A local journalist faces defamation charge for Facebook post

The first hearing of the case between a journalist from Kuensel based in Tsirang, Nirmala Pokhrel, and a woman who was alleged to be battering and mistreating her six-year-old stepdaughter began at the Tsirang Dzongkhag Court Thursday.

Nirmala Pokhrel was charged for the offence of libel by the woman for making a post on Facebook that the latter battered and mistreated her stepdaughter.

In response to the alleged libel charge against her by the Tsirang police on August 17, Nirmala Pokhrel submitted three pages’ justification to the Tsirang Dzongkhag Court during the first hearing.

In her letter submitted to the court, she confessed that on June 17, she posted a Facebook status stating that a woman was ill-treating her stepdaughter below Damphu town. However, their identities were not revealed and they do not know each other. The information were provided to her by some reliable sources known to them who came to her place on June 17, asking if she can do a story about child abuse.

She stated in the letter that she had heard about the incident on Saturday, which is an off day for Kuensel, so she put the status on Facebook, expecting relevant organizations mandated to protect children under difficult situation to know about it and also people who know about such issue to guide her how to go about it while filing the news article.

“I submit that I have neither enmity with the woman nor have self-interest in posting the status. It was, in fact, the suffering of the child narrated to me by those people who asked me to do the story that prompted me to write the status,” states the three-page letter submitted to the court.

The letter also states, “While I have written that status considering it my responsibility as a citizen to act in the best interest of the child who is ill-treated and abused, as mandated by Article 8, section 5 of the Constitution. I am also the bureau correspondent for Tsirang, Sarpang and Dagana for Kuensel, a daily newspaper, and as mandated by Section 27 of the Child Care and Protection Act of Bhutan 2011, which specifies the role of media as an important one to prevent offences against child.”

Nirmala Pokhrel stated that when she posted her Facebook status, she intended to do a story on the case on the following day (June 18) for June 19’s Kuensel issue, but on the evening of June 17, Tsirang police’s officer-in-command (OC) major Dorji Khandu and Respect, Educate, Nurture, Empower Women’s (RENEW) focal person in Tsirang, Damchoe, who is also the gewog administration officer of Goserling gewog, had gone to the woman’s (stepmother) place to investigate the case.

“And when they revealed that I had informed them about the issue, the woman was infuriated. The woman had called me over the phone and charged me, thereby, dragging me into the issue. Therefore, I could not do the story,” she stated.

On June 19, the Officer-in-charge (OC) had called the journalist to his office, where the woman, her relatives and the child involved were also called.

“The woman charged me and said that she was doing a favor to the child by keeping the child with her when her mother is an alcoholic and the father, who is her husband, is away at work. She asked me to take the child with me and that she would not look after the child thereafter. To my surprise, the police OC, instead of providing counseling to the woman to look after the child in a proper manner, said I defamed the woman by posting it on my Facebook. I never intended to defame the woman and did not include her name and proper location in my Facebook status. I also never passed any judgment in my status to be deemed defamatory,” the letter stated.

She submitted before the court that libel has to be proven by the person who claims to have been defamed and how can Tsirang police prove that she has defamed the woman when her Facebook status does not reveal the identity of the woman and exact location where she lives?

Nirmala Pokhrel also mentioned in her letter that her Facebook status does not defame the woman, as circumstantial evidence also reveal that what she wrote was true. On June 20, the police OC called the journalist saying Tsirang Dzongdag, Ngawang Pem, visited the child in the school and that the child had told her class teacher and Dzongdag that her stepmother battered her.

When the journalist went, Dzongdag, police OC and the teachers gathered in-front of the woman’s residence where Dzongdag, in consultation with the officials from National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) and RENEW, rescued the child as she said that her stepmother beat her and caused the blue marks on her face and hands.  The child was kept with the NCWC focal-person until she finished her exam. The journalist had also met the class teacher, where she confided that the child told her she was beaten by the stepmother.

The Tsirang Dzongdag in a telephone interview said: “In a capacity as a Dzongdag, what need to be done, we did and we also visited the child.” However, since the case is in the court, she said she does not want to comment on the issue.

Nirmala Pokhrel also mentioned in her submission to the court that Tsirang police’s libel suit against her undermines the fundamental rights of free speech, fundamental duties of every Bhutanese citizen to take necessary steps to prevent abuse of children and also rights of people to know the truth and a reporter’s duty to tell the story.

Article 7 of the Constitution of Bhutan guarantees every Bhutanese has the right to free speech, opinion and expression and also right to information. She stated that Tsirang police, by filing this libel suit, had not only violated her rights to free speech and expression but also undermined the right of Bhutanese citizens to the right to information, as she could not fulfill her duty as a reporter to inform the people, since they revealed her name to the woman the moment they reached the woman’s house on the evening of June 17.

She mentioned in her submission that she would take sole responsibility if police and other officials involved conducted the child abuse investigation discreetly and found out that it was not true but in this case before even a proper investigation was conducted, they revealed her name and was dragged into the issue.

Nirmala Pokhrel feels that Tsirang police has wronged her by not investigating the details and merits of the case, thus not looking at the importance of the case.

Chencho Dema from Thimphu