Recently, the Drug Regulatory Authority (DRA) publicly accused a reporter of a private paper of ‘theft’, after the reporter published a confidential draft report from the agency, which showed the Ministry of Health in poor light.
The DRA did not have evidence that the report was actually ‘stolen’ by the reporter, but it still decided to go ahead and smear the reporter, and the paper in question.
The reality is that the DRA was unhappy that its report was leaked by one of the many agencies or individuals to whom the report was circulated.
Unable to stop or find the source of the leak that portrayed its parent agency of MoH in poor light, it chose a soft target- in the form of the reporter, and dragged the reporter before the Media Council, literally calling the reporter- a thief for publishing the report.
This is blatant defamation of a reporter and the paper that was only doing its job to keep the public informed.
The only way for the reporter or the paper to prove its innocence and launch a counter charge or even a libel lawsuit on the DRA would be to reveal the source of the leak of the report, which would be a grave violation of one of the key foundations of journalistic practice, norms and ethics.
It would have exposed the source – who in all probability – is a public servant to probable censure and prosecution by its agency or bosses up the line.
The journalist and the paper in question chose to swallow the public humiliation while protecting the source. They must be commended for it.
Reporters get all the credit for exposing corruption or abuses of power, but these stories would be impossible without the whistleblowers who take a lot of personal and professional risks in sharing information with the reporters.
It is the fundamental duty of every journalist to protect such sources from being exposed to the vindictive and the powerful, even if it means facing prosecution and being demeaned.
The DRA and other agencies must understand that the Constitution of Bhutan, under the all important Article 7 of Fundamental Rights, guarantees the Right to Information, Free Speech and a Free Media.
They must also understand that any internal process, rule or even law that comes into conflict with the Constitution is null and void or ultra vires.
Constitutionally, the reporter and the private paper had the full right to access the draft report from its source or sources and publish it, irrespective of the discomfiture of the DRA or the blushes of the MoH.
The DRA would be well within its rights to ask for a corrigendum if the reporter or paper made factual errors in their story, but it is quite something else to ask a report to not be made public.
The document published by the paper is neither a grave national security document that compromises Bhutan’s security and sovereignty nor is it the private medical records of a private citizen individual, both of which are off bounds for journalists.
It is a document that highlights a public interest issue and one that affects the public.
Bhutanese journalists are not cat burglars who scale the walls of the Tashichhodzong at night or break into lockers with a team of safe crackers to get information.
One of the main skills of a professional journalist is – in being able to know how to get information and from whom to get it. This requires a lot of footwork, hard work, facing refusals, swallowing humiliation at times, shaking of hands, building of trust over the years and a good understanding of the system. It requires intelligence, perseverance, grit, a very thick skin and a nose for news.
Journalists obtain public information with the belief that public information belongs to the public, and must serve the public interest.
However, it is not enough to point fingers outside as there must also be honest introspection within the journalism fraternity.
Journalism is a competitive profession, and one of the worst feelings in it is missing a big story, but despite this even competing journalists and publications must come together to defend the common cause of journalism, instead of staying mum or even helping give wing to partisan and untrue accusations – only because they missed the story, due to professional rivalry or just because they are not at the receiving end.
This shortsighted approach will give a temporary balm for hurt individual egos or bland front pages, but in the long run it will land everyone in trouble.
The attitude adopted by the DRA in this case and their boldness in making such an accusation and taking matters so far – without any proof maybe an example of the dangers of repeating concocted and green eyed lies against fellow journalists only to settle a few personal or professional scores. A case of burning one’s own collective village to just target a house in it.
It is unfortunate that the elected government chose to be a mute spectator of this avoidably ugly incident just coming on the heels of the vindictive defamation case against Penjore.
Both the DRA and the OAG are government agencies, and actions speak louder than any words of this government’s commitment to a free press or freedom of expression.
Bhutan takes a lot of pride in being a democracy, but we will be an incomplete one or probably not even one, if journalists are not allowed to do their jobs or are defamed and prosecuted for doing it.
News is something someone wants suppressed. Everything else is just advertising.