After the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest fired two foresters for speaking to the media, it sparked a new debate on the right to information and freedom of speech in the country. The Journalist Association of Bhutan condemned such a move and additional news and editorials flooded with scepticism on the fate of media as civil servants are a major source of information. While the media is taking refuge under freedom of the press, and the right to information, the bureaucrats are inhibited by Bhutan Civil Service Rules and Regulations (BCSR) from speaking to media.  

Article 1 (1) of our Constitution states: “Bhutan is the Sovereign Kingdom, and the Sovereign power belongs to the people of Bhutan.” This sets the foundation of democracy in Bhutan that all public servants are accountable to the public, and the people of Bhutan have the power and not the authorities.  The fundamental rights provided under Article 7 give life to people’s power including freedom of media, speech, expression and right to information.  

If no civil servant talks to the media, the foundations of the media are likely to be crippled, and the principle of watchdog or fourth estate remains a distant dream. If civil servants are given the unfettered right to freedom of speech, it can also destroy and undermine the fundamentals of executive authority and jeopardize the state machinery. To balance such extremes, the Constitution provides a solution known as reasonable restrictions.  

The grounds on which the state can inflict reasonable restrictions are “the interests of the sovereignty, security, unity and integrity, peace, stability, friendly relations with a foreign country or incitement to an offence or the disclosure of information received about the state affairs or the rights and freedom of others.  The restriction on civil servants is the freedom of speech, expression, and opinion. It is noteworthy that such restrictions are more severe in the case of corporate and private employment.   However, if civil servants can’t speak to the media, it may also contravene Article 26 (1) of the Constitution. This section states: “Royal Civil Service Commission, shall promote and ensure an independent and apolitical civil service that will discharge its public duties in an efficient, transparent and accountable manner.” Freedom of speech and expression and freedom of media as the watchdog to the civil service plays a vital role in ensuring efficiency, transparency, and accountability of the executive. For that, the right to information is necessary. The right to information can be exercised only when the civil servants can speak to the media without fear of being punished or fired. Currently, rule no. of BCSR restricts the civil servants from criticising or even divulging any information to the “public and or through media including communicating, transmitting, or posting hate messages or any content with the intent to defame a person or government agencies.”  This means, that even if the policies are bad, they cannot be questioned in public view. This provision seems subjective and consequences uncertain possibly scaring the civil servants from speaking.

Thus, either RCSC should frame clear parameter of restrictions so that civil servants know their boundaries or media challenge these rules on the ground of reasonableness in the court, civil servants continue to scare to share information possibly costing public confidence in system and media forced to rely on anonymous and unreliable sources. 

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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