A lament for free speech


How freely and boldly a society can express itself, most often against the powers that be, is a litmus test for democracy. Freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of a democratic dispensation. Citizens in a democracy must be able to exercise this right, without fear of repercussion of any sort, and hold the government, public offices, and elected leaders accountable for their actions. Democracy is incomplete without free speech.
In the past seven and half years, Bhutan’s democracy has come a long way. We have managed to successfully build a solid foundation for democratic institutions. We have had two successful rounds of parliamentary elections.
We have learnt a bit of politics, both good and bad. We have seen our society get divided on party lines, blinded by the sheer intensity of political maneuverings and intrigues. And we have also learned that electoral politics can even harm our nation’s unity and undermine the very essence of who we are – as a nation, as a people.
Democracy has come along with its attendant problems, often disrupting the otherwise idyllic, passive, and quiet way of life. The fire of democratic zeal has made us speak up, write, question, debate and discuss a plethora of issues that directly affect our lives or the course of our nation’s journey.
Individuals, groups and communities now assert and fight together. We talk about everything, from garbage, streetlights, to corruption, in the mainstream media and more daringly in social media.
Some times, it appears as if our lives are muddled in so many problems. We tend to forget to appreciate the beauty of our nation, our culture, and traditions – the things that we have and must be proud of.
Democracy has brought about a tectonic shift in our attitude and thinking, a departure from our traditional values. On social media, we have become a bunch of anonymous hatred mongering denizens, attacking, counter-attacking, trying to defame and character assassinate each other, in a language filled with venomous tone and myriad connotations and meanings. In fact, we spare no one – as if the dictum is, no one shall be spared! We hit at every one, at everything, with such force of vengeance and anger, that social media forums appear like a nation so cut off from the idea of our civilization and culture.
Democracy of trolls! Have we become one? When debates go awry, name-calling starts, followed by expose of personal history, derogatory slurs, and badmouthing.
We still need to learn a lot – to conduct ourselves, to debate in a healthy, respectful way, and above all, to accommodate opposing views. Democracy also rests on the idea of plurality and co-existence – unity in diversity.
Free speech is a powerful right. If we do not exercise it with a modicum of responsibility, there is no justification for us to stake claim upon it.
Our democratic culture must be built on the foundation of mutual respect for each other’s beliefs, ideologies, philosophies and viewpoints.
Our democracy is barely seven years old. Perhaps such trends are symptomatic of transitional democracies, not just in Bhutan. But we have an opportunity to define the course of our democracy and set a precedent that we will be truly proud of.