Media at the Crossroads
By Kinley Tshering
For a small country with a population of only about 700,000 people, Bhutan boasts an impressive fleet of 10 newspapers, six radio stations (including Sherubtse Radio, a community radio started by the Sherutbse College in eastern Bhutan), a national television broadcaster (two channels), one online newspaper and several magazines. Five more community radios are in the pipeline. Add to it various Internet and social media outlets that give Bhutanese people an alternative platform to exercise free speech.
At a glance, Bhutan’s media landscape is a rich mix of diverse media outlets – thanks to the liberalisation of media licensing policy in 2006, two years before Bhutan introduced democracy. A closer scrutiny of the situation of media in Bhutan may however reveal altogether a different, rather dismal picture.
Most privately-owned media houses are on the verge of closure. The deteriorating financial position of media organisations has led to shrinking newsrooms. Many senior editors and trained journalists have left the sinking media industry for more secure jobs. This exodus of trained journalists has created a situation where newsrooms are managed by a crop of young, mostly untrained editors and reporters. As a consequence, the quality of journalism has taken a serious beating. At this critical juncture, there seem to be no easy answers on how to revive the media in the country.
Diverse media landscape
In the past decade, Bhutan’s media environment has seen unprecedented developments, particularly spurred by the liberalisation of the media market, socioeconomic and political developments, and advances in information and communication technologies. Privatisation of the media sector was part of the political reforms prior to Bhutan’s transition to a democracy.
The media industry in Bhutan suffered major business setbacks in the past few years due to market saturation and cutthroat competition. Bhutan Youth, a weekly newspaper, folded up after incurring huge losses. Radio High, a Thimphu based FM station, also closed shop. Bhutan Observer, the country’s second private newspaper, migrated to the web, temporarily suspending its print editions. Drukpa, a monthly news magazine also closed down two years back. Currently the, monthly news magazine, Raven, is struggling to remain afloat.
Except for BBS Radio and Kuzoo FM, other radio stations are confined in the capital Thimphu and largely thrive on entertainment programs, music and call-in shows. Magazines such as Yeewong and Druk Trowa are entertainment oriented. Drukair’s in-flight magazine Tashi Delek and Tashi Air’s Kuzuzangpola are surviving because of patronage from the airlines.
Radio is still by far the main source of information for the majority of Bhutanese people. In recent times, television penetration has increased in Bhutan’s hinterland, giving the rural population greater access to both local and international news and entertainment content.
Even as Bhutan’s media is in dire straits, it has continued to perform its role as watchdog, holding authority to account. The media continued to openly criticise public policies and investigate corruption and malfeasance in the government. In fact, the media exposed several corruption issues, notably the Gyelpoizhing land case, Bhutan Lottery and Education City scams involving influential and powerful people including the former prime minister and a few of his cabinet ministers.
The 2013 election campaign was fiercely fought on some of these corruption cases. Some political pundits have also hinted that the former ruling party’s loss could be linked to media exposes on its corrupt practices. On the other hand, a few newspapers practicing investigative journalism have been accused of selective reporting with an intention to bring down the government. Although the previous government did not take ‘negative’ coverage by the media too kindly, it did not make any efforts to openly censor or muzzle the press.
The monthly meet-the-press session with cabinet ministers continued to provide an interactive platform for media and the government and facilitate easier access to top ministers.
However, on several occasions, ministers have purportedly misused this opportunity to admonish reporters for writing anti-government stories. Reporters also enjoyed the freedom to call up ministers including the prime minister, even during non-office hours.
Media in Bhutan played a crucial role as a watchdog particularly during the tenure of the first democratically elected government, to such an extent that it was accused of playing opposition to the ruling party. Media continues to be a major driving force in Bhutanese society, not just disseminating news and information but also encouraging public discourse and debate on a plethora of national issues.
Since the election and coming of the new government in 2013, media has not reported any significant corruption stories. Even the investigative weekly newspaper The Bhutanese that exposed a series of corruption cases during the previous government’s term has mellowed down.
Given the weak financial position of many newspapers, there are possibilities that they could kowtow to the government to solicit indirect support in terms of advertisement revenue, undermining the role of media as the watchdog of the government. If this trade-off does happen, it would signal the sad demise of independent media in Bhutan.
Sustainability: a burning issue
Viability remains a major bottleneck in media development in Bhutan. The opening up of the media market encouraged an unfettered growth and proliferation of private media houses, resulting in overcrowding of the small advertisement market. In Bhutan, the government is the biggest advertiser and print media depends on ad revenue from the government. A cutback in the government advertising budget and an unclear advertising policy has adversely impacted business sustenance of private media houses. Adopting survival tactics, media houses have downsized their staff, closed bureau operations in other parts of the country, and compromised the print runs.
In addition, many senior and trained journalists continue to abandon the media industry for greener pastures, creating a vacuum that is increasingly being filled by young, untrained reporters. Bhutan Times, the country’s first private newspaper, which had nearly 100 employees during its peak in 2008-09, has barely five staff left today. Similarly, other private newspapers have also drastically scaled down their size and operation, and most of them confine themselves to the capital Thimphu and a few nearby towns. This has given rise to an urban bias in media coverage, ignoring the information needs of the rural population.
