Without access to information freedom of media does not exist

A democratic government must ensure transparency, openness, and accountability. Government’s willingness to uphold the fundamental right to information is key to transparency and accountability. This right is presumed to exist when the information is “freely available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by such decisions and their enforcement.”  Any secrecy would extinguish these basic tenets of a democracy.

This week, Kuensel, through an editorial cast doubts on government’s willingness to share adequate information. The editorial further raised concerns about risks of speculations or rumours in the society which could seriously impede the collective fight against the pandemic and prejudice the functioning of a responsible media. An editor of private newspapers on his social network wrote: “Private media houses are not short of news, we are short of sources and the only solution is transparency and cooperation to give right information.”

First, with the nationwide lockdown, the state has suspended almost all our rights under article 7 of our constitution. The only visible right now is the right to freedom of media under Article 7(5). In this pandemic, access to right information by media is the most crucial because the entire nation relies on details through media. Our unity and collective effort to fight this pandemic solely depends on the correct and adequate information. Any confusing information will result in social chaos and eventually cost people’s confidence in the government.

Second, any distortion or denial of right to information will result in fake news, rumours, and anonymity. Further, since the public authorities are vested with unlimited power during the lockdown, it may amount to abuse and threaten the foundations of our democracy. The only way to ensure that the government functions within the limits of democratic values and uphold the people’s confidence now rest with media.

Third, our freedom of speech, opinion, and expression, right to information and right to vote depends on freedom of media. Though article 1 of our Constitution states that power belongs to people, it is our representatives, the government, who actually has the power. Article 20 (6) of our constitution thus, mandates the government to “promote an efficient civil administration based on the democratic values and principles.” People can judge and speak to government only when there is access to information. Information is key to upholding the democratic values and principles.

Fourth, one of the framers of our Constitution wrote “Information is knowledge. Knowledge empowers people and removes the uncertainty and doubts. When citizens are well informed, mutual trust grows between the citizens and their government.” Proper access to accurate information will not only “facilitate active participation of the people in the democratic governance process, but also promotes openness, transparency and accountability in administration.”

Fifth, unlike most other rights, right to information benefits both the government and public directly. Access to information will help people build confidence in our government and promote mutual trust between the state and people. Mutual trust and confidence in government are key essentials in success of the lockdown and fighting this pandemic together as one.

Finally, in any true democracy, the public has the right to demand and scrutinise the actions of public authorities and hold them accountable. The code of ethics for the journalist requires that media must report accurately without fear and favour. The question of accuracy, correctness and unbiased reporting will largely depends on their access to information.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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

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