Why Journalists Are Unhappy in ‘Happy’ Bhutan

By Vishal Arora

Bhutan’s fledgling free press is struggling to stay afloat. Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Bhutan’s fledgling free press is struggling to stay afloat. Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Bhutan is the only country in the world which claims to put citizens’ happiness at the heart of government policy. But if you ask the nation’s private journalists, they will tell you a different story.

The country’s first private newspaper, Bhutan Times, had about 100 employees in 2008. Today, you can count the staff at the weekly on the fingers of one hand.

The Bhutan Observer has a similar story. After having cut its staff to 10, from 56, the weekly suspended its print edition last month.

While Bhutan Today recently switched from daily to bi-weekly, other media houses have laid off staff and are struggling to pay those still in their employ.

“Private newspapers are totally unsustainable, and we don’t see any hope in the foreseeable future,” said Needrup Zangpo, the editor of Bhutan Observer.

Bhutan, now a constitutional monarchy, first allowed a free private media to operate in 2006 amid preparations for its first-ever democratic election in 2008. Until then, the national broadcaster Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) and then fully government-owned Kuensel daily were the only outlets for news in the country.

With only two new additions in the first two years, the private media boomed. But as the number swelled to about a dozen, revenue dropped.

With all newspapers dependent on government ads for about 90% of their revenue, each publication’s share of the ad pie naturally shrank, Mr. Zangpo explained. But worse was to come.

Within years, the pie itself reduced in size when an economic crisis hit this tiny nation last year. Some believe the previous government used the crisis as a pretext to punish private media for their newfound interest in muckraking, for instance The Bhutanese, a bi-weekly had exposed corruption in the then government.

This happened around the time when Bhutan convened a high-level meeting on “gross national happiness” at the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth king, gross national happiness today refers to the nation’s policy of balancing modernity with preservation of traditions, mostly by resisting laissez-faire development. The nation also conducts periodic surveys to measure the levels of happiness among its citizens.

However, happiness is a fast depleting commodity for most journalists in the national capital of Thimphu, the hub of the private media, according to those working in the industry.

Chencho Dema is one such example. She wasn’t paid her full salary for five months. “I’d get to office at around 10 a.m. with my three-month-old baby as I was all alone, and get back home at about 10 p.m., only to receive a portion of my salary that would just cover the house rent,” Ms. Dema said of her previous stint with a newspaper, which she asked not be identified.

“The happiness quotient of journalists in Bhutan’s private media is dismal,” said Aby Tharakan, a Thimphu-based consultant from India who has been closely associated with the Bhutanese private media since 2006.

Tashi Dorji, who quit Business Bhutan, the nation’s only financial newspaper, as its editor last year, and left journalism as a profession, agrees. “Unless there’s a major policy shift to encourage it to survive, there’s no hope,” Mr. Dorji said.

He’s not the only one to leave the field out of disillusionment. The president and the general secretary of the Journalists Association of Bhutan are also no longer affiliated with newspapers, though they continue to help those who remain in the business.

In his first state of the nation report late last month, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay acknowledged that the financial health of the print media was not encouraging. He also said something needed to be done, but he didn’t say what or how.

There are too many newspapers for a small market, and the government is “not flooded with money,” said Dasho Kinley Dorji, the Information and Communications Secretary in Bhutan’s government and no relation to Tashi Dorji.

Bhutan has a population of 740,000 people with a national literacy rate of 63%.

“Every citizen has the right to start a newspaper, so we’ll have to adopt a liberal policy… Let the market decide,” Mr. Dorji, the Information Secretary said, adding, however, that he plans to propose some measures to deal with the crisis and that the government would come out with details soon.

The focus for a rescue strategy is on the government because the private sector is small. But that’s “because there’s not enough impetus for growth from the government,” said Mr. Zangpo the editor of the Bhutan Observer. “Economic growth, which is expected to be largely driven by the private sector, is an important component of gross national happiness,” he argued.

But could the happiness measure itself be a reason the government has not been able to help the private sector to grow? Perhaps, said Mr. Zangpo, who says that the gross national happiness policy is used as a screening tool to weigh business proposals based on likely effects on people’s stress levels, lifestyle and the nation’s culture and tradition, rather than potential to make money and help the economy grow.

The Doing Business Project, a World Bank program, which provides objective measures of business regulations and their enforcement across 185 economies, placed Bhutan as 148 out of 185 countries for “Ease of Doing Business” this year, above Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq.

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From New York Times

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