His Majesty said “media – newspapers, television, radio and the Internet – must play a very important role. Media will be vital in keeping people well informed and in encouraging debate and participation – key to a vibrant democracy to strengthen media.”  This is because the media is watchdog and often recognized as the fourth estate. Such right is not for the media but the public. However, the news of government institutions accusing reporters of stealing government documents raises a serious question of whether state secrets should override the citizen’s right to information. 

Article 7 Section 5 of our Constitution states that “there shall be freedom of the press, radio and television and other forms of dissemination of information, including electronic.” This right is the reiteration of the fundamental right to freedom of speech, expression and information under Article 7 Section 2 and 3. The media “is designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials and as a constitutionally chosen means for keeping officials elected by the people responsible to all the people whom they were elected to serve. Suppression of the right of the press to criticize governmental agents and to clamour and contend against change” would deliberately defeat the essence of democratic values on which our Constitution is framed.

In the today’s modern democracy, investigative journalism plays an even greater role as bureaucracies and public agencies often become more complex and information becomes more difficult to access. Investigative journalism exists on the premise that media is recognized as the watchdog. This is because investigative journalism is one of the effective means to fulfil this principle. While investigative journalism is often based on deception and secrecy, it is justified under the public interest and prevention of abuse of authority and corruption. If investigative journalism is done with a public interest, it does not even violate the ethical values of a journalist. This is because the primary reason for the existence of media itself is based on public interest and the public’s right to information. Therefore, “the press is not free to publish with impunity everything and anything it desires to publish or be reckless or negligent or vindictive.” Global research have revealed that investigative journalism carried out with public interest contributed significantly to curbing corruption among public officials and elected leaders.

The Section 71 of the Information and Communications Act 2018 mandates the Media Council to “promote and protect freedom and independence of the media” to promote and enhance ethical and professional standards amongst journalists.”   Under this law, the Media Council can punish the media only if they have violated ethical standards. Otherwise, the Media Council also must protect journalist.  The recent case of public agencies taking the journalist to the Media Council is worrying. The state of media in Bhutan, particularly private media, is grim and such actions from the public agencies further threaten the media personnel and impose too much self-censorship defeating the fundamental purpose of having media in the country. The media will be forced to remain mouthpiece and post offices of the public agencies. Whether the leaked documents were draft or not should not be the reason to accuse journalist of stealing. If there is a vulnerability of burying the truth in the final report, the journalist must have the right to publish such information and protect their sources.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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