No landmark decision

Businessman Sonam Phuntsho (Ap SP) withdrew his libel case against freelance journalist Namgay Zam and Dr Shacha Wangmo, a day before a much-awaited verdict was to be handed down.

The five-month case, which grabbed headlines both locally and internationally, ends without a satisfactory conclusion.

Following the court allowing DPT to withdraw its defamation case against Dasho Benji, a verdict in the Ap SP Vs Namgay Zam and Dr Shacha Wangmo case would have provided some clarity. The public remains unaware of where the courts stand on the act of “sharing” information online.

For the benefit of the public, a statement on the case could still have been provided, without revealing the verdict. Some illumination on the issue was needed to tell us where free speech rights end, and where responsibility is needed.

We needed answers on what kinds of information citizens and journalists have the right to share publicly. There are areas that are black and white: sharing of pornography for one. And there are grey areas: the recently concluded libel case.

Not everyone may agree, but if someone uploads contentious information about yourself, you do have the right to ask that person to prove the information in a court of law. A court must then determine if your case merits a hearing. The point is, if you plan to exercise your rights, aware that it would overlap someone else’s, then one must be prepared for the consequences, to defend and prove your point, possibly in a court of law.

Some clarity now could have prevented cases from reaching court and having to endure needless pain and costs.

There are other questions that the case has raised, one being the procedure on withdrawing a suit once filed. While the law allows for a plaintiff to abandon a suit at anytime, the defendants in this case were informed of the withdrawal on the day of the verdict. We do not know what the verdict is, but some are already speculating that the verdict may not have been in favour of the plaintiff, and therefore the withdrawal. Such speculation is damaging and the courts must leave no room for such rumours to develop.

Again, it would have made sense for the defendants to have been consulted, given that they were the ones accused of defamation, and made to endure five months of public scrutiny and even harassment at times. Or at least for the plaintiff to bear some heftier penalty for the time so many have spent on the case, both defendants and the judiciary. It is important that we discourage plaintiffs from filing suits, only to withdraw them at the last minute.

Despite the lack of a landmark decision, the case still had a significant impact on the judiciary by bringing it under the public’s glare. The judiciary must take this experience positively. It is in the interest of the country that we all, citizens and institutions, make improvements by raising awareness, educating ourselves, being transparent and accountable, and finally allowing everyone else to do their jobs.

In the end, we’re all Bhutanese, and we only seek to have the best institutions in place and a responsible citizenry.

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