Reporters Without Borders’ recent report revealed Bhutan’s significant decline in press freedom, a drop of 57 positions from 2022 to 2023.  The Journalist Association of Bhutan was unsurprised, citing that Bhutanese journalists are facing mounting obstacles in accessing information, leading to a severe lack of media freedom, and becoming more challenging in recent years. While citizen journalism is crucial for a healthy democracy, when the mainstream media itself is facing severe challenges, citizen journalism has no place, with anonymity becoming the norm on social media. This trend is worrisome for the country, as it threatens transparency and accountability itself.

During the 114th National Day, His Majesty emphasised the importance of accountability as a measure of service. His Majesty stated that it is not too late to prioritize and refocus our national goals, aligning them with our national priorities and strategies. The former Secretary-General of the OECD echoed this sentiment, stating that “openness and transparency are crucial in building accountability and trust, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies.”

To achieve His Majesty’s vision of a developed Bhutan, we must prioritize openness, inclusivity, and transparency, while establishing a robust accountability mechanism that instills trust in the system. During a public consultation of the Draft Constitution in Dagana, His Majesty said the “power lies with all Bhutanese citizens, and we are entrusted with a heavy responsibility.”

As we continue to nurture democracy, we must work towards building a system that is accountable to the people through openness.

For example, Kuensel reported that there is increase in reports of work burnout issues causing constant headaches, digestive problems, difficulty sleeping, irritability, and poor mental well-being, especially among public servants due to work overload, peer pressure to pursue further studies, and unsatisfactory work experiences. Despite the severity of these issues, they are not widely known to the public. As a result, the public may have unrealistic expectations of the services provided by these hard-working public servants. However, if the public were made aware of these challenges, they may be better equipped to understand and empathize with the struggles faced by these officials. If we need to prioritize the mental well-being of our public servants, we must take steps to address the root causes of burnout by creating more support that is open and transparent.

According to the reports, the Bhutan Civil Service Rules (BCSR) prohibit civil servants from publicly criticizing government policies and programmes and even instituted administrative disciplinary actions to punish those who speak the truth. While it is crucial for the state to maintain confidentiality and secrecy in the national interest, sovereignty, and security, it is equally important to provide access to information that is in the public interest. Everything can’t be filtered and secret.

His Majesty reiterated that accountability must now be the foundation of governance for Bhutan to succeed and rectify past errors. As the Bhutanese saying goes, “The tongue should heal the sore in the mouth.” This means, we must discuss and resolve our issues within the four walls in a transparent system.  In today’s world of information and digital technology, nothing can be kept secret and revealing information in international media can only ruin our own image as international media seems to know more about us than our local media. The sovereign privilege of secrecy and public interest of access to information on the governance needs proper balance.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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