Published On: Fri, Aug 16th, 2013

The rise and fall of independent journalism in Bhutan

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The Bhutanese media scene is currently experiencing a strange paradox. Despite the challenges and odds, it has achieved much since the inception of democracy in 2008, to the point of being a major factor in Bhutanese democracy.

Scams have been exposed, wrongs have been righted, broken systems have been fixed, high offices have been held accountable, and the people have been given a voice that is heard loud and clear in the halls of power.

And more often than not, the private media has been at the center of the action, and served as a catalyst for ‘competitive editorial change’ in the state-owned media houses.

However, the last five years has also not been kind on the financial health of the private media due to a host of well known factors. One newspaper has completely exited the scene, a prominent weekly has stopped printing and has had to gone online, and there are some Dzongkha papers that do not publish on some of the days due to no budget. The few newspapers that are seemingly standing are really just tottering, and are a few months away from closure.

It must be accepted that the ‘private media’ is not a monolithic entity, and at one time had consisted of 11 newspapers and is down to just 9 now. It had in it all the diversity, representing everything from the best of journalism to even the underbelly of journalism, at times.

Despite differing sizes, perceptions, ideologies and quality, the private newspapers were of the common agreement that eventually only a handful would survive among them, and those that did would thrive and give a healthy competition to the state-owned media houses.

This, in fact, has been the trend in many new and young democracies around the globe, where a large number of private papers open up, and a few good ones eventually remain.

However, the current situation in Bhutan is not about good private newspapers surviving and the ‘not so good’ ones giving way, but the entire private media fraternity is about to ‘kick the bucket’ in a collective sense.

The situation is such that, even if only one or two very good private newspapers survived, they would still find it difficult to survive given the current scenario.

The dice, so to speak, is loaded against the growth of any strong private media in Bhutan.

The two government-owned and supported behemoths, in the form of the national TV and radio broadcaster and the national paper, currently enjoy near complete monopoly on advertisement revenue and media infrastructure.

In the case of the national paper, it must be clarified that it no longer receives any government support, and operates as an independent and self-sustaining corporation with a professional newsroom.

However, since its entire infrastructure and initial set up was done with government help, it enjoys a huge advantage over any other print media, in terms of reach and coverage and hence receives the government advertisement. It also has the sole monopoly of operating a printing press in the east.

An even bigger giant is the national broadcaster that currently not only consumes the lion’s share of the government budget among the media, in terms of current expenditure, but also has been given the lion’s share, in terms of infrastructure support or capital expenditure to acquire new studios, equipment, and manpower needs.

This, however, is not the problem as one cannot begrudge the national broadcaster which has a stated Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) status, and plays an important role in national development through its coverage of programs on news and current affairs, agriculture, education, health programs, and important national events.

The problem is that this giant news corporation initially intended to be set up as a PSB with the collective effort of not only the RGoB but also foreign donors had been asked to play a commercial role with the aim for self-sufficiency by the former government.

Given its huge ongoing annual government budgetary support, infrastructure, reach, monopoly and coverage combined with its new commercial mandate, the national broadcaster has effectively cornered the advertisement and commercial market. In short, no private media company can compete with it except for the national paper.

Currently, as any neutral observer or news consumer can see, the national media scene is being increasingly dominated by the national broadcaster and the national paper. The short honeymoon era of the private media from 2006 up to 2008-09 is long over, and is now coming to a painful close.

It is also not for the lack of trying on part of the private media investors. Private investors, from farmers holding stock shares to the biggest industrialists in the country, have tried to set up strong private media houses and failed, losing millions in the process. This is because the state- owned media institutions are too strong and enjoy a disproportionate amount of government support.

Given the development, over the past few years, Bhutanese democracy is in a situation where the majority of news consumed by the population in a young democracy comes from the state-owned media houses.

The concern arises over the potential state muscle and control over these media giants in the future.

In the case of the national paper, given its self-sufficient corporation status, is in a much better and more independent position as demonstrated in its professional editorial coverage. It also has a proud tradition to being a virtual starting ground for many senior journalists in the private media. However, the reality is that 51 percent is still owned by the government. Since 51 percent control in any company is majority control, this means that any government can twist its arms if need be.

