The first preliminary hearing of the libel case filed by Opposition party Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) against the Deputy Minister and Special Advisor to the National Environment Commission, Dasho Paljor J. Dorji, also known as Dasho Benji, was held on September 25.
This was after the DPT on September 9th filed a complaint with the court accusing Dasho Paljor J. Dorji of defaming DPT through a facebook post where Dasho in response to an anonymous post attacking the government is reported to have said ““After robbing the country blind, the DPT has the gumption to raise its voice. Hahaha! ”.”
The proceedings did not go well for the Opposition party as the court pointed out several procedural and legal is-sues in filing of the case. The court said that libel is an offence which cannot be procedurally filed by individual par-ties for prosecution as it is treated as a criminal offence under the Bhutan Penal Code.
The court said that a criminal case should be forwarded by the Police or the Anti-Corruption Commission which after investigating the case sends it to the Office of Attorney General for prosecution.
The court also pointed out that unless the OAG or a government representative framed charges a person can-not be convicted.
Even though DPT gave examples of similar cases filed at the Paro Dzong-khag Court and Dungkhag Court of Phuentsholing the court justified that such cases cannot be taken as precedents since the cases were filed at the Dungkhag and Dzongkhag courts.
The court also asked the Drametse MP Ugyen Wangdi and Nganlam MP Choeda Jamtsho whether DPT will seek compensation or conviction if they won the case.
The DPT MPs said that if Dasho Benji is found guilty then he should be charged and convicted for defamation as per the Sections 320 and 321 (a) of the Penal Code of Bhutan. The MPs also argued that though the Constitution has given the freedom of speech to individuals, but it does not mean one can make false statements.
Dasho Paljor J. Dorji’s lawyer from Bhutan Law Service, Yonten Dorji,
stated that the defamation charges do not hold since the statement was made against the party and not any individual. He gave examples of posts by people on social media that label Parliamentarians and bureaucrats as being corrupt, but there have been no defamation charges.
Yonten Dorji also said that the political parties do normally get criticized and said that DPT has instead defamed Dasho Paljor J. Dorji. The next hearing is scheduled for 16th October.
In the midst of the DPT’s libel case against Dasho Benji, Bhutan Law Services issued an impassioned press release on Dasho’s behalf defending his right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The release said, “Facebook, like other social media services, is simply a platform for exchange of personal, often contradictory, views with fellow users. Dasho Benji’s comment was just one such passing exchange, which was meant to be a humorous counter to what he thought was a baseless comment on our government by another person. Hence Dasho Benji, like most other users of social media, was surprised to learn that DPT had decided to file a defamatory suit against him for making an innocent and informal comment on Facebook.”
The release details out the long and illustrious career of Dasho Benji from being the former Chief Justice to an award winning environmentalist and Deputy Minister. The release said that Dasho Benji had no affiliation to any political party with his total loyalty being to the King and Country.
The release says, “Dasho Benji feels that he must appeal to our courts to prevent the DPT from deliber-ately infringing on his fundamental right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression, granted to all Bhutanese by the Sacred Constitution.”
It says that Bhutan Law Services will represent and defend Dasho Benji before the Honourable Courts. “They will prove that DPT is infringing on Dasho Benji’s fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression. If instructed, they will defend Dasho Benji’s comment even though it was made casually and on a Facebook page that is host to many worse comments. To do so, they will draw the Honourable Courts’ attention to events that transpired during and immediately after the DPT’s term in government, and comment on their impact on our King, country and people,” says the release.
The release says that DPT has called Dasho Benji’s comment “inflammatory, partisan and divisive” and accuse him of“undermining the unity, harmony, peace and prosperity of our nation.” “These are very serious charges and the burden of proving each now befalls on DPT,” says the statement.
The statement goes on to say that The DPT has publically humiliated Dasho Benji. “They have challenged his integrity and honour. And they have portrayed him as a divisive person, even though they know fully well that he has rendered decades of faithful and continuous service to the Tsa-Wa-Sum”.
“Dasho Benji is left with no option. He will humbly submit to the Royal Courts of Law, and follow due process. However, he refuses to submit to the heavy-handedness of DPT, or to have his fundamental right of freedom of opinion and expression taken away by the very people who should be fighting to protect the fundamental rights of all Bhutanese,” says the statement.”
Meanwhile contrary to media reports that the post had been removed the post is still visible on the forum.