The DRA claims the report was in its drafting stage and wants the Media Council to take action 

Nima Wangdi 

The Drug Regulatory Authority (DRA) highlighted major hiccups in the country’s vaccination campaign in a “draft” surveillance report. A reporter of a private weekly obtained a copy of the report. The paper, Bhutan Times, reproduced the report highlighting the “glaring gaps.”

Shocked and surprised, the DRA recently filed a case with the Media Council accusing the reporter of stealing government documents, straining the relationship between the DRA and the Ministry of Health (MoH) by reproducing the report.

The reporter, Lhakpa Tshering, said there were five allegations against him, ranging from stealing government documents to spoiling the relationship between the authority and the ministry. He told Kuensel that he had submitted a statement to the Media Council confirming the DRA as not the source of the leaked document.

The report, which the DRA claims is a draft and not the finalised version, is titled “Report on Regulatory Cycle and Oversight of Covid-19 vaccination campaign in Bhutan”.  It contained findings by the DRA on the MoH’s lapses during the Covid-19 vaccination campaigns.

Head of the media council of Bhutan, Tshering Wangmo, said following the DRA complaint, the reporter was called and the issue was mutually resolved. “Of the five allegations, we addressed those that were within our purview and had to drop the rest. “Both of the parties agreed with the decision,” she said.

The DRA  Director Wangdi Gyeltshen said that while by law, they were mandated to take care of government documents, this one was somehow leaked. The document in question was in the draft stage, requiring consultation meetings with other stakeholders. After that, it would still await Board approval,” he said.

“What was in the document was solely the authority’s findings and we thought the stakeholders must be given a chance to clarify before the report was finalised,” the  Director said.

The incident, meanwhile, has generated a discussion about access to information, journalistic ethics, and leaked documents.

A senior journalist said agencies and individuals charging reporters for writing articles using leaked information and asking them to reveal sources is nothing unusual throughout the world. “However, while it is a global trend, when reporters write articles using leaked documents, it will depend on how the reporter actually got the information,” he said.

He said if the reporter has acquired the documents from his sources, it is a fair means of getting information, while stealing the document from someone’s office, hacking into a secured system, and using spy cameras is considered unethical. “Having the information through fair means and not writing articles on it might not make sense to the journalist.”

A retired senior journalist said that it is a global trend to write news articles from leaked documents. “Sometimes governments and organisations deliberately leak documents to feel the pulse of the people on their policy or decision. If it gets a positive response, they will go ahead, and if it backfires, they will blame the media.”

A senior journalist and an author, Gopilal Achariya, said that going by the international practice, the court may ask the reporter to reveal his source if his work poses a threat to national security or violates someone’s privacy. “But the reporter still has a right not to reveal the source and accept the punishment,” he said.

He said leaked government documents are a major source of news throughout the world, especially if they are of direct public interest.

Another retired journalist said that if the vaccination programme has not lived up to the standards of the regulatory authority, or if the DRA found lapses, it is their mandate to point out the lapses. “They should not be worried about their working relationship with the ministry. They have done a good job, I would say.”

Regarding the recent issue, Gopilal Acharya said whatever the reporter has written has no sensitivity and is considered public information. “The journalist seems to have written a factual story on a government report he acquired from his source,” he said.

Meanwhile, a private company has also charged the editor of the Journalist newspaper, Puran Gurung, for defamation. He was asked to reveal the source of the document he had obtained. Puran said the case is with the Media Council of Bhutan routed through the Journalist Association Bhutan (JAB).

JAB President Rinzin Wangchuk said such issues don’t come to JAB often. “The one we received, our attorney has taken it to the Media Council of Bhutan.” He said reporters often get charged for defamation and threatened to be taken to the court.

A lawyer said anyone obtaining government documents illegally could be charged for espionage as enshrined in the penal code of Bhutan. “However, if someone from the office purposefully shared the document with the reporter that will not be the case,” he said if the document has good public interest, the reporter should have the right to publish.