The rise and fall of independent journalism in Bhutan
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the scene, a prominent weekly has stopped printing and has had to gone online, and there are some Dzongkha papers that do not publish on some of the days due to no budget.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.”