Journalists must have full and uncensored access to information
Coinciding with World Press Freedom Day, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that “no journalist in Bhutan has been the victim of violent attacks. Nor has anyone faced life-threatening situations in the performance of their duties. However, the practice of journalism in the country has come with its own set of challenges and obstacles”.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Bhutan ranked 33rd in the world press freedom index this year, a jump from the position. 65th last year. While the report shows a huge improvement, journalists in the country say the step forward is more due to what has happened and is happening in other countries than to Bhutan’s progress. The same skepticism has become evident for the many citizens who, in recent days, have commented on the news and expressed their opinion, especially in reference to very recent events which have seriously called into question the freedom of the press in the country.
The biggest obstacle many Bhutanese journalists face today is reduced access to information, according to Rinzin Wangchuk, journalist and president of the Bhutanese Journalists Association (JAB), who said Bhutan is the one of the safest places in the world. practice journalism, but “Our situation is problematic because there is a high rate of self-censorship and it is very difficult to get information, especially from officials.” notw clauses and regulations prohibited public officials from speaking to journalists, depriving the media and individuals of the fundamental right to information.
The current practice of requiring a media spokesperson in agencies only allows the publication of “ready” and correct information, which does not create problems. “Journalists must have access to free and uncensored information. Nation building is a collective responsibility and journalists play an important role.” Using information responsibly, professionally and impartially is essential to informing the public.
Bhutanese government officials have enacted laws limiting what can be shared on social media. Although Bhutan’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech, public officials such as journalists have always been denied this right due to a law that states: “A public official shall not criticize his agency and the Royal Government “, these limitations clearly undermine the freedom of the press. and violate the Bhutanese constitution.
On the Reporters Without Borders website, you can read the complete file on Bhutan. As noted, the main daily, Kuensel, which is published in English and Dzongkha, is owned by the government. The beginning of Bhutan’s transition to democracy in the mid-2000s was accompanied by the emergence of private publications such as The Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer. Additionally, the expansion of the internet on an ever greater scale has led to the spread of information circulating on blogs and social networks.
The five members of Infocomm and the Bhutanese media authorities are appointed directly by the government, which poses a serious threat to the independence of the media. “The royal bureaucracy perpetuates a culture of secrecy and distrust of the press.” Recently, there have been libel suits and a national security law that criminalizes any attempt to create “misunderstanding or enmity between the government and the people”, which has acted as a brake on journalistic freedom. A few years ago, for example, the government was accused of cutting advertisements in The Bhutanese, a weekly magazine, in retaliation for an article listing corruption cases. The cut was seen as a warning to all media.
“The level of self-censorship is one of the main problems in the country of “Gross National Happiness”. Many journalists avoid covering sensitive subjects for fear of appearing to challenge the social order. The media rarely mention the situation of the Lhotshampa, the Nepalese minority in the south of the country victim of social inequalities,” reports Reporters Without Borders.
Journalists whose investigative reports or opinion pieces are disturbing may face online harassment campaigns launched by political activists who combine disinformation and defamation with personal and sometimes racist attacks.
“If this pandemic is any indicator of success for the right to information, this government has failed. Press conferences have been drastically reduced and the media are struggling to get opinions from the authorities.” This is a statement from a few months ago, during the harsh lockdown that the country was subjected to for about three months, which reflects the fact that if everyone is forced to rely solely on the official social media pages for any type of information, this means that citizens should only trust what the Ministry of Health and the Presidency of the Council of Ministers say. In this way, the media is nothing more than the government’s propaganda machine.
On March 15, 2022, the Media Council of Bhutan – Royal Government issued a public notification regarding viral posts on social media platforms that make common and racist statements. “Bhutan Media Council calls on social media users to refrain from posting/sharing/imitating content that may incite religious, ethnic, regional or communal conflict. Please note that you may be legally responsible for what you post and share on a public forum (social media pages, groups and forums). Article 7, Section 22 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan states: “Notwithstanding the rights conferred by this Constitution, nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from imposing reasonable restrictions by law, where it is: to incite an offense based on race, sex, language, religion or region, which are illegal. “Invite citizens to report inappropriate content on a dedicated government messaging service.
In recent weeks, the Journalists Association of Bhutan (Jab) issued a press statement condemning the compulsory pension of two foresters for speaking to the media, calling it the most undemocratic act of recent times. This act, together with the Ministry’s notification of April 5, 2022 calling on public officials not to speak to the media, quickly and chillingly confirms fears about public service.
Bhutan’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech; Article 7.2 states: A Bhutanese citizen has the right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression. Article 7.5 states: There shall be freedom of the press, radio and television and other forms of dissemination of information, including electronic media. But a minor law states: A civil servant MUST NOT: 1. Publicly criticize the policies, programs and actions of the Royal Government and his own agency.
“Officials are censored against their will and an environment of fear is actively created. The government’s continued failure to understand the importance of democracy and the media is eroding transparency and access to information, both of which are vital for a vibrant democracy” – Statement by the Journalists Association of Bhutan calling on the ministry to reconsider the decision which concerns the two foresters sent to mandatory retirement for their declarations and which calls on the government and the country to implement, safeguard and respect the right to information.