Don’t mistake freedom for license

The High Court yesterday warned a contractor that the court would initiate contempt proceedings if he continued to make unsolicited comments and mislead the general public.

The contractor, not happy with a court judgment, had ‘maligned’ the judiciary and the reputation of the judges.  It was a stern warning.  The contractor will think twice before he writes anything further on social media.

Social media has become the space for people to vent their frustrations.  Whether it is unhappiness against a verdict, a judge’s attitude or other issues, social media is providing the forum.  There is more reach on social media than mainstream media like newspapers, radio or television.  What people miss on mainstream media, they can read on social media like Facebook, the most popular in Bhutan.

They can comment and drag on the discussion.  With anonymity guaranteeing safety, a lot of issues, as sensitive as going against the judiciary, can be discussed.  Quite often we see nobody is spared on social media.  This is not altogether a bad trend, if users can use their sense of judgment.  In other words, sieve information available on the worldwide web.

In the west, when Internet became popular, people thought there was no use of media, as Internet provided everything.  Not long after that, they changed their view because the information they received was unverified, mostly hate speech or rumours.  That’s how the mainstream media is reviving after many thought Internet killed it.

In Bhutan, we say that social media has become the 21st century gossip forum.  Although most information is mere shegtho or frustrations, mainstream media do pick up a lot of ideas from the social media.  It has not challenged Bhutanese media, but in some ways, complemented it.

It is just an illusion to feel safe to malign someone on social media and expect to go unpunished.  Based on severity, they can be traced and punished.  This boils down to being responsible even on the worldwide web.  Many are under the wrong impression that, in a democracy, you have the freedom to say anything and get away with it.  That’s misguided.

It’s a popular cliché to say that one’s freedom ends where the other’s begins.  That is exactly what is happening when people are hunted down for irresponsible remarks made on social media.

The court may have the authority to warn people for maligning it.  Everybody has the right to do it.  Therefore, it becomes imperative to be responsible for what you post even on social media.  The wisdom is there – in Bhutan we say that the three-inch lip can risk the palm-full nape.  In other words, it warns of being liable for what you say.

Others, we hope, will take the high court warning to the contractor seriously and mind themselves on the Internet.  We cannot ban social media.  It is good provided information is not taken on face value.  At the same time, it will provide some form of check and balance.

For instance, we expect judges to be fair in their conduct, so that it is not challenged on social media, because it is expensive and risky to challenge it in courts.

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