In a nascent democracy like Bhutan, the media is perceived as having a very different role to play, one that is socially committed…
Last fortnight the SAARC summit focussed attention on a tiny mountain kingdom that was hosting such a large influx of foreign leaders, officials and media for the first time. It was in a sense a coming out party for Bhutan, a time to showcase why and how they are different. And one of those differences is in their approach to media. There are not too many places in the world which did not permit television until 1999, and which made do with a single government-owned newspaper until 2006. The only Bhutanese TV channel today is a government one.
Media development, meaning a conscious effort to develop a body of media, is currently happening in two parts of South Asia: in Afghanistan and in Bhutan. In Afghanistan, it has been mostly an American-sponsored initiative in the last few years. In Bhutan, it is government policy to try and develop media that will serve the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) that the country has adopted. And promote democracy which the monarchy introduced in 2008. Two days before the summit began, Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley explained to a conference of South Asian journalists why a “fragile, emerging democracy” needed media support of the right kind.
Part of the message had to do with the climate change theme of the 16th SAARC summit. When a carbon negative country like Bhutan wants to remain carbon neutral it has to make tough choices. Explaining this “ecologically correct” and “morally correct” path to the people and getting their support for it is part of the media's job here, said the PM.
“Our government will support media development, particularly at this early stage of their growth, to ensure that they are effectively involved in governance.” He went so far as to call media the fourth branch of government, clarifying: “When we talk of branches we talk of independent branches… we are looking at it as an independent sector as we look at the judiciary.”
So what shape does media development take in Bhutan? Tax breaks and advertising support for new media ventures, media literacy lessons for schools, encouraging more media training institutes, giving scholarships to aspiring journalists to study abroad. The young fifth king has set up a foundation to support media development here. And when you are bringing in a media culture you also have to train bureaucrats and others to do briefings, something which is also taking place.
Bhutan's Secretary for Information, Dasho Kinley Dorji, says his government is the largest advertiser. “When you put government notices and advertising you want the right kind of reach — if you want to reach herdsmen you have to use shortwave radio, in their language.” He also says that he wants to push content — encourage GNH content. Part of the problem is that Bhutan now allows satellite channels, which threaten to swamp the country's oral tradition. “Where are the Bhutanese media heroes — the current ones are all derived from Hollywood and Bollywood. I want to see private channels for Bhutanese content… media is pervasive and decides values. This is a relatively naive society which is exposed to media and you know what that means.”
Bhutan currently has less than a hundred journalists, and six newspapers, of which only two are daily. There is no home delivery, and 70 per cent of the total newspaper circulation is in the capital city of Thimpu. Talking to scribes here is illuminating. “One is first a citizen and then a journalist,” says Passang Dorji, from the weekly newspaper The Journalist, which is just a few months old. Jurmi Chhowing, who has started a monthly newsmagazine called Drupkadisputes the notion that the Bhutanese media is not independent. He says the Government newspaper Kuenselwhich has brought in 49 per cent private equity, has turned around its image and is “strongly aggressive and critical”.
In Bhutan you cannot write about the monarchy — the idea is that the royal family is above criticism. But at another newspaper, Business Bhutan,the editor Tashi Dorji and the newseditor Tenzing Lamsang explain that royalty is narrowly defined in the constitution and where relatives of royalty are concerned, their business dealings have been written about, and their prosecution covered. They also tell you that since the conduct of the main royal family has been exemplary so far, “even if we wanted to write there is nothing to write”.
Democracy has meant an important change. Earlier you could not criticise the bureaucracy because they represented the monarchy. Today the system is separate from the monarchy and can be put under the scanner. “There is an amazing turnaround in the amount of criticism the government can now take, says Tashi Dorji, “and the PM has played a very positive role in this.” The growth in publications in the last six years has also meant a lot more stories being done on corruption in Bhutan.
One of the constructive things the media is expected to do here is publish at least a few pages in the local language, Dzonkha, even though the demand is for media in English. So every issue of any paper contains some pages in Dzonkha. The main worry for the private media here, even as it is beginning to blossom, is viability. The advertising pie is tiny — 80 to 90 per cent of the advertising comes from government, the private sector is not yet heavily into advertising and branding. The cover price is high, Rs. 5 for a daily, Rs. 10 or 15 for a weekly. There are no broadsheets — Phuntsho Wangdi, the editor of Kuensel, says that these are not possible without circulation volume. His paper sells 10,000 copies, the others 5,000 or less. If media continues to grow in Bhutan, it will soon run into a viability problem.
As part of its media development policy the government has instituted media awards, including one for GNH reporting. Ironically, last week, it was won by a story in the Bhutan Observer about a trip with the Secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission to one of the remotest and poorest villages in Bhutan. The villagers tell the Secretary that they are happy. To the reporter they confess that they are not—they live in hunger and debt, and life is very tough.
The editors here tell you that the country needs a lot more investigative journalism but it needs to be done by more experienced people. Wangdi says the stereotype of a politician as corrupt comes from the media in the South Asian region. “In the Bhutanese media we have to do it in a way which strengthens democracy.”
Imagine explaining such nuanced notions to our braying pack back home.