Many journalists who are currently working with private media have not been paid for several months in a row. The implication of such a trend is abundantly reflected in the dwindling quality of journalism, coverage and reach of Bhutanese media.
The government is yet to introduce an advertising policy that will govern how government ads are distributed to the media. The Ministry of Information and Communications drafted the Advertising Policy but it could not be approved owing to fierce resistance from the media fraternity. Unless there is a clear-cut advertising policy in place, distribution of government advertisements will continue to be done in a haphazard and arbitrary manner. Now that newspapers are being audited, a clearer picture has emerged, which can serve as a baseline to assess media growth in the country. According to circulation auditing for year 2013, Kuensel is the highest circulated newspaper with an average daily circulation of 7,159 followed by The Bhutanese with circulation of 1,712. Kuensel’s Dzongkha language edition has a circulation of 1,306 followed by The Journalist with 1,300. Bhutan Today’s circulation stood at 1,291 and Business Bhutan’s at 848. Other newspapers could not be audited due to lack of proper records.
Crucial RTI law passed
A major legislative breakthrough came in the form of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The National Assembly (Lower House) of Bhutan’s parliament passed the RTI bill during the winter session in February 2014. The Act will be further deliberated in the National Council (Upper House) in the summer session of 2014 and the joint sitting of the parliament is likely to pass the Act in May-June, 2014.
Discussions on RTI in Bhutan have spanned more than six years now. The timeliness and necessity of the Act in Bhutan’s social, cultural, and political context made for fierce debates during the first five years of Bhutan’s democratic experiment. The previous government had promised to enact the law towards the end of its term but failed to do so.
The RTI Act is expected to facilitate easier and greater access to public information, improve transparency and accountability in government, and ensure efficient public service delivery, among others. Bhutanese media strongly lobbied for the act.
Private TV licensing on hold
Bhutan has only one national television broadcaster, BBS TV that runs two channels, one current affairs and the other entertainment.To de-monopolize the television market, media licensing and regulatory body, Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) invited Expression of Interest from individuals and organizations to establish Bhutan’s first private television channel in 2011. Five firms expressed their interest, of which only two applicants made it through the intensive screening process. The two applicants – Rabsel Media and Singye Group – are still waiting for BICMA’s decision. In March 2013, one of the promoters of private TV station, Ugen Tshechup Dorji, filed a case with the media tribunal appellate against BICMA for denying the TV license.
The decision of the media tribunal appellate is not known yet. BICMA meanwhile has maintained that the delay in issuing TV license is mainly because the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Act is under review.
During the 2013 election campaign, the ruling party, People’s Democratic Party, promised to license private television channels in June 2014. If the government keeps its promise, it is very likely that in the next few years, Bhutan would have two private television channels.
Both government and non-government actors with media development mandates continue to prioritise professional development of journalists in Bhutan. The Department of Information and Media (DOIM), Bhutan Media Foundation (BMF) and Bhutan Center for Media and Democracy fund and conduct various training programmes for reporters. The high turnover rate of journalists has necessitated intensified skill development in journalism.
Bhutan Media and Communication Institute (BMCI), a private body, mostly conducts training for reporters outsourced by the DOIM. In February 2014, BMCI conducted advance editing training for copy editors and young editors from the print media. On the recommendation of the Journalists Association of Bhutan (JAB), DOIM will also be organising four trainings viz. multimedia training for mid-level journalists, basic journalism training, radio journalism and training on environment and health/science reporting in March and April 2014.
Meanwhile, BMF has also lined up several journalism training programs for 2014. Most of these trainings are short-term.
Private media houses are not able to invest in human resource development especially long-term trainings owing to financial constraints. In fact, private media operates on a shoestring budget, with little or no reliable budget allocated for enhancing knowledge and skills of their staff.
The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has made major fund commitments to improve and strengthen the media sector under its Democratic Governance Program in the next three years. journalists association strengthened The Journalists Association of Bhutan (JAB) received a boost in 2014 with SDC fund support worth Nu 1.2 million. JAB has established its office and is fully operational. It is also in the process of registering itself as a ‘Civil Society Organisation’, which is critical for JAB to be recognised as a legal entity in Bhutan.
JAB has also started formally registering its members. All journalists, reporters, editors, freelancers, and news producers are eligible to be members of JAB. JAB also launched a study titled “Situational assessment of journalists in Bhutan” in March 2014. JAB functions as a union that protects the rights and welfare of journalists, as well freedom of speech and the media.
The way forward
Much needs to be done to create a vibrant media in Bhutan. The current sustainability crisis faced by media and the consequent deterioration of quality of journalism poses grave challenges for media development in Bhutan.
There is a national consensus on the important role media plays in creating a vibrant democracy, in deepening democratic culture, engaging citizens in discourse and debates on a wide range of national issues, and in keeping a check on the power structure. However, such consensus must be accompanied by strong political commitments to strengthen independent media in Bhutan.
There is an urgent need for a combined effort from government and media owners to find solutions to the existing problems. Wherever possible, the government needs to introduce conducive policies that will nurture the media. On the other hand, media owners and promoters must explore new revenue streams and business models to sustain their media operations.