Prior to 2006, Bhutan had one print media Kuensel, and one state owned BBS radio and television broadcast media. Then came democracy and with it came two other private print media and few radio stations. And in the next few years we had around a dozen print media, five radio stations and some magazine publications.
Going by the sheer number of media especially print media, a first look at the figure gives the impression of healthy number for a small country. It also gives the impression of our society being voracious readers. But the reality is entirely different. The sheer number of print media is neither healthy nor are Bhutanese great reader by any standard.
There was a big expectation from the public when the first two private print media came on the stage in 2006. Both the two private newspapers, Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer provided an alternative news stories to what was normally reported in Kuensel. While both the private newspapers had their distinct appeal, Kuensel also began changing its outlook to deal with the changing situation. Both the first two private media also invested heavily in human resource development and in putting infrastructures in place.
The first democratically elected government was ushered in 2008 and thereafter more private print media came in the scenario and the competition also intensified in all areas. It will be unfair to say that the first government did nothing to strengthen media in the country. I think all the private media enjoyed tax holidays and also equitable distribution of government advertisements for some years. Although, it may have been difficult for some information to come readily under the new democratic culture, no deliberate attempts on the part of the government to withhold information had been reported in the past. In addition, the monthly press meet with the government enabled media to ask even hard questions that were unthinkable in the past.
Media also seemingly exercised its full rights guaranteed by the constitution and was often critical of almost all the policies of the government. At times, there was a feeling that even ordinary stories became scam to media. Yet, not a single media house or a journalist has ever been taken to task showing its tolerance to fledgling media.
There was an interesting development that took place in the media industry in Bhutan. No private media was self sustaining and depended heavily on government advertisement for their sustenance on the one hand and on the other hand, it was the same media that was attacking the government on every front. So, call what may, the so called austerity and cost cutting measures by the government are obviously a way to hit back at the media. This was a sad development for the fledgling media but such a measure was expected. The government took the brazen boldness of media as trying to bite and swallow the same finger that was meant for suckling.
This situation had its impact in the entire system. Prior to the implementation of cost cutting measures, newspapers were subscribed by all the government offices and every classroom in almost all the schools had at least one copy of all the newspapers. This enabled children to read more and also be informed of what was happening in the country. This was what was needed to instill reading habit in our children.
Sadly though, one of the first sacrificial lambs of the government’s cost cutting measure was restriction on advertisement followed by doing away of office subscriptions of newspapers and slashing of newspaper numbers in schools. Slowly, it was no longer available in the classrooms and only offices of importance had the privilege of having newspapers in their offices. This was a ridiculous cost cutting measure. One weekly private newspaper cost a mere Nu 10. What would be its impact on the exchequer? One day DSA of a mid level official will be enough to cover one year subscription of a private weekly and only god knows how many fictitious DSAs are being claimed in a year that would have made a larger impact.
This led newspapers to take cost cutting measures too. Professionals who joined media with the intent of spending their lifetime in media had to seek alternative positions and began leaving their profession. Bureaus in the dzongkhags had to be closed and media houses became Thimphu centric depriving the rural majority their voices. Today, if print media are surviving, they are there just barely hoping for a miracle. Already, one of the first private print media Bhutan Observer is in its indefinite state without its print edition. From a strong manpower of over 70 people, there is just a handful left now.
So much was promised by the present government and there was lot of expectations from media houses. So far, nothing good seems to be happening for media. The much hyped Right to Information Act (RTI) that was meant to provide more media freedom through an act threatens to curtail those rights provided by the constitution and the act remains in its primordial form. But, where is the vociferousness of the media now. The tiger that roared five years back looks to have become domesticated cat now purring by the hearth.
This state of the media, especially print media is a worrying situation for our democracy that is just over six years old. The recent report in an international journal Business Standard, quoting findings of Journalists Association of Bhutan (JAB), is a cause of concern not just for media but for our six year old fledgling democracy. There is an urgent need for a wise media policy in the country because it is the freedom and vibrancy of the media that will be the basis for the international community to judge the state of our democracy.
But, the vibrancy of a free media must not always be indicated by scams and negative reporting in order to grab headlines. The fourth estate must be responsible too. Media must adapt itself to the needs of the country; media must report what is the truth without hyperbolic rhetoric and also serve the larger cause of bringing our society closer to each other towards attainment of national objectives. Media in Bhutan cannot ape what media elsewhere in the world do because priorities and situations differ as said by the renowned BBC journalist Sir Mark Tully.
Whether print media survives or not, people today have a wide range of media where everyone is a journalist in his own right. Facebook, twitter, text messages, e-mail, wechat and of course blogging allows us to share our thoughts and views on wide variety of issues confronting us. Until we meet again, take care and happy reading!!!
August 25, 2014.