The Bench I of the Thimphu dzongkhag court cut short what many expected to be a prolonged sedition case between the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and the accused, Penjore, a businessman.
The OAG’s detailed nine-page sedition charges against a citizen didn’t convince the court, which dismissed the case within an hour of the miscellaneous hearing. To many following the case closely, it was a victory for freedom of speech, rule of law and an example of democracy at work with constitutional bodies exerting their authority and independence.
At the heart of the case is an individual venting his frustration against individuals and institutions, on social media, “in the larger interest of the public” even if some issues raised could be construed as vindictive. Some damages had already been done with the detention of the individual without an arrest warrant. The court issuing remand order and not granting bail has already heightened public interest in the case. The general feeling is that if the court convicted Penjore for sedition charges, it would be the end of freedom of speech, a constitutional right.
The court prevented that even if the OAG has the right to appeal to higher courts through a writ petition. Perhaps the OAG, in initiating the charges, took it too far by arguing what they were doing was defending the cause of the kingdom or preventing damage to and erosion of public trust and confidence in the functioning of state institutions.
The court not accepting the case speaks volumes of checks and balances in our democratic system and that the judiciary is willing to protect rights without fear and favour, as enshrined in the Constitution. The court would have accepted the case if it was framed as defamation or libel suit. Meanwhile, what the issue among OAG, courts and Penjore highlighted, notwithstanding who is right or wrong, is the freedom of speech.
Social media, especially Facebook, has provided the platform for those unhappy with our systems and authorities. As a small society, many shy away from mainstream media. Social media is full of public grievances – from suspecting nepotism in job interviews to misuse of authority or blatant accusations against officials. Social media has put people into trouble for maligning institutions or for malicious remarks, but it has also put many on their toes. Wrongdoings are easily exposed on social media even if it is exaggerated.
Going after people who post on social media can be tedious as well as treading on freedom of speech unless it damages institutions or individuals. What people write on the most popular media, should be assessed. The thromde and the thrompon of Thimphu, for instance, is always on the receiving end of frustrated residents. The thromde cannot sue all the people who call the thrompon a wild boar for the numerous digging around the capital city. We cannot imagine the thromde legal officer hunting down people comparing the thrompon to a boar.
The dzongkhag court’s decision on the OAG case is well received. Many feel that we would be heading towards a disaster if the court prosecuted a citizen for sedition because of venting his frustrations against officials and institutions on social media. What is acceptable is defamation or a libel case.