EDITORIAL: Freedom from the press

THIMPHU (Kuensel/ANN) - The National Council election process has been fairly smooth. Or so the election officials say.

The Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) has fielded an army of officials across the country to facilitate the election process. It has stepped up services to assist voters, which has received much appreciation from the public. But it has also overlooked some places like Thimphu and the nominee meeting at Zilukha is more likely to be remembered for how disorganised it was than its nominee. It has appointed media spokespersons and constituted the media arbitrator’s office. The former is to enhance access to information and the latter to monitor media coverage. These mechanisms are put in place to ensure that the people are informed accurately. It is not to be misunderstood as a tool to police and gag the media.

Asking questions must not be construed as the media questioning their authority. Seeking clarification must not be scorned as interrogation. For a journalist’s right to question comes with the responsibility to find answers. When authorities, supposedly competent cannot provide answers, let alone cite laws and rules to explain why the media can and cannot report on certain events but still dictate to do so, we have a problem.

The commission has the constitutional mandate to conduct the most important process of a democracy. When it, as an institution remains elusive to the media and political parties being dictated, we risk losing the essence of democracy. Shunning the media and political activities, which are anyway happening, paints a false picture of a smooth election process.

We believe that the commission is sincere in its efforts to conduct a free and fair election. But free and fair is not only limited to the freedom to vote and the knowledge of how to cast a vote. It is as much and more so about the participatory process where voters engage in public discourse and are informed to make informed decisions.

The media is responsible to ensure that this process is transparent, free and fair. Their absence or lack of coverage on the election process indicates that the election process has not been free or fair. With the office of the media arbitrator summoning one media house after another for explanations, there is already a growing sense of election fatigue among journalists. Questioning the rationale of total voters in a county and past elections details in a story has forced the media houses to question if the office of the media arbitrator is media literate.

A society can often be judged by the way it treats the media. In the spirit of a free and fair election, it is hoped that the high office of the ECB, despite being elusive and contemptuous of the media, will look into the concerns of the media. Stifling media freedom during an election process contradicts, not enhance the ethos of a democratic society.


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