Bhutan’s Constitution promises fundamental freedoms of speech, expression, opinion, and media, reflecting the country’s progress. However, as I reflect after four years writing legal commentary for Kuensel, it is evident that fully enabling individual writers to freely express opinions on national interest issues remains an ongoing endeavour obstructed by challenges. Despite constitutional guarantees, limitations persist on these rights.

The advent of social media and Bhutan’s digital transformation has ushered in a new era of information accessibility. While this has undoubtedly democratised the dissemination of knowledge, it has also paved the way for misinformation, disinformation, and unverified content to proliferate. Fostering a culture of responsible and reliable discourse where writers are held accountable for their words and supporting those expressions without having to resort to anonymity can be one of the answers to these challenges.

Over the course of four years, my op-eds have revolved primarily around issues of social justice and civic rights. These topics span from freedom of speech, voting rights, the sanctity of the rule of law, the protection of marginalized groups, the pursuit of gender equality, and the empowerment of our youth and legislations. Through my commentary, I have sought to illuminate the constitutional principles that serve as the bedrock of Bhutan’s democracy and reflect the profound vision of Their Majesties concerning the rule of law- the foundation of democratic values.

While achieving absolute objectivity may be an elusive goal, I have consistently prioritized national and public interests in my writings. While most of my commentaries have passed without generating controversy, some have attracted backlash, regrettably emanating from senior public officials including elected members who exerted pressure through unofficial channels. This unfortunate response underscores a deep-seated aversion to even well-intentioned feedback and exposes a collective reluctance within Bhutanese society to embrace constructive criticism.

I have ensured that my articles are not offensive, defamatory, or self-serving in any way.  But authorities specifically targeted my writing, even in response to positive feedback, reflects an uneasiness with open discourse – this despite my status as an academic writer with the full academic freedoms granted. This serves as a stark reminder that Bhutan’s institutions and officials are still evolving in their acceptance of forthright critique. Nevertheless, I have persevered as an academic where academic freedom is a duty to serve society through candid analysis and commentary. I have done so even as Bhutan’s Constitution explicitly guarantees its citizens’ freedoms of expression and speech in more expansive terms than the constitutions of the UK, the US, or India. As an academic, I will continue to fulfill my role in an open society through reasoned writing.

As Bhutan continues its rapid transformation across all sectors, His Majesty continually underscores the rule of law as the linchpin of our democracy. Furthermore, His Majesty has repeatedly reminded that integrity, accountability, and open discourse are essential for the growth of the nation.

In an era where information flows freely, Bhutan must embrace a culture of constructive criticism and accountability to safeguard the nation and promote democracy. Our path to progress lies in nurturing a society where individuals are encouraged to voice their views, secure in the knowledge that their contributions are valued, and that, through open discourse, we can collectively shape a brighter future for Bhutan and implement evidence-based decisions. Disagreement in a democracy is a sign of a healthy democracy and democratic values.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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