Free speech is a soul of a vibrant democracy

His Majesty said, “If we want a democracy that will fulfill the aspirations of our people, then we must take the next step– we must adopt the ideals and principles of democracy. We must build a democratic culture.”  Without free speech, right to information and media freedom, democracy would travel in darkness without a hope of light at the end of the tunnel.

Free speech -the soul of democracy

Article 7 of our constitution sets these aspirations, ideals, and principles of democracy. The freedom of speech, expression, opinion, media, and the right to information and to vote are the soul of decentralization which collectively forms the foundations of good democracy and democratic culture.  They form necessary building blocks of democracy and democratic strengths. Only through free speech, the voters can exercise democratic rights and perform oversight functions of the elected government and set accountable and responsive governance. It is said that “protecting free speech means protecting a free press, the democratic process and diversity of thought.”

While the successive governments have promised to promote the freedom of media and respect public opinion, the ground realities are not encouraging. Self-censorship is still common in Bhutan- the media and individuals alike. This indicates that public authorities including the elected government are still non receptive to public criticism or disagreements.  The recent actions of compulsory retirement of two foresters for merely speaking to media and the ministry issuing notice baring employees from expressing in media shows the desperation and extent to which public authorities are ready to hold the media captive and individuals from free speech and right to information. There are also examples where individuals have even faced judicial proceedings. All such actions are possibly coercing into more self-restraint. There are also indications that the public authorities use indirect methods to either silence or suppress open public criticism. This has forced many to go anonymous and use social media to express their opinions and question the public authorities.  In all fairness, as an academic writer, I had a good amount of freedom in expressing my opinions freely without interference. However, I also faced strong indications of reservations, resistance, and disapproval by certain institutions, authorities, and individuals in some of my opinions. Either directly or indirectly. This may be true for many other critics who express themselves openly without being anonymous.

It is noteworthy that Article 7 of the Constitution makes it clear that none of the fundamental rights is absolute. The state can impose reasonable restrictions. For example, the RCSC came up with rules prohibiting the civil servants from expressing any opinion in a public forum can be considered as reasonable restriction. However, its reasonableness must be tested by the Judiciary, and this remains to be seen in case of RCSC rules. Further, there are also instances where the state authorities are resorting to other forms of measures to control free speech.   

Anonymity remains impunity

With anonymity, the criticisms are more damaging and often manufactured and manipulative in its nature in the name of free speech. It must be known that in every anonymous account, there exist real people and real people write these anonymous opinions and misinformation. First, such a trend damages the country’s reputation as a nation of limited and restrained free speech. Second, many use anonymity as means to defame and bring in unfounded allegations and create stories with a personally vested interest. Finally, political parties and their members, or disgruntled population may use anonymity to spread fake news and disinformation.  The existence of hundreds of thousands of anonymous accounts on social media such as Bhutanese News and Forum, confession pages against limited or too few individuals expressing similar opinions without becoming anonymous is a testimony to which the state controls on the free speech. Contrarily, the anonymous groups and users enjoy unfettered free speech- a dangerous sign for a new democracy. While the number of anonymities grows with seriously damaging information, they still operate with impunity.

Giving life to pillars of democracy from the Throne

During the 114th National Day, His Majesty said, “We hesitate from giving our honest views or taking bold actions, which might risk offending or displeasing others. As a result, the strength of our national character, exemplified by the courage and determination of our forefathers, has weakened; complacency has set in, discipline has waned, and corruption is on the rise. This has unfortunately given rise to a popular perception that two laws coexist in the same country. If we allow such practices to proliferate, we will become more vulnerable to even greater risks and dangers.”   Such command from the throne, it is the duty of every individual to be more vigilant on what the public agencies, authorities and government is doing because there are numerous failures and rise in corruption. Free speech is like a facemask and physical distance to prevent corruption and as a vaccine to strengthen democratic culture.   

Agree to disagree – Sign of a vibrant democracy

The public figures and authorities must recognize, it is natural for them to face strong public scrutiny and criticism. The concept of constructive criticism is often misunderstood and equated with praises only. Constructive praises include not just praise but also disagreements, hard questions as well as solutions or recommendations. This does not mean, whatever we as a public express is right. The state authorities have similar authorities to scrutinize each issue and if necessary, rectify the mistake and concede any failure and be transparent to the public. The government also has equal platforms and avenues to rejoin the disagreements if the criticisms are untrue and expressed with mala-fide intention instead of hunting individuals through a backdoor.

Opening the first session of the Parliament, His Majesty said, “You have the responsibility of setting the right examples, laying strong foundations, and promoting the best practices of democracy. If you should falter in your service to the nation, then the duty to counsel you also rests with the people and King.” These are a clear message from the throne that the duty to build strong democratic values and counsel the government if they falter in their service rests with the people because those in power are accountable to people and not vice versa.  His Majesty further said, “I believe that the deciding factor between the success and failure of a new democratic system has always been the presence or absence of the right conditions.” Promoting free speech sets the right conditions for people to be able to freely express their opinions, debate, discourse and agree to disagree. It is in the hands of the public authorities and elected members to create these right conditions through legislation and policies such as the right to information laws or the protection of whistleblowers.

The Royal Civil Service Commission recently took a number of laudable steps to reform the public service and feedback system was recognized as fundamental to improvement in public service delivery. Free speech is extremely critical as the efficiency of public service delivery will now determine the leadership and effectiveness of bureaucrats. While anonymous comments may be useful, they can also invite vengeance and vindictive information and feedback on public servants. On the other hand, the most effective tool to fight anonymity is to promote people to express themselves freely without fear and favour and with true identities. The promotion of free speech-whether mainstream media and individuals or groups will significantly accelerate the numerous reforms in the country. It will help fulfill His Majesty’s vision of setting the right conditions, instill true ideals and principles of democracy and people’s aspiration of a transparent and accountable government.

The writer is a lawyer by profession based in Thimphu. The views expressed in the article are of the author’s own.