Coinciding with World Press Freedom Day, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering stated that “no journalist in Bhutan has been victim of violent attacks. Neither has anyone faced life-threatening situations in the line of duty. However, practicing journalism in the country has come with its own set of challenges and obstacles”.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Bhutan ranked 33rd in the world press freedom ranking this year, a leap from the position. 65th last year. While the report points to a huge improvement, the country’s reporters say the step forward is due more to what has happened and is happening in other countries than to Bhutan’s progress. The same skepticism became evident to the many citizens who in recent days have commented on the news and expressed their opinion, especially in reference to very recent events that have strongly questioned the freedom of the press in the country.

The biggest obstacle many Bhutanese journalists face today is reduced access to information, according to Rinzin Wangchuk, a journalist and president of the Bhutanese Journalists’ Association (JAB), who said Bhutan is one of the safest places in the world. to practice journalism, but that “Our situation is problematic because there is high rate of self-censorship and it is very difficult to get information, especially from the civil servants”. New clauses and regulations have banned public officials from speaking to journalists, denying the media and individuals the fundamental right to information.

The current practice of requiring a media spokesperson in agencies allows for the publication of only “ready” and correct information, which does not create problems. “Journalists should have access to uninhibited and uncensored information. Nation building is a collective responsibility and journalists play an important role ”. Using information responsibly, professionally and impartially is key to informing the public.

Bhutanese government officials have enacted laws restricting what can be shared on social media. Although the constitution in Bhutan guarantees free speech, public officials such as journalists have historically been denied this right due to a law that states: “a public official must not criticize his agency and the royal government”, these limitations undermine clearly freedom of the press and violate the Bhutanese constitution.

On the Reporters Without Borders website you can read the full factsheet on Bhutan. As reported, the main daily newspaper, Kuensel, which is published in both English and Dzongkha, is owned by the government. The beginning of Bhutan’s transition to democracy in the mid-2000s was accompanied by the emergence of privately owned publications such as The Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer. Furthermore, the expansion of the internet on an ever-increasing scale has led to the dissemination of information circulating on blogs and social media.

The five members of the Infocomm and Bhutanese media authorities are directly appointed by the government, which poses a serious threat to the independence of the media. “The royal bureaucracy perpetuates a culture of secrecy and distrust of the press”. Recently there have been defamation lawsuits and a national security law that penalizes any attempt to create “misunderstanding or hostility between government and people”, this has acted as a brake on journalistic freedom. A few years ago, for example, the government was accused of reducing advertisements in The Bhutanese, a weekly magazine, in retaliation for an article listing corruption cases. The cut was seen as a warning to all media.

“The level of self-censorship is one of the main problems in the land of “gross national happiness. Many journalists avoid covering sensitive issues for fear of appearing to challenge the social order. The media rarely refer to the situation of the Lhotshampa, the Nepalese minority in the south of the country victim of social inequalities ”, reports Reporters Without Borders.

Journalists whose investigative reports or opinion pieces cause annoyance may be subject to online harassment campaigns initiated by political activists that combine disinformation and defamation with personal and sometimes racist attacks.

“If this pandemic is a success indicator for the right to information, this government has failed. Press conferences have been significantly reduced and the media are struggling to get opinions from the authorities ”. This is a statement from a few months ago, during the tough lockdown that the country was subjected to for about three months, which reflects on the fact that if everyone is forced to rely only on official social media pages for any kind of information it means that citizens must only rely on what the Ministry of Health and the Presidency of the Council of Ministers say. In this way, the media are nothing more than the government’s propaganda machine.

On March 15, 2022, the Bhutan Media Council – of the royal government, published a public notification regarding viral posts on social media platforms that make common and racist statements. “The Bhutan Media Council calls on social media users to refrain from posting / sharing / imitating content that may incite religious, ethnic, regional or community conflict. Please note that you may be legally responsible for what you post and share in a public forum (social media pages, groups and forums). Article 7, section 22 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan states: “Notwithstanding the rights conferred by this constitution, nothing in this article prevents the state from subjecting reasonable restrictions by law, when it comes to: inciting an offense on grounds of race, gender, language, religion or region, which are illegal. ”Inviting citizens to report inappropriate content on a dedicated government email.

In recent weeks, the Association of Journalists of Bhutan (Jab) issued a press release condemning the compulsory pension of two foresters for speaking to the media, calling the act the most undemocratic to take place in recent times. This act, together with the notification of the Ministry of last April 5, 2022 calling public employees not to speak to the media, is rapidly and frighteningly confirming the fears about the public service.

Bhutan’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression; Article 7.2 states: A Bhutanese citizen has the right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression. Article 7.5 states: There shall be freedom of the press, radio and television and other forms of dissemination of information, including electronic media. But a minor law states: An official MUST NOT: 1. Publicly criticise the policies, programmes and actions of the Royal Government and his own Agency.

“Civil servants are censored against their will and an environment of fear is actively created. The government’s continuing inability to understand the significance of democracy and the media is eroding transparency and access to information, both vital for a vibrant democracy “- Bhutan Journalists Association statement calling on the Ministry to reconsider the decision which concerns the two foresters sent into compulsory retirement for their declarations and which calls on the government and the country to implement, safeguard and respect the right to information.