Tsirang court’s judgement on the case involving the Election Commission of Bhutan and a Tsirang resident sends a message that could have a lasting impact on our democratic process.
To the ECB, it’s a reminder that election process is not just about pressing the button, but allowing people to participate and discuss the process. The commission is the custodian of the secret ballots, but people will have questions and doubts. The onus falls on the Commission to clarify and not drag people to court.
The defendant was imposed 10 months impris- onment for defamation for slandering and making serious accusations against the ECB without any evidence and proof. The defendant questioned the trustworthiness of the EVMs and postal ballots in a Wechat group and made baseless accusations.
The judgment comes at a time when Bhutanese people use social media to express opinions without even giving a second thought if the matter that is being discussed is factual or fake, political propa- ganda or activism.
In this case, there is a winner and no losers. The democratic values that we propagate and the free- dom to expression, a Constitutional right has won if ever there is a winner. Freedom of speech, opinion and expression are the pillars of democracy, if exer- cised with responsibility.
This is also not the first time the ECB and social media users have come into conflict. During the 2018 National Assembly general elections, of the 21 disputes the commission received, 14 were related to social media. The commission had also set many restrictions for the media, both mainstream and so- cial media through its guidelines to ensure free and fair elections.
While the Election Act empowers the Commission to have the powers of a court during the election period, the cases should go to Royal Court of Justice. It’s the Courts that make the final judgment. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that our officials do not get over-excited but create more awareness and education among social media users of their responsibilities and rights.
We did a lot of voter education. But social media has changed the landscape since the first election. Now the focus should be on laws governing the use of social media. It should be a continuous process and not only during the election period. It should also ensure that EVMs do not breakdown during the poll day and issue the same justification of technical glitches.
The questionings and discourses nurture our democratic processes. Allowing people to question the conduct of the institutions mandated to uphold the democratic values and learning from the experi- ences would help democracy to grow.
Democratic institutions have to be accommoda- tive of changes and progress and amend its laws as and when necessary. This also reminds us of our responsibilities when expressing our freedom. Our freedom ends where others’ begin.