Thimphu Thromde’s notification on how to request information from them is nothing short of an authoritarian attitude that undermines the fundamental freedoms of both media and individuals seeking information and threatens the foundations of democracy. It is unprecedented in the history of Bhutan’s democracy where local government which is expected to be the closest democratic government to the electorate has decided to restrain the right to information including the right to reject and discretion to even change the existing form without notice. The essence of democracy is “self-government by the people where an informed electorate is necessary without any constraints on the free flow of information and ideas.” The “democracy would not be true to its essential ideal if those in power can manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism.” Such notice may prove fertile ground for information manipulation by the agencies.
His Majesty said “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.” The freedom of the press is “one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” Article 7 (2) (3) and (6) guarantees every Bhutanese the right to free speech, opinion and expression, information, and the right to vote. Making the informed choice, freedom of speech and expression depends largely on access to information. Article 7(5) explicitly guarantees the freedom of all forms of media in Bhutan because the right to information can be exercised best when there are free media. A society without freedom of the press is not a free society. Freedom of the press is “not an end in itself but a means to the end of a free society.”
Article 23 (1) of our Constitution ensures that the “general will of the people shall be the basis of government” expressed through elections. Right to information plays a crucial role in ensuring transparency and holding the government accountable to the electorate. Since media serves as the main source of information and where public opinion can be formed providing checks and balances, the media is considered as the watchdogs and the fourth estate of the democracy.
Article 22 of the Constitution mandates “that the local government must provide a forum for public consideration on issues affecting the local territory and they are accountable to accountable for local communities.” His Majesty said “local government is not the lowest level of government; it is the nearest and closest level of government for our people. For rural Bhutanese, local governments are indispensable avenues for participation in democracy and development. In the long run, the success of democracy in Bhutan will be determined by the success of local governments.” Therefore, free access to information without possible manipulation and prior restraint is essential to achieve what His Majesty emphasized.
However, when agencies like Thromde comes up with such restrictions, it destroys democratic values, discourages healthy debate and discourse, and eliminates basic checks and balances for the electorate. In view of such light, the Thromde must immediately rescind such notice for the sake of upholding the sanctity of the democracy and respect the visions of our monarchs -to build a strong and vibrant democracy. The right to information law has become necessary with such incidents to protect the freedom of media.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.