The bigger problem is again in the status of the national broadcaster. The corporation has, for a long time now, been asking for an autonomous PBS status that would ensure fixed government funds mandated by law, and also give less scope for interference from the government.

However, the reality is that the previous government, despite repeated requests from the former managing director of the national broadcaster, intentionally did not take in the request to convert the broadcaster into a PSB, which made it vulnerable to government interference.

It also put in place a board, under less than transparent circumstances and whose members among others included, the former press advisor of the ex-Prime Minister. Its funding was openly discussed in the Parliament by ruling MPs of previous government under less than professional standards.  The former government, on the other hand, prevented the entry of new private TV stations as it stated that it was worried about ‘politicization’ before the 2013 elections.

If the current scenario continues then the Bhutanese media scenario will soon return to the pre-2006 era, when at the time, only two uncreative, pliable, timid and bored state-owned media houses dominated the fray. This will neither be healthy for journalism nor make for a vibrant democracy, and will ultimately exact a price on the nation in the long run.

“The only security of all is in a free press.” 
Thomas Jefferson

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  1. Dorji says:

    The article about the disadvantage faced by private newspapers is true. Not so long ago the media & social media were threatened with “I will get you” which would have been OK if it was Robert Mugabe rather than a proponent of Happiness. The Bhutanese newspaper had evidence of Ministry of Information’s vindictive decision not to give ads because of its investigative reporting unearthing the Gyelposhing, Trowa & other scams.

    Under DPT, Secretaries, RCSC, MDs of BBS & Kuensel proved to be spineless & became ‘YES LA’ ‘NO LA’ puppets. The national media promoted by His Majesty the Fourth King & handed on a silver platter to the former MD Ace Kinley and Chencho have failed to live upto His Majesty’s vision and cannot even measure up to the Bhutanese. Instead they have bit the hand that fed them. BBS & Kuensel have a few promising journalists but the lack of leadership & allegiance to DPT, has been a big let down. Few glaring cases of BBS & Kuensel’s nefarious activities:

    1. BBS refused to air PDP’s last press conference. They also gave more air coverage to DPT.

    2. In early April 2013 BBS did a documentary on the Wangdi Dzong fire and instead of starting its report from the beginning i.e. how His Majesty’s rushed to the site & salvaged many things, began by praising the former Lyonchhen who wasn’t even in the country when the Dzong burnt! It was outrageous that BBS gave all the credit to the former PM which was factually wrong.

    3. After PDP won the elections on 13 July 2013 & when the whole world congratulated Bhutan, Kuensel’s reporter Ms. S P reported that the new PM has a ‘vindictive’ nature according to his ‘critics’! Unless she has written about DPT messy role in the numerous scams that was the cheapest form of journalism which clearly reflects her bias against PDP. She might as well have claimed she asked a ghost who said so-and-so is vindictive What begs question is why Kuensel allows such garbage. The same reporter attacked PDP Ministerial candidate, Damcho Dorji saying as he had had some visa issues he is not suited to be the Foreign Minister! That was another cheap shot because Damcho himself does not have any visa issues. If Ms SP’s ex-husband committed robbery does it mean she should be fired? Imagine the family members of Damcho Dorji who must have been so proud only to see mud being thrown.

    3. Kuensel reporter RW was the only journalist & Kuensel the only newspaper to publish names of Khukors on a land controversy that hadn’t been investigated by the judiciary.

    4. A Mongar Councillor candidate’s father was upset and angry with the same reporter for attributing the loss of a candidate’s election to his father’s alleged failings. The father’ outburst rejoinder printed by a local paper said this:

    “ While I respect objective journalism, journalists should also earn the respect by being responsible and writing reports that are unprejudiced and without malicious intents against anyone… Making such irresponsible comments and false allegations is unacceptable. Mr Rinzin Wangchuk must not cover election related news from his hometown (Mongar) if unbiased and objective reporting is to be maintained”.

    5. How come Kuensel & BBS has not reported about the current PM’s decision to do away with luxury vehicles & fleet of police around him and residence? Are they afraid someone will ‘get them” or do we see a pattern by some Secretaries, reporters & MDs of the only two national media houses?.

    Dorji Dorji

  2. […] to support them all. Now it has begun to cut back on advertising and newspapers are closing down. Some Bhutanese journalists are complaining that it’s not possible to have an independent press if the papers that are left standing are […]

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