracy in the High Court and the Supreme Court under Article 7(23) of the Constitution.  If not, the government will continue to come up with many more such limitations. The public authorities will continue to justify that there is media freedom causing a painful and slow death to media turning into a pure authoritarian system. The editorial or new coverage on these restrictions will remain merely an editorial piece and the media will remain the mouthpiece of the government of the day.   

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.