September 26: Namgay Zam vs AP Sonam Phuntsho

Tashichhodzong, the seat of government of Bhutan

By BNS Staff Reporter

The people in the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan are anxiously waiting for the September 26 date of court hearing for Namgay Zam case.

On August 18th, the Thimphu court ordered the date to give the chance of rebuttal to defendants of a libel charge. The decision will also imply who is important in the nation-voiceless people or the people in power and their relatives.

Freelance journalist Namgay Zam and Dr. Shacha Wangmo are ordered by the district court in Thimphu to submit rebuttal on September 26, 2016, to defend themselves against the defamation charge registered by AP Sonam Phuntsho.

Namgay Zam posted Dr.Shacha’s grievances on her Facebook page on August 10, 2016, about the unfair treatment to Dr.Shacha Wangmo regarding property dispute between her sister Sonam Wangmo (said to be at large now) and Sonam Phuntsho, the father-in-law of the chief justice of the country.

Phuntsho is said to have presented false documents and dragged Tandin Bidha, Wangmo’s mother to the court.

The Facebook post that Namgay Zam wrote went viral that Phuntsho termed it defamation and chose to exploit his relationship with the chief justice.

AP Phuntsho has demanded Ngultrum 2.59M stating that the Facebook post caused him severe damage because numerous people saw the post.

Phuntsho is said to be involved in many money laundering cases and deceiving people. Stories of his deceptions and fraud acts are not just posted on Facebook by the victims, but also recorded by whistleblower, the WikiLeaks.

It is obvious that people hesitate to question Phuntsho just because he is the father-in-law of the chief justice who is chosen by the king. To question Phuntsho is indirectly defaming the person because Bhutanese people have very high regard towards the king.  The decision of  Thimphu District Court this time will clearly reflect who governs  the  proceedings of judicial system in Bhutan.

Remaining Anonymity and Media Silence

The national daily media house in Bhutan remain cautiously silent and show indifference towards issues about the public grievances. One of the retired teachers requesting anonymity says, “Bhutan is such a small country that an individual knows almost everyone. This is good as well as bad. Good in a sense that the experience of the other is shared. The bad part is that you will be targeted if you see some wrongdoings and decide to complain about. Thus, everyone chooses to remain silent. Even the National media does not mention the name of the sources. That means a sense of respect from the end of the authority towards the right to expression is almost zero.”

September 18, 2016, issue of the Kuensel states, “A private lawyer explained that contempt of court is applied when people obstruct due process of law, fail to comply with court orders and show disrespect to the court. But our judiciary is using contempt power to instill fear in lawyers and the media from saying or writing against the court.”
Reasons for private lawyer remaining anonymous and the news media not using the name of original sources for a matter of public importance implies that there is an obvious risk of being targeted, get dragged to the court or even persecuted.

Social Media Craze

When people find the national media turning a deaf ear and blind eye in carrying the voice of the weaker sections of population, Facebook provided that space and liberty. People started expressing their problems, grievances, and abuse of authority through Facebook. It did not work, either. They were easily tracked. Thus, 100s of people started to pour comments and expressed grievances through their fake IDs.

One popular Facebook page ‘Breaking News: Bhutanese Social Media’ came to herald the most malpractices found commonplace in Bhutan.  It provided an alternative route to exercise the right to expression. Admin of this page Dargo Tashi became very popular that people considered Dargo the only hope for the change in the country. But surprisingly, Dargo Tashi updated his Facebook page on September 12, 2016, at 15:56 BST: “Mr. Passang Passu Tshering removed me as the Admin of the ‘Breaking News-Bhutanese Social Media’ by giving some bullshit Royalist excuse and deleted almost all my posts there. RIP freedom of speech in Bhutan. RIP justice in Bhutan. RIP fighting corruption in Bhutan. It’s hypocrites like him who promotes all these things in our country!!”

People started flooding Dargo’s personal Facebook page with a request to launch another similar page and stand as people’s common voice.

Seemingly in response, on September 23, 2016, Dargo Tashi launched a new Facebook page: Bhutanese News Channel.

Dargo has appealed for freedom of expression and Independent media to represent people’s problems in the country, saying- “Media is the 4th pillar of democracy. The other 3 pillars of democracy are the Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. In other countries, people go to the media when they find that there is nowhere else to go for help. In our country, our media is also in hiding. They are so scared and they also need help. Our 4th pillar is broken. Long live our democracy!”

Fundamental Rights in Question:

Article 7 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan mentions about the fundamental rights – Freedom of expression is one. It is probably the basis for Namgay Zam’s post to share Dr. Wangmo’s story that called for a defamation charge.  But the flip side is, there is no statute in the country that regulates the use of social media, for that matter, implicating a court case.

During a press meet on August 20th in Thimphu, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, made an ambiguous statement saying “Defamation case will be a landmark case.”

For weeks this statement became the topic of discussion on social media.

Toya (name changed), a political science student from Bhutan studying in India put his viewpoint: “In Bhutan it is almost a law- no one is free to question any of the activities or directions by the Kings and question the decisions of the courts. Questioning such authorities are considered highest level of crime. Thus, people having close relation with the officials working especially in the judiciary are taking advantage of ‘nobody is free to question the decision of the courts’. Sonam Phuntsho father-in-law of the chief justice is an example to that part taking advantage of.”

September 26 and further

Now what is the precedence to be set? Is the court going to establish a trend allowing the relatives of the people in the authority do as they like against people with no voice or prove that government is with the people and everyone deserve right to expression?

Everyone eyes September 26, 2016 to get the meaning of what Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay mean to say by- Defamation case will be a landmark case.


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