CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

Bhutan

Live rating: Obstructed

Last updated on 18.03.2019 at 12:17

Bhutan-Overview

Despite significant improvements in respect of basic civic freedoms since the political transition to democratic rule began, Bhutan still has work to do before its people can fully enjoy a free and open society in which civic space, and particularly the right to free expression, are respected in practice. A number of laws are designed to provide for citizen participation in a democratic society, however in reality implementation remains limited.

read more

Latest Civicus alert

See all CIVICUS Alerts

from the news feed

view the news feed
Bhutanese journalist exposing child abuse convicted for defamation

Bhutanese journalist exposing child abuse convicted for defamation

A Bhutanese journalist was sentenced to three months imprisonment in August for libel for a post that she written on her personal Facebook about a woman who had allegedly ill-treated her six-year old step daughter

On 6th August 2018, Bhutanese journalist Nirmala Pokhrel was sentenced to three months imprisonment for libel under section 320 of the Penal Code. She had been charged in August 2017, for a post that she had written on her personal Facebook site in June 2017, about a woman who had allegedly ill-treated her six-year old step daughter. Besides the jail sentence, the court also demanded that the journalist post an apology to the woman on Facebook and keep it up for a month.

According to Nirmala, she had received credible information about the abuse and as it was a weekend, posted the news on Facebook hoping the authorities would act immediately. Nirmala also believed that she did not defame the woman, as the police had told her that during their investigation, that the child had told her class teacher that her stepmother had battered her. The child was then temporarily removed from her stepmother's custody by the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC).

In a letter submitted to court during her trial, Nirmala said she believed the charges against her “undermined the fundamental right of free speech and the fundamental duty of every Bhutanese citizen to take necessary steps to prevent abuse of children and also the right of people to know the truth and a reporter’s duty to tell the story". She said:

“While I have written that status considering it my responsibility as a citizen to act in the best interest of the child who is ill-treated and abused, as mandated by Article 8, section 5 of the Constitution. I am also the bureau correspondent for...a daily newspaper, and as mandated by Section 27 of the Child Care and Protection Act of Bhutan 2011, which specifies the role of media as an important one to prevent offences against child.”

This is the second time a Bhutanese journalist has been taken to court for defamation for a Facebook post. In 2016, journalist Namgay Zam, formerly a news anchor with Bhutan Broadcasting Service, was charged for sharing a Facebook post written by a woman about a property dispute between her family and a local businessman, Sonam Phuntsho. The post included allegations of forgery, as well as nepotism within the judiciary. The defamation suit was withdrawn just before the verdict was announced. 

Bhutan’s press freedom ranking fell by 10 places this year according to the 2018 World Press Freedom index.

Lhotshampa minority remain displaced and their electoral rights restricted

Lhotshampa minority remain displaced and their electoral rights restricted

While the elections in 2018 and the formation of a third new government since the introduction of democracy in 2008 has been seen as positive for the country, the Lhotshampa minority group continued to be denied any engagement with the election process.

In October 2018, Bhutan held its parliamentary elections. The centre-left Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) won the elections, defeating the Druk Phunsum Tshogpa (DPT), which governed the country between 2008-2013. The ruling People’s Democratic Party was eliminated in the first of the two rounds of the election. The new Prime Minister Lotay Tshering is a medical doctor who gained national prominence for his mobile practice and came into power promising to promote social services in his manifesto. His party secured 30 seats in the parliament while the opposition DPT won 17 seats. Despite the elections being dominated by male candidates, five women were elected. Three were from the DNT party and two from DPT. Out of 10 ministers appointed to the new cabinet in November 2018 only one was a woman.

Association

Minority Lhotshampa people sidelined during elections

While the election and the formation of a third new government since the introduction of democracy in 2008 has been seen as a positive development for the country, the Lhotshampa minority group continues to face restrictions in engaging with the election process.

Many of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa people were stripped of citizenship rights and driven out of Bhutan in the 1990s after the king at the time introduced a “One Nation, One People” policy in 1985. Wearing their traditional dress, and speaking Nepali was banned. Those who resisted where labelled “anti-nationals”, arrested and subjected to brutal treatment according to Amnesty International.

Around 100,000 fled and ended up in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. At least 7,000 still remain in the camps while the majority have been resettled by the UN. Some refused resettlement “because they say it absolves the Bhutanese authorities of what they did to the Lhotshampa”.

Political parties demanding rights for the Lhotshampa have been banned under the constitution, which states that “all parties have to promote national unity and are barred from using ethnicity or religion to attract voters”. Parties also have to field candidates in all 47 constituencies. This has meant that the Lhotshampa have had their electoral rights restricted. In the 2013 elections international monitors documented Nepali-speakers being turned away from polling centres.  It is unclear how many of the community are still in Bhutan.

UN urges government to support CSOs working on access to justice

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention conducted its official country visit to Bhutan from 14th to 24th January 2019. The working group said that the government has made progress in ensuring the right to liberty but must do more to improve due process for defendants.

The Working Group met civil society organisations (CSOs) and was “encouraged that CSOs are growing in strength and number” and were playing an important role to provide assistance to “to economically disadvantaged and vulnerable groups”. It urged the authorities to support CSOs, including those that work on civil and political rights and access to justice, so that they can “assist in addressing issues relating to arbitrary detention in Bhutan”. 

Peaceful Assembly

Protests are uncommon in Bhutan. While the freedom of peaceful assembly is constitutionally guaranteed, the Bhutanese are not allowed to organise a protest without government approval, substantially restricting the scope of planned demonstrations and rendering spontaneous demonstrations illegal.

Protests are uncommon in Bhutan. While the freedom of peaceful assembly is constitutionally guaranteed, the Bhutanese are not allowed to organise a protest without government approval, substantially restricting the scope of planned demonstrations and rendering spontaneous demonstrations illegal. The 1992 National Security Act provides a legal basis for the government to restrict freedom of assembly by demanding extra documents, prohibiting assembly in designated areas and by imposing curfews.

Expression

During Bhutan’s recent transition to democratic rule, in 2006 the government passed a media law aimed at liberalising the media landscape and allowing more pluralism in the sector. However, due to the country’s small private sector, most media outlets depend almost entirely on government advertising for survival; a situation which restricts their editorial independence, encourages self-censorship and impairs people’s ability to access a range of viewpoints through the media.

During Bhutan’s recent transition to democratic rule, in 2006 the government passed a media law aimed at liberalising the media landscape and allowing more pluralism in the sector. However, due to the country’s small private sector, most media outlets depend almost entirely on government advertising for survival; a situation which restricts their editorial independence, encourages self-censorship and impairs people’s ability to access a range of viewpoints through the media. In one instance, the government restricted advertising in the newspaper The Bhutanese, a move thought to have been in retaliation for the publication of articles exposing the possible abuse of power and corruption within government. A survey by the Journalists Association of Bhutan in 2015 found that 58% of working journalists and 62% of former journalists felt unsafe when covering stories critical of the authorities and at least 47% of journalists said they had been threatened for covering critical stories.