Impostor!

Impersonating anyone on social media is easy. All that’s needed is to create an account using that person’s name, photo and other relevant information. And the impersonator is in business.

We’ve seen one person impersonate the prime minister on Twitter. And another person, also on Twitter, has been going around as MP Tshering Penjor. More recently, someone has opened a Facebook page pretending to be me.

I don’t mind impersonators on social media, especially if their purpose is to expose and make fun of the stupidity and excesses of public officials. This type of satire could generate much-needed laughter, while also subtly passing on important messages to the public as well as the targeted official.

But it’s dangerous, and unacceptable, when impersonators become impostors. The purpose of impersonators is to entertain and to poke fun at public officials. The purpose of impostors is to deceive and mislead the public.

The person who pretends to be me on Facebook is an impostor. That impostor has used my name with my photograph to deceive my Facebook followers that Bhutanomics is run by PDP and The Bhutanese. In fact, that impostor even misled BBS into believing that it was really me.

I’ve expressed my views, even very critical ones, openly and honestly during my term as MP. I’ve done so in the Parliament, in the media, when interacting with the public, and on my blog, Facebook and Twitter. I do not need (thankfully) the cover of anonymity to discharge my duties as a member of the opposition party. And no, I do not have any thing to do with Bhutanomics.

I wrote about Bhutanomics because I’m against illegal censorship. But there’s a bigger reason I wrote about it:  I’m frightened that any one who can order the illegal closure of a website could also, just as easily, order phone conversations to be tapped and SMS messages to be tracked, illegally.

 

Illegal censorship

Loud and clear

Loud and clear

Bhutanomics is a political satire blog set up by “Bhutan analyzers” who are committed to keeping a check on the “ballooning egos of the powerful so that they don’t forget the people are watching.”

The blog was launched in March, last year. And within no time, they attracted a large and faithful following which seemed to keep growing. Traffic to the blog was so high that the administrators were forced to upgrade and expand their website infrastructure several times.

Then, all of a sudden, on 12 January, Bhutanomics went dead. Their website was inaccessible. In fact, users of Tashi’s or Samden’s ISPs could access it. And anyone outside the country could access it. The website could also be accessed using anonymous proxy servers.But anyone using the Druknet’s internet services could not access the website.

Druknet is Bhutan’s biggest ISP. And Druknet is a government-owned company.

Most followers were convinced that Druknet had blocked Bhutanomics. But Druknet denied it. The information and communication secretary and BICMA, the media’s regulator, also denied any involvement in blocking Bhutanomics. And the cabinet secretary denied issuing any order to block the website.

Yet, Bhutanomics was not accessible. And full access to it was reinstated only only after the outpouring of public outrage threatened to grow. The controversial website is back online. But all is not well. All cannot be considered to be well until the perpetrators of the blatant censorship of Bhutanomics are exposed and bought to full account.

I’m reproducing below the full interview between Bhutanomics and Kuensel with the hope that we reflect on what happened; that we continue to ask questions; and that we commit to fighting any and all forms of illegal censorship. 

 

Q. Well firstly, I haven’t yet confirmed with Druknet/BICMA if Bhutanomics is indeed blocked, but attempts to access it so far seem to indicate it is.

A. Bhutanomics hasn’t been accessible in Bhutan since 12 Jan 2013. Strange thing is its still viewable through a proxy server.

Just as a precaution, have you checked with your own web host to eliminate any technical reasons?

Our website is firing on all cylinders. Bhutanomics is accessible everywhere in the world except Bhutan. Why would we spend precious little money we have to run a website that doesn’t work?

If it is indeed blocked, like what happened to the previous version of Bhutan Times, then my question to you would be whether you think this censorship of free speech, and why?

Obviously it is. Bhutanomics is not like the old website bhutantimes. In that most of the focus was on anti-national rhetoric by people in the camps. Only prior to the 2008 elections did bhutantimes begin to approach domestic politics and that was restricted to bashing one main person contesting for prime minister. We suppose, if Bhutanomics did that i.e. bash someone other than the ruling government (we could even bash the country it seems) we would not be banned. We would be welcomed.

