The Pulse

A Journalist Takes on Bhutan’s Top Judge, Sparking National Reflection on Democracy

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The Pulse

A Journalist Takes on Bhutan’s Top Judge, Sparking National Reflection on Democracy

Namgay Zam’s complaint against the country’s Chief Justice is emblematic of a larger struggle.

A Journalist Takes on Bhutan’s Top Judge, Sparking National Reflection on Democracy
Credit: Md. Aminul Hassan via Wikimedia Commons

A journalist in Bhutan has called for an inquiry into the “actions” of the country’s chief justice, accusing him of violating his constitutional duty and lacking judicial integrity. This is bad news because the allegations appear to be serious in nature, but the good news here is that democracy seems to be taking root in the country given that a citizen has dared to take on the highest judge for the first time ever.

“I am accusing the Chief Justice of Bhutan of prima facie violating his duty that is enshrined in the Constitution,” wrote the journalist, Namgay Zam, in a letter she sent to all the members of parliament and the Office of Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay last week.

Zam alleged she was a victim of a “witch-hunt” started by Chief Justice Tshering Wangchuk after she re-posted an online petition written by a young doctor, Sacha Wangmo, against the judge’s father-in-law, Ap Sonam Phuntsho, on her Facebook page in August. The post was about a property dispute case that Wangmo and Phuntsho were engaged in at the time.

Phuntsho filed a defamation suit against the journalist.

Misusing his position, the chief judge is “pre-judging me,” Zam wrote. The chief justice “at an official gathering of judges, where the judge presiding over my (defamation) case was also present, had expressed his legal opinion that Dr. Shacha and I ought to be punished for what we have done,” explained Zam, who is having to defend herself in the court as no lawyer in the country is willing to represent her due to the “sensitivity” of the case.

“A judge should always hear a case first, and decide later. Not the other way around,” she argued in the letter. “A Judge should refrain from sharing his or her opinion until at the time of the judgment, and must not spark controversy — this is the prime ethical standard required of any judge.”

Zam continued that the judge, who she says has threatened to sue her in the future, has openly shown other journalists “a file on me relating to the Facebook post with names of people who have shared/liked/commented on that post,” in an apparent attempt to dissuade social media users from support her.

“Like many others, I do not feel protected by the law due to the unwarranted opinions, comments, and actions of the Chief Justice of Bhutan,” she added.

The journalist also mentioned another case in which a litigant’s legal counsel submitted a motion in August for the “recusal” of the chief justice from a case (Kazi Ugyen Dorji & Lhaden Pem Dorji v. Topgyal Dorji & Wangchuk Dorji) concerning a property succession dispute. The counsel made the plea for recusal — or judicial disqualification of the judge — on grounds of “bias, prejudice and lack of fairness.”

“The Chief Justice threatened the legal counsel with contempt of court and defamation, though the move to file such a motion is absolutely within permissible bounds of the law,” the journalist noted. When the legal counsel shared the motion with journalists, media organizations were also “threatened with contempt of court and were disallowed from running the story,” she added. “The legal counsel was also later issued a show-cause order for having shared the motion with media.”

Another journalist, Zam wrote, posted the recusal motion to an anonymous Facebook account. “The Chief Justice issued a written order to the High Court to initiate contempt proceedings against the journalist.” The same journalist had earlier been warned by the Chief Justice not to write anything critical of the judiciary, she went on to write, adding that the judge threatened to “fix him.”

The journalist wrote that her call for an inquiry is “in the interest of a vibrant democracy — that we may not squander our precious gift from The Golden Throne.”

Bhutan was declared a democratic constitutional monarchy in 2008, after years of preparations for it by the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, against the wishes of the people, who wanted the country to remain an absolute monarchy. King Singye abdicated the throne in the favor of his son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, in December 2006. Both King Singye and King Khesar are highly trusted and respected by the people.

While the monarchs are sacrosanct as per the 2008 Constitution, King Singye ensured that the charter also empowered parliament to seek the king’s abdication “for willful violations of this Constitution or for being subject to permanent mental disability.”

However, even after the arrival of democracy, some Bhutanese citizens, most of whom are status quoists, continue to see all those in authority, including elected representatives and appointed officials, as the name-bearers of the monarchy. Out of their reverence for the monarchs, they refuse to publicly complain about their grievances. But there are also those who are progressive in their thinking, and who are no less devoted to the kings but also seek the country’s progress in the area of civil rights. They believe their vision of Bhutan is in line with the monarchs’ real intent behind gifting democracy to the people.

In this clash of ideas that followed the advent of democracy, officials have sided with the status quoists while discouraging the progressives for obvious reasons. As a result, the country’s media — including independent newspapers — have self-censored serious criticism of the government or officials and people have created numerous anonymous social media profiles to vent their frustrations.

Such an atmosphere might benefit officials, but at the cost of the country and what it stands for: gross national happiness, or GNH, a unique Bhutanese concept that shuns mere economic growth, but seeks the holistic well-being of all its citizens and the conservation of the environment.

The hope for true democracy, as understood by international conventions and which would help the country flourish, lies in letting people speak out freely and fearlessly against corruption and misuse of powers by those in authority.

The journalist has shown the way. And that is a bigger story than her complaint against the chief judge.