Saturday, September 15, 2007

BICMA & the Dilemma of Free Expression

Bhutan Observer carried a story several weeks ago that covered an interview with BICMA for their justifications in blocking BT. We thought it was a good thing as it brought some light to the issue. It also raised some hope that BICMA was willing to hear different sides of the issue. In that hope, we sent the letter below to the editor of Bhutan Observer to initiate a public dialogue. Unfortunately it seems Bhutan Observer found reasons not to publish our letter. Two of their issues have since been published and it seems their decision not to publish our thoughts is resolute. In the meantime we have sent the letter to the editors of the Other Bhutan Times as well as Kuensel. Neither one has bothered to publish it either.

To say the least, this is disappointing. That such an attitude would be adopted by our three official newspapers is simply mind-boggling. In order for the press to do their job, that is to inform the public truthfully and accurately, an environment of open expression is necessary. Quite clearly, BICMA has not fully comprehended this concept and the three papers are suffering hugely from this. We believed it would be in the best interest of all three papers for BICMA to be more responsible in implementing their regulatory mandate. Sadly it seems they seem happy to wallow in the little monopoly of news that BICMA has inadvertently created for them in Bhutan. –ed.

The Bhutan Observer interview with Wangay Dorji of BICMA on the topic of the banning of Bhutan Times website was most illuminating and we are grateful to Bhutan Observer for eliminating some of the murkiness on this topic. Compared to the earlier announcements of BICMA, this interview was frank and informative.

Wangay Dorji is quoted to have said that after two long months of study, BICMA concluded that “ is an unregulated site which carries any posts”. If BICMA had read the “About BT” link, they would have understood that this is not the case. After much deliberation, BT had decided that only HM would be above criticism of any sort. Clearly therefore, BT does not carry just any post.

There is little else moderators can do. On the one hand, it is very easy to prevent defamation and malicious posting. Simply shut down the forum and reject all mail from readers. It is also quite easy to provide a voice to every citizen by allowing freedom of expression. It is almost impossible however, to do both.

Yet both are extremely important.

In Bhutan this seems to be particularly difficult. People, officials in particular are generally not used to criticism and quite a few demonstrate a tendency to hyper-react whenever they happen to experience some. And as many of the BT readers have noted, the definition of Defamation according to the Bhutan Penal Code can potentially be interpreted to treat anything mildly offensive as defamatory. BICMA on the other hand, has no published standards at all. It is rather surprising therefore that BICMA has taken upon itself to be judge and executioner in penalizing BT for breaking their rules they never published.

Sometimes the only defense against the charge of defamation is the truth. A statement extremely damaging to someone’s reputation and stated with malicious intent can also be the truth and would therefore not be defamation. This can be established however only after a thorough investigation by legally competent individuals.

All of the members at BT do in fact want to remain on the right side of the law. Who would want their hard work to suffer the ignominy of a government ban? Wangay Dorji is quoted as saying “If the outlook (of BT) had improved ensuring that the posts in its online forum are not disturbing and defamatory, there were possibilities of lifting the ban”. That statement is most encouraging. But BICMA needs to be far clearer in stating what it wants by for example, defining what it means by ‘disturbing’ and ‘defamatory’. BICMA should also be more forthcoming with the nuts and bolts of their analysis that led to the conclusion that BT must be banned at all costs. What for example was the“one post” that according to BICMA made BT “lose its credibility”? Others would argue that it is Kuenselonline, with its high percentage of rejected posts that is in serious shortage of credibility.

Therefore, even under the kindest terms, what BICMA has done will seem satisfactory only in the backdrop of government organizations that typically treat their own decisions as the word of law. By any other standard, their actions fall seriously short.

In other words, before it takes any such action, BICMA must make and publish its standards. To be really meaningful, these standards must responsibly reflect both sides of the dilemma of free expression. Today BICMA may find itself the reluctant defender of a minister’s delicate ego. Tomorrow, it will be anybody’s sensitivity for which it will have to shut people up. This can result in a muted society of polite smiles disconnected from reality. The fact is that freedom of expression can be hard to stomach and perhaps even painful. But in the long run, the ability to absorb and stomach such freedom of expression will be an important factor if Bhutan is to successfully transform into a democracy.

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