Article 7 of the Constitution guarantees the right to information besides the freedom of speech, expression, opinion and media including electronic.  If this pandemic is a success indicator for the right to information, this government failed. They became less transparent with each lockdown. The press conferences reduced significantly, and the media is struggling to get views from authorities. As a result, everyone is forced to rely on their official social media pages for any kind of information like a buffalo waiting for yak story. Both the media and citizens are asked to rely only on what the health ministry and Prime Minister’s Office say.

However, the government’s silence on the recent death of a woman, possible lapses of government in the current outbreak, frequent use of BBS as a medium to assert their justifications without questions to ask, tells us that PMO and MoH can’t be completely relied upon.  An active member of parliament sent a threatening message against BBS through his social media for broadcasting news on the current outbreak. The Media Council of Bhutan asked the entire media to rely only on MoH and PMO rather than punishing the respective media who made wrong information as per the law.  Of late, Regional Covid-19 Task Force issued an appeal notice with a threatening tone not to spread misinformation.

Such measures will undermine the fundamentals of democratic values and constitutional mandates.  It will also become counter-productive. Less information leads to less transparency and cast more doubts in the minds of the public. This can result in a loss of public trust and confidence in the government.  World Health Organization (WHO) defines infodemic as “too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak” causing confusion and “mistrust in health authorities and undermining the public health response.” When the authorities limit access to information, more gossip, speculation, and conspiracy theories will prop up resulting in infodemic.

The freedom of the press is not about the right of media. It is the right of people where media is the medium through which public opinions are taken to government and from government to public. For this reason, the media is called the watchdog and the fourth estate to perform citizens’ oversight on the functions of the government. But if the media must wait for government social media pages and compete with netizens, they are no less than government’s propaganda machine serving as a mouthpiece.

The State must remember that Article 1(1) of Constitution states that “the Sovereign power belongs to the people of Bhutan.” Therefore, “ultimate political power resides in the population” and “freedom of expression in a democracy that controls the government is public opinion.”  His Majesty decreed that accountability is the lifeline of Bhutanese democracy and the “basic postulate of accountability is that the people should have information about the functioning of the government.”  It is said that the right to information is the “best disinfectant for public ills including corruption” and negligence of the public authorities. Right to information also determines the structure of government. Not having access to information is a risk.  A renowned judge said, “constitutionality of access to information in this sense does not relate to its nature as a right, but to its nature as an important component of governance in any democratic regime.”

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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