Elections and Freedom of Expression

The nation is eagerly anticipating the Chhoekhor-Tang by-election and so as both the DNT and DPT launched their candidates the media gave coverage, and most did some follow up stories on the two candidates.

However, following that the ECB and BICMA sent out multiple notifications by email and post saying that such stories ‘directly or indirectly advertising the candidates’ are not allowed as formal campaign will be allowed only after 24th October.

This is an effective media black out for a much anticipated election race.

Then in a rash of documents totaling 9 pages sent by the ECB Media Arbitrator media houses were reminded to register with the arbitrator for media permit cards.

All Media houses also had to give a signed undertaking saying that they will be fair or bear the consequences.

Then another document outlined 11 social media rules to be followed while reporting the elections through social media, which is an exercise in micro-management.

If that is not enough, then after the elections media houses have to fill up bureaucratic forms listing what stories they did and whom they covered and submit them to the Media Arbitrator which will do an analysis of how much coverage was done or how much bias and slant was there.

Bhutan is one of the many democracies in the world that has free and fair elections, but it will be in a select club of countries that imposes nanny-state level of heavy regulations on the press during elections.

While the intent of the ECB and the Media Arbitrator is honorable to ensure fair coverage, its cure can be worse than the diseases it is trying to prevent by wrapping up everything in giant red tape.

Ironically, whatever the restrictions imposed by the ECB on the mainstream press, which is responsible and accountable, it will not be able to do much with fake accounts and the other underhand tactics in elections.

This paper has had the experience of a Media Arbitrator in the past telling it to not cover ‘negative news’ on a political party even though the story was hard and verifiable facts about the performance of the party when in power.

Ultimately, even the ECB or any other agency should remember that no rules or laws can override the Constitution and its guarantee of Freedom of Expression and a Free Press.

“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”
 Albert Camus

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