The Anti-Corruption Commission’s (ACC) model public service code of conduct launched on 30 December 2022, on disclosure of information, has barred public servants to disclose official information, including even non-confidential ones without authorization from the superiors. As a constitutional office mandated to promote transparency and accountability, it is advocating confidentiality with this new rule.
Media in a democratic society plays the role of a watchdog and has the right to inform the public, however, with this rule, media is sure to face obstacles in the form of difficulties in accessing information.
The Constitution of Bhutan in its Article 7 Fundamental Rights, section 2 grants a Bhutanese citizen right to Freedom of Speech, Opinion and Expression, and section 3 grants a Bhutanese citizen Right to Information.
However, according to ACC, the model code does not infringe on one’s freedom of speech. “Public agencies and the public servants are the repository of information that may concern national security and unity, individual privacy, secrecy, etc. Freedom of Speech also constitutes duty to express and provide correct, accurate and authentic information. Irresponsible, un-regulated, vested and/or haywire disclosure of information by any public servant could impair national interest and prejudice the right of another. This would ultimately have adverse impact on the sanctity of the public service. Therefore, the Model Code tries to strike a balance between right to freedom of speech and need to protection of official information that has a bearing on national interest and rights of others.”
Although ACC’s model code might try to strike a balance, the ground reality is that, it will become a barrier to access to information. Journalists leaving their profession are not new, and journalists not having Right to Information Act have been debated for a while now.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of press, radio and television and other forms of dissemination of information including electronic. However, barriers to access to information keep on increasing.
In 2021, Thimphu Thromde established a protocol mandating media professionals to seek written permission to avail information. When this protocol was established, Thromde officials said it was to help both Thromde and media officials to maintain accountability.
However, all working journalists know that the established protocols were too long with not much flexibility in accessing information. The process of getting information took time and Thromde never really gave full information, as some questions would be left ignored.
Similarly, that can also happen. As public servants can even face criminal sanctions, it instills a fear in people. Without access, journalists won’t be able to perform their roles as journalists.
The Editor of Kuensel, Tshering Palden said, “We already have enough trouble getting information because various agencies have come up with different protocols. For instance, Thimphu Thromde requires us to submit information requests in writing, and we wait for them to send us their response. Often the information takes a few days. Other agencies, like JDWNRH and other department officials, also refuses to talk with us even after we have sought permission from their heads. Increasing number of officials have started asking us to produce written permission, and we have to follow those protocols for even simple details or to verify certain information.”
“The Constitution, the mother of our laws, guarantees our public the Right to Information and Freedom of Expression. Media’s duty is to ensure transparency and accountability, and to inform the public. Without access to information, how will the voters/constituents hold their elected leaders to account? If access to information is curtailed further, we are heading to serious problems, let’s hope we don’t get there,” he added.
However, according to ACC, the Model Code does not impede access to information.
“The ACC fully acknowledge that the media has been and must continue to play a critical role in exposing, deterring and preventing corruption through promoting transparency, accountability and sensitizing issues of public concern. The media must continue to perform their watchdog functions, and is an extremely important partner in creating, nurturing, articulating and defining the very culture of integrity in public service. The role of the media in instilling and engendering sense of integrity and ethics and intolerance to corruption by public servants and general public cannot indeed be overemphasized. The Model Code does not impede access to official information. Rather, it facilitates access to quality information from authorized public servants. It will augment the role of media in quality public reporting.”
Namgay Zam, the Executive Director of Journalists’ Association of Bhutan, said “This model will meet its intended end only if the public servants identified to speak to the media are actually in a position to speak authoritatively on it. I’m not optimistic about this improving access to official information. It appears to be another bureaucratic obstacle.”