In a first of its kind, this country has been rocked by a case that will determine free speech on social media. At the center of the row is a spunky journalist who has taken on the chief justice’s father-in-law
By Ramesh Menon in Thimpu
In the tiny picturesque Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, peace and happiness are values that are cherished. Gross Domestic Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product. The Bhutanese are proud of this and it is a concept that only this country has floated. But peace may be shattered as a judgment in a defamation case will determine the borders of freedom and free speech.
Namgay Zam, a well-known freelance journalist, has been slapped with a defamation notice by Sonam Phuntsho, a well-heeled businessman, who has claimed a compensation of 2.59 million Bhutanese Ngultrum for a Facebook post of a doctor which Zam shared and which he claimed had sullied his reputation internationally. (One Ngultrum equals one Indian rupee).
Phuntsho, incidentally, is the father-in-law of Chief Justice Tshering Wangchuk. Zam was formerly a radio jockey and an anchor with the Bhutan Broadcasting Ser-vice. She has also been a Humphrey Fellow of Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.
Zam had shared a post written by Sasha Wangmo, a medical doctor, who alleged that her sister and mother’s joint property was fraudulently claimed by Phuntso by forging documents. Her attempt at getting justice in the courts had failed, she alleged, as the chief justice was the son-in-law of Phuntso.
Zam, while sharing it, said that she was sharing the post of a brilliant 26-year-old medical doctor fighting hard to get justice for her family. The post went viral as she has a huge following.
Earlier, Phuntso had filed a case in the Thimpu district court saying that he had a claim on the house as he had bought it. The court agreed with his claim. Wangmo then appealed to the Supreme Court where the High Court judgment was up-held. In the Court, Phuntso claimed he had paid an advance of Ngultrum 18 million to Wangmo’s sister, Sonam, to buy a property that she jointly owned with her mother, Tandin Bidha.
However, both of them contested this claim saying that the documents were forged and so should be sent for a forensic test. But it was not sent. This has obviously raised questions in the public mind.
Wangmo then approached His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck with a plea that they had not got justice. The king commanded the Supreme Court to relook the matter. The case is currently being heard. The last hearing was on December 12. It will take a while for the final judgment to come. Whatever it is, it is bound to create ripples in the country.
In both media and social circles, this case is being debated vociferously. Sources in Thimpu told India Legal that the chief justice of the Supreme Court might soon file a contempt notice against Zam for defaming the judiciary by sharing the post. Steven M Ellis of the International Press Institute said that it raised serious concerns as it could have a potentially chilling effect on journalists’ ability to seek information.
Observers in Bhutan say this case will test the boundaries of freedom of speech and will lay down parameters of what can be said on social media. Others see it as a veiled attack on the media which is in its nascent stages and struggling to grow. In private, journalists say that it could create a fear about taking an independent stand or criticizing the powers-that-be. None of them want to be quoted. One senior journalist said that there is an invisible fear that those who take a view against the government will be taken to task. There is self-censorship by the media as far as criticizing the government is concerned, many felt. They also shied away from talking about the case as the chief justice was appointed by the revered king, though he does so in consultation with the National Judicial Commission.
Namgay Zam is determined to fight towards the end. She told India Legal: “Just for demanding justice and fair play as well as freedom to vocalize what is fundamentally wrong, I have been called anti-national. I will continue to fight for my basic rights and democratic values even if I have to pay a price to pay for it. We got the gift of democracy from our fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and we must do everything to protect it and strengthen its values. I am not doing it for myself. It is for the entire country.”
A young Thimpu-based journalist, who did not want to be named, said: “The verdict in the ongoing case could have some consequence on social media users in Bhutan. If the journalist wins the case, people might think liberally about freedom of speech. If she loses, it is likely that healthy discussions will not take place due to the fear of being slapped with a defamation suit.”
While freedom of the press is guaranteed in Bhutan’s constitution, almost all journalists India Legal spoke to believed that it did not really exist and the media with meager resources was fighting for survival. Investigative journalism was non-existent.
Though democracy was ushered in 2008 after almost a century of absolute monarchy, there is a general feeling that the establishment should not be criticized or questioned. Zam says that to secure democracy, one must have the right to expose those who are corrupt. She has initiated a petition on Change.org demanding an inquiry into the chief justice of Bhutan. She has also written to the country’s parliamentarians, but nothing came of it as they refused to be drawn into a case that is in court.
While Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay has said that it could be a landmark case, DN Dhungyel, Bhutan’s information and communication minister, suggested that restrictions on social media could be introduced.
In the letter to parliamentarians and the prime minister in October, Zam demanded that an inquiry be held into the actions of the chief justice. She accused him of violating his constitutional duty and lacking judicial integrity.
No lawyer in Bhutan wants to defend Zam as it is a sensitive case, leaving her to defend herself. “I have made all my submissions and fighting it out myself. Lawyers were even scared of talking to me or be seen talking to me. That is the kind of fear we have today in a free democratic country,” she said.
The case is definitely going to be a landmark one as the government is mulling over a plan whereby certain controls are put on what will be acceptable on social media. Tobgay said that while the constitution gives the right to freedom of expression, it did not mean that the right of others can be undermined. “Our job collectively is to enjoy our rights by protecting the rights of others and to make social media a safe, credible place where vibrant discussion takes place. It should not be a divisive debate that sometimes take place and definitely not while using an anonymous account.”
Lead picture: Freelance journalist Namgay Zam has been slapped with a defamation notice by Sonam Phuntsho, a well-heeled businessman. Photo Ramesh Menon