Bhutanese journalist exposing child abuse convicted for defamation

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 The defamation suit was withdrawn just before the verdict was announced.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.