By KAI SCHULTZ
In what rights advocates regard as an important test case for press freedom in Bhutan, a prominent journalist is facing a defamation suit for sharing a Facebook post documenting a property dispute involving a local businessman.
The journalist, Namgay Zam, has been accused of libel by the businessman, Sonam Phuntsho, in what Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay has called a landmark case that could shape proposed restrictions on social media usage in Bhutan. The post includes allegations that Mr. Phuntsho had garnered favors from the country’s judiciary, where his son-in-law is chief justice.
Ms. Zam, a former television presenter with the state-run Bhutan Broadcasting Service, and the woman who wrote the post, Shacha Wangmo, face a maximum fine of about $38,000 — around 15 times the country’s annual per capita income — or up to three years in prison if convicted.
Ms. Zam and Ms. Wangmo presented evidence at a district court in Thimphu, the capital, on Monday.
Known for its adherence to “gross national happiness,” a development indicator that values levels of well-being over economic indicators such as gross domestic product, Bhutan was considered a success story in South Asia when it held peaceful democratic elections in 2008, after a century as an absolute monarchy.
But some say the case exposes fault lines in the country’s record of protecting its constitutional freedoms of speech and of the press. Because many public officials and institutions have ties to the popular royal family, journalists cite a high level of self-censorship that deters Bhutanese from criticizing the elite.
A 2014 report from the Journalist Association of Bhutan found that a majority of the 119 respondents felt “unsafe” covering certain types of events. Many of the respondents also said it was difficult to gain access to information in the country, citing few resources and little institutional support.
Ms. Zam said that because of her actions she had been called “antinational” by some sections of Bhutanese society.
“What’s not coming out in national media comes out in social media, and oftentimes, it is the truth,” she said in an interview. “Media freedom is diminishing. We had our high point in 2008, during the first democratic elections, but it’s just been a downward spiral since then.”
Sarah Repucci, senior director of global publications at Freedom House, a nonprofit group that releases an annual report on press freedom, said the case could affect Bhutan’s rating on the list, which she said was “consistently mediocre.”
“We have not in recent years documented cases specifically against journalists,” she said, but she noted that certain topics in Bhutan, including the expulsion of thousands of residents of Nepalese descent from the country, are still considered taboo.
Mr. Phuntsho’s son-in-law, Dasho Tshering Wangchuk, the chief justice of Bhutan, said in an interview that he believed free speech existed in the country, but that social media “guidelines” were needed, in part to protect the “sovereignty and security” of a small country like Bhutan, which is sandwiched between the regional superpowers, China and India.
“This particular social activist is a very popular young lady and a lot of impressionable young people follow her,” he said of Ms. Zam. “For them, whatever she writes is the gospel truth. That becomes dangerous.”
“Like in the judiciary, also, you must have your code of ethics,” he said, referring to the state of journalism in the country. “The court will not force them to divulge some source. But then we must all remember that your fundamental rights are not absolute. It’s subject to reasonable restrictions.”