Some recent instances have brought the issue of free speech during the 2013 elections to the fore.
There was a formal complaint by the DPT against ‘anonymous users’ of defaming them, and violating social media rules. A look at the social media will show the other parties and its leaders are not being spared such anonymous criticism online either.
The other incident was a call by the same party to do away with the common forum, as it claimed that heated criticisms could lead to untoward incidents between party tshogpas.
During the first Presidential Debate, the PDP president alleged on stage that the debate, instead of being about the introduction to party ideologies, was turning into campaigning.
There have been informal claims by various political parties and their workers on defamation, factually incorrect statements, criticism, etc., against each other, especially in the rural areas.
There have also been various defamatory, at times, ‘contempt of court’ statements made by politicians in the media against journalists, court verdicts, and also Constitutional bodies.
Given the above scenario, there may be an urge among the various stakeholders in the 2013 race to come down heavily on all or any of the above, and look for various means to get redressal either through formal complaints to the ECB or enter into court cases.
However, a clear distinction must be made. Defamatory and untrue statements are not supported by facts, and are not welcome, and the victim can use various laws to get justice. No party, politician, individual, or institution should be the victim of lies and unsubstantiated rumors.
At the same time, political parties and politicians cannot expect special treatment during the election period and claim immunity even from factual criticism based on evidence and facts.
There is no law or rule in the country that prohibits genuine and evidence based professional criticism and evaluation of political parties and politicians.
Restriction or attempts to restrict such genuine criticism by any political party, agency, or individual will constitute as gross violation of the Fundamental Rights and the Fundamental Duties under the Constitution.
Article 7 titled Fundamental Rights, Section 2 states, ‘A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression.’ Section 3 under the Article says, ‘A Bhutanese citizens shall have the Right to Information.’ And Section 5 says, ‘There shall be freedom of the press, radio and television and other forms of dissemination of information, including electronic.’
Section 23 says that a person in Bhutan shall have the right to initiate appropriate proceedings in the Supreme Court or High Court for the enforcements of the Rights conferred by this Article.
The above rights can only be suspended when it comes to National Security and when an Emergency is declared. There is no mention in the Constitution of the above rights being suspended or restricted in any way during the election period.
Under Article 8 of Fundamental Duty, one provision that clearly stand out is that every person shall have the duty to uphold justice and act against corruption. Here again, there is no clause that this duty has to be stopped during the election period.
Any Act, laws, rules, guidelines and their interpretation have to be in line with the Constitution, or suffer the same fate as the Tax case.
The ECB’s Media Coverage of Elections Rules and Regulations of the Kingdom of Bhutan 2012, if read and correctly understood, is also in line with the Constitution. The rules don’t restrict reporting news, but all that it asks for is, evidence based reporting that does not give credence to political rumors, defamation, or puts the National Security and well being at risk.
Politicians cannot and should not interpret these rules to mean that no media house can criticize political parties or their candidates on factual grounds during the election period.
Such interpretations, apart from being a violation of the Constitution, will also be a big road block in the conduct of free and fair elections.
It will also give an unfair advantage to any incumbent party as it will then mean that neither the media nor other political parties can discuss, evaluate, and criticize the performance of the incumbent government -simply because the party is taking part in the elections.
Such an interpretation will be of disservice to the most important constituent, the voters, as they have the right to be informed by the media– from which they can make their own evaluation and informed choices.
The electoral race will then have to be run and fought on propaganda campaign by parties, instead of real and hard hitting truth that, in most cases, can only be brought out by substantiated criticism from the voters and the media.
The incumbent party – having been in power for many years, has a huge advantage over the new parties.
Another advantage it enjoys can be summed up in a recent example of the ECB letter sent to the Interim Government questioning the Home Ministry’s special protocol treatment for the incumbent party president.
Another example is the MoIC circular, directing the advertisement to be stopped to this paper, sent out by the incumbent government, and the circular, it seems, is still being honored among government ministries to this day – a clear indication of the politicization of sections of the civil service.
As far as 2013 election are concerned, Bhutan is fortunate to have credible and morally upright Election Commissioners who are doing everything in their power to ensure free and fair elections. However, in the distant future, if politicians with vested interests get too much say and have interpretations going their way, then it will be everybody’s democratic right to question if free and fair elections are being held.
It is important to remember that while elections are an important part of democracy, but it is also one of the many components that make up a democracy. Other equally important, if not more important, are rights like, freedom of speech and freedom of media. Such rights and responsibilities cannot and should not be taken lightly or compromised by any stakeholder in the electoral process. Elections are after all, not conducted to elect the next dictator, but to elect in a democratic spirit – a democratic government who will govern in a democratic way.