These days, there has been much hand wringing and howling within the media fraternity on the state of the Bhutanese media and its decline. Bhutan’s fall in the press freedom ranking in the last three years is a good indicator of this point.
Various views have been shared by many on the issue of sustainability, role of government policies, advertisement, state of the economy, number of media houses, austerity measures, etc.
However, what has not been discussed is the role of media houses and journalists, themselves, in the decline of the spirit of journalism over the last three years.
To borrow a saying from an American President, ‘day of infamy’ occurred in April 2013 in Bhutanese journalism as an editorial in a private weekly begged the government to crack down on Free Press. The editorial accused the former government of being too compassionate and lenient on the media.
This came at a time when the then government was already cracking down on Free Press by means of issuing confidential circulars banning government advertisement to intimidating journalists for facts and evidence-based critical stories.
This was not an isolated incident because in interviews and press conferences, a well known journalist from a government-owned media outlet kept asking in ‘sycophantic outrage’ on why the government is so tolerant of ‘irresponsible media’ (read critical media) implying that the government should get tougher and crack down, to the then government’s obvious delight.
There were other editorials, panel discussions, suggestive or leading questions, opinion pieces and articles from within sections of the journalism community that either openly or indirectly supported the former government’s persecution of Free Press for narrow political, business and other ends.
Another important indicator of this trend was that whenever there were investigative stories backed with credible evidence against members of the former government, there were the usual lackeys in the media who went blindly by the government defense with some even doing counter articles or programs. This is clear from the early and often entirely off the mark coverage and opinions of some media houses on issues like Gyelpozhing, Denchi or Bhutan Lottery scam.
The biggest assault on Free Press since the advent of democracy was a confidential circular from the MoIC in April 2012 that asked government agencies to not advertise with this paper. This was an unprecedented attack on Free Press – not only because it was being done in response to critical and factual reporting by a paper, but it showed that the government was willing to use advertisement as a weapon to control content.
There were media houses and many journalists with conscience that covered the issue and also expressed outrage on the issue. However, there were again a sizeable few that went out of its way to underplay the issue or take a government-oriented line on the issue with some even trying link it to the general financial decline of the private media.
In the middle of all this was the confusion among media houses and stakeholders like CSOs on which media model Bhutan should follow. In such discussions, some journalists including those egged on by one CSO, advocated a very conservative and safe model which involved doing more developmental journalism, criticizing the government less and taking a more cooperative approach with the government.
The model, though followed by some other countries with low press freedom rankings, could not suit the ground realities of Bhutan or the Bhutanese democracy. However, some journalists took this model to heart and started advocating it – often mistakenly equating critical or investigative journalism with ‘sensational journalism’. This also tied in with the then government’s vision of practicing happy journalism that questioned the powers less and focused on other more ‘safe’ areas.
The situation was made worse by senior journalists or media owners brainwashing the impressionable young journalