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When Freedom of Expression Isn’t Free: Journalism, Facebook, and Censorship in Bhutan

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The Pulse

When Freedom of Expression Isn’t Free: Journalism, Facebook, and Censorship in Bhutan

Can free expression and journalistic freedoms thrive in Bhutan?

When Freedom of Expression Isn’t Free: Journalism, Facebook, and Censorship in Bhutan
Credit: Flickr / rjsvlajean

On August 6, a Bhutanese journalist was sentenced to three months in prison for libel. The journalist had written a post on her personal Facebook account about a woman mistreating her 6-year-old stepdaughter. The post went viral, the police and other related agencies became involved. There were testimonies made in defense of the journalist by several parties, but the court found them to be “inadmissible.” The court verdict, besides meting out this punishment, asked the journalist to post an “apology statement” addressed to the “victim” – not the child, but the stepmother – on Facebook and to keep it for a month.

This is the second time a Bhutanese journalist has been dragged to court for defamation via Facebook. I was the other journalist, the first to be the defendant of such a defamation suit in the country in 2016. The case, which involved a property dispute, received international attention and was considered important for freedom of expression in Bhutan. I would have been sentenced to three years in prison for libel had the case not been withdrawn at the end of the trial by the plaintiff. I did not see the end as having been a victory for me. There was no judgment in favor of a constitutional right.

The Constitution of Bhutan guarantees every Bhutanese the fundamental right to free speech, opinion, and expression. But there are many ways in which this is curtailed. For instance, civil servants are “gagged” by the Bhutan Civil Service Rules and Regulations, a section of which, called Civil Service Core Values, states: “A civil servant shall not criticise his agency and the Royal Government.”

This affects Bhutanese journalists, too. At best, there are one too many nameless officials in the media saying important things, and at worst, no one saying anything. In such a situation, the existence of a Right to Information (RTI) Act would be useful. However, the RTI bill is yet to be enacted despite having been discussed in parliament.

With two journalists having now been taken to court for writing on Facebook what they knew to be true, it wouldn’t be surprising if we see more Bhutanese citizens posting anonymously on social media to avoid being penalized. There are already quite a number of Bhutanese users having anonymous accounts, and many more are expected with the third democratic elections at our doorstep (the primary round is scheduled for September 15 and the general round for October 18).

The lawsuits against journalists can be seen against the backdrop of the general curtailment of the fundamental right to express in recent years. A Bhutanese film Hema Hema: Sing Me A Song While I Wait was banned in the country in 2016 for dubious reasons, in my opinion. That year, Bhutanese citizens were made to dwell quite a bit on freedoms and rights as well as responsibilities/duties. There were several Bhutanese people who pitted fundamental rights against fundamental duties as if they were antagonistic to each other. They felt that those of us who championed our rights as enshrined in the Constitution were forgetting our responsibilities and causing social disharmony. They would quote the first clause under fundamental duties in the Constitution: “A Bhutanese citizen shall preserve, protect and defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity, security and unity of Bhutan…” to discount the efforts to challenge authority for the greater good.

Hema Hema’s characters wear Buddhist masks. The Bhutan Infocomm and Media Authority (BICMA) that reviews films before their release, and the Department of Culture took issue with one of the masks, saying it was inappropriately used in the film. The irony is that the filmmaker himself is an acclaimed Buddhist master, and arguably better versed in what is appropriate or not in Buddhist practices than the authorities. I cite the example of Hema Hema to demonstrate how two types of expressions, journalistic and creative, were both restricted in the same year, and how neither the journalistic fraternity nor the film industry defended their right to expression.

Journalism in Bhutan is already affected by self-censorship; the two defamation suits have not helped improve this. Filmmakers, especially those with meaningful stories to tell (some Bhutanese may see that as being critical / deviating from the cultural norm), worry about their films being banned, just like Hema Hema was. A few filmmakers told me, in confidence, that they couldn’t fight for Hema Hema as their own films were being reviewed by BICMA at the time of the ban. This fear of suffering similar fates has held back many journalists and filmmakers when they ought to have been vanguards in the battle for freedom of expression. This is our current weakness. We cannot unite when that is the need of the hour. “United we stand, divided we fall” a proverb many of us have learnt in school, but not a proverb many Bhutanese journalists subscribe to sadly.

As a result of my own experience, I felt I had to do something for the journalist who was sentenced. I began a fundraising campaign on Facebook and Instagram for the amount required to keep her out of prison right after she was sentenced for libel. The journalist had no desire to appeal to a higher court as her trial had also been lonely and tiring although she belongs to a national media house with a legal representative. There was no support at all from her organization (not even legally), or from the Journalists Association of Bhutan (JAB).  At least in my time, despite being in court as an independent journalist, the JAB filed a petition for the dismissal of my case right at the beginning. I was apprehensive about the amount of support we would get for the journalist, but my fears were unfounded. So much support began pouring in after my video campaign that we raised more than the amount required in less than 48 hours. The additional amount is being given to the 6-year-old girl, the real victim, toward her education.

Both the journalist and I were overwhelmed by the generosity of so many Bhutanese from all walks of life — even students contributed to her “Thrim Thrue” (payment in lieu of prison term). There were friends and supporters of Bhutan who donated as well, but their contributions made up just 1 percent. It is heartening that a large number of Bhutanese citizens believe in journalism, in freedom of expression, and will help someone who has been punished for doing what she needed to do.

Authorities and institutions can try and limit our fundamental right to free speech, opinion, and expression, but not all of us will be silenced. I realize that as Bhutanese we are not confrontational, so we may not take to the streets to protest, we will, however, quietly support those who are willing to fight for the fundamental rights. Better action behind the scenes that ensures a journalist can continue telling stories that matter, than loud noises that disrupt with no affirmative outcome.

There is a bright side to these defamation suits. Perhaps after a while, due to the frequency of defamation suits against journalists, it will be viewed as part and parcel of what we do, and not something that is dangerous and socially compromising. The two defamation cases so far are not the norm, but I do look forward to the day when Bhutanese journalists and citizens will view defamation suits as medals of honor — received after going to battle against authoritarianism, discrimination, hypocrisy and nepotism. It will not be easy, but it will be so worth it.