As you can see Bhutanomics has no affiliation. Everyone is a fair target. Everyone is allowed to contribute. The central theme is that we care for the country and each article is about something that makes us worried, whether it is bad policy or personality flaws or sheer stupidity on the part of those in power.

If you aspire to positions of power, you must be able to take the brickbats. In America, groups have questioned openly the very citizenship of the president.

If the PM can take unlimited praise such as “JYT phenomenon”, “world statesman”, “no other leader like him”, “solver of the Amochu problem,” and so on, then he should be able to accept that there are others who think otherwise.

If meetings and conferences were open and criticism and argument were permitted instead of avenged by the government (such as with many civil servants, dzongdags and newspapers) then Bhutanomics may be unnecessary.

But with the lack of space for free criticism we have to resort to this.

By banning us, the ruling government has joined that very special group of governments in North Korea, Cuba, China, Syria, etc., where there is censorship of the internet.

How would you respond to comments that some material on your website is defamatory/personal attacks/perhaps could undermine a free and fair elections?

The stories that we have published are all contributed by people – people who are concerned about the state of the country. We just provide the platform and the security for those people to express themselves.

The parts considered unbearable by those in power are what in other countries is called satire and lampooning. Check out NDTV’s political cartoon or The Onion in the US or the numerous ones in the UK.

Banning criticism is really the situation where free and fair elections are not possible.

What is the purpose of Bhutanomics? And when was it established?

We have been around since the beginning of 2012. We think of ourselves as the Bhutan analyzers who try to keep up with the happenings in the corridors of power. We try to keep a check on the ballooning egos of the powerful so that they don’t forget the people are watching.

Given presence of proxy servers, Facebook, and Twitter, does such a block really matter to you?

The block proves that our government cannot stand any form of criticism. That matters to us. If they are sincerely doing their duty why would they be averse to criticism?

Yes proxy servers means people can still read bhutanomics but that’s not the point. If people feel a certain way about something they should be allowed to say it. Why block them? It’s a futile exercise. You can’t block the internet in this day and age. Instead the government should read between the lines of the satire and try to correct their mistakes.

Amazing social media

Social animal

Social media is amazing. Click on a few buttons, like a page, follow a friend, and, voila!, you know everything that’s going on around you.

To politicians, that knowledge is invaluable. It allows them to hear the people, to listen to them, to feel their pulse.

But social media has an even bigger gift for politicians. It facilitates communication. It allows politicians to interact continuously with people, easily and directly.

Yes, social media is amazing. That’s why I, as a politician, am active on Twitter and Facebook. That’s also why I’m on Youtube and Bambuser and Linkedin and Instagram. And that’s why I maintain this blog.

Over the years, I’ve received many messages, mainly on Facebook. Many of them have carried good wishes and words of encouragement … and criticism

But I’ve received many other types of messages as well: some giving me advice, some complaining about public policy, some explaining their personal problems, some asking for help with their school research, some asking for money, some asking if I know their long lost friend, and some simply to say “hi!”

Of the thousands of messages I’ve received, my all time favorite came from a young boy. He sent me this desperate message last week:

“Uncle, I have a cute little pug dog who I love very much. Last time, my mummy has given to your brother as he has a female pug. And my mummy cannot remember his no. Please ask him to bring back my pug. I miss him very much. Please uncle!!!”

I had to attend to his request immediately. I tracked down my brother, then went back on Facebook. But before I could tell him the good news, this message was waiting for me:

“Thank you uncle. He brought it back. Me and my sister are very happy now. Mummy wanted to send him with Aunty but we didn’t let her send him. Please tell other uncle, he can bring his dog to our home to meet my dog sometime. We will also send our dog to his home. Again, thank you uncle.”

Social media is amazing.

Facebook strikes

Listen to them!

After several friends suggested it, I’ve added a new page called “News clips”. The idea is to provide links to news articles, especially to critical ones, that talk about what the opposition party and I have been doing.

The first link is to a story by Kuensel. It’s about the growing influence of social media in Bhutan, a discussion that took place during the recent Mountain Echoes literary festival.

Social media has already made remarkable inroads in Bhutan. In past five years, there’s been a proliferation of discussion forums, social networking sites and blogs. And some of them – like Bhutantimes.com, Nopkin, Kuzu-Bhutan Weblog, Kuzu.net and several Facebook groups – have emerged as powerful ways of creating, sharing and discussing information.

Foremost among them is Amend the Tobacco Control Act, a Facebook group created by Kinley Shering, dedicated to discussing the tobacco law. The group’s 2,252 members have already logged 1,417 posts, and both, numbers of members and posts, keep increasing each day.

The tobacco group’s discussions are diverse, vibrant and persistent. And its members readily express their opinions and vent their frustrations. This, however, is not exactly new, as online discussion forums, like Bhutantimes.com, also host lively discussions.

But Amend the Tobacco Group is different in several other ways. One, and most obviously, the group’s members are not anonymous – Facebook profiles generally have real names along with real addresses, photographs, email IDs and even telephone numbers.

Two, the discussions are focused on just one topic, tobacco, and have some order and discipline – members are not unnecessarily nasty, abusive or profane.

And three, the group has organized real measures to back up their virtual demands. First, they collected signatures – online and off – to petition for an amendment to the Tobacco Control Act. That has not worked, so now they have begun to write letters to their respective MPs and to publish those letters on Facebook.

All this is powerful stuff. And potentially dangerous too.

If the group is ignored, if their voices remain unheard, and if frustration grows, emotions could escalate and spill onto Thimphu’s streets. That would not be good. And that must not happen.

So the government would be well advised to take the group seriously. They should join the group and explain their position. They should take part in the discussions, listen to the grievances, and spearhead common solutions.

In a healthy democracy, citizens must be able to express themselves – individually and collectively. Facebook has provided a platform to do so. We can protest, rally, picket and demonstrate online, on Facebook. But for that to work, the government must also take part, and ensure that the voices on Facebook groups are heard.

The government should use Facebook, not ignore it. That’s why I say: “Rather than taking to the streets, take it to Facebook!”

Social media and politics

Welcome

Mountain Echoes, a literary festival, starts this Friday. The festival, which has already become Thimphu’s biggest annual literary event, will take place at the Tarayana Centre.

Please take part in the festival if you are interested in art, literature and culture. It runs through 24th of May and is open to the public.

On Monday, 23rd of May, I join Gopilal Acharya, David Davidar and John Elliot to discuss social media in Bhutan. Please join us if you are interested.

I’ll be talking about “social media and politics in Bhutan”. So I’m interested in listening to your views: has social media had an effect on politics in Bhutan?

Social media and Bhutan

Social media was the subject of Bhutan’s attention on two occasions last month.

In one, the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy organized a conference to discuss “… the current social media scene in Bhutan and … how this can be used to benefit Bhutanese society.” The conference, which also provided “… a step by step guide to using Twitter and Facebook …”, took place on 29th and 30th March.

In the other, the government issued a circular pointing out that social media sites were “taking a toll on the productivity of the government machinery” and suggesting that social sites “… should be blocked in the office servers during the official working hours”. The circular, reproduced below, goes on to caution that “Measures adopted is to come into effect not later than 31st March, 2011.”


Secret agents

Friend or foe?

WikiLeaks: 38 of you said that WikiLeaks promotes transparency and accountability in government; 24 think that it threatens international relations and global security; and 6 readers either had made up their minds or didn’t know about WikiLeaks.

Thank you for taking the poll.

It’s important to think about WikiLeaks. And what the whistle-blowing phenomenon means for Bhutan. Drukpa, a monthly newsmagazine, asked me for my views and published them in their latest issue. My commentary in Drukpa follows:

Opinion over WikiLeaks is sharply divided. The whistle-blowing website has angered many governments. They claim that the indiscriminate release of secret information threatens international relations and global security. And they warn that it endangers the lives of innocent people. So they have aggressively sought to discredit WikiLeaks and its upstart founder, Julian Assange.

But others including journalists, activists and technologists, claim that WikiLeaks makes governments and corporations more transparent and accountable. They herald the organization as a champion of democracy and good government. And anonymous supporters of WikiLeaks have retaliated by attacking the websites of several agencies who have appeared to suppress the organization. [Continue Reading…]