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Bhutan's unhappy decision

A monk takes a photo with his mobile phone outside the Punakha Dzong [administrative centre] in Bhutan, 17 April 2016
A monk takes a photo with his mobile phone outside the Punakha Dzong [administrative centre] in Bhutan, 17 April 2016

REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

This statement was originally published on freemedia.at on 2 September 2016.

A defamation case over a Facebook post that could force a freelance journalist in Bhutan to pay the equivalent of 10 years' salary or go to prison - and its potential implications for regulation of social media - raise serious concerns, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

Journalist Namgay Zam is on trial for having shared a Facebook post written by a woman about a property dispute between the woman's family and a local businessman, Ap Sonam Phuntsho. The post included allegations of forgery, as well as alleged nepotism within the judiciary that the woman claimed was hindering an ongoing court battle.

Zam and the post's author, Dr. Shacha Wangmo, were charged on Aug. 12, 2016 with libel and petty misdemeanour. The complainant sought 2.59 million Bhutanese ngultrum (approx. €34,650), an amount that reportedly would normally take a management executive in Bhutan 10 years to earn. If ordered to pay, Zam could face up to three years in prison for failing to do so.

IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis objected to the amount of compensation sought and to the possibility that Zam could be imprisoned.

"This is an excessive demand that we fear could deter journalists from reporting on allegations of wrongdoing that implicate politicians or business figures," he said. "While IPI stands firmly against imprisonment and criminal defamation laws as being inconsistent with international human rights norms, and instead favours dealing with defamation complaints under civil law, any provision that allows damages that are disproportionate to actual harm is unjust and extremely problematic."

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 26.

Ellis also expressed concern over the potential ramifications of the matter following a statement by Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay last month that it was a "landmark" case that could influence new laws on the use of social media.

Bhutan's information and communications minister, Lyonpo D.N. Dhungyel, told news media at the time: "As of now, Bhutanese are using social media in a sensible manner but often we come across news that takes an unhealthy trend. For that, we do have a social media policy coming into force where we have incorporated certain restrictions regarding what we can share on social media and what we can't share or what kind of news can come into the social media, among others."

Dhungyel was apparently referring to a policy adopted earlier this year for government employees. However, it is unclear whether the government intends to use that as a template for regulation that could impact journalists or Internet users in general.

The policy includes a "code of conduct", that, among others, directs employees to refrain from posting "malicious, incident, vulgar, obscene, misleading or unfair content". What types of material might fall within those categories is not explicitly defined.

Ellis said that IPI was concerned about any potential efforts to regulate online speech, noting the increasing dependence of both journalists and the public on social media outlets as platforms to share and receive information.

"Given the fundamental human rights at stake, any legislation impacting online speech should be drafted with precision in order to ensure that it meets international standards, and with the input of all stakeholders," he commented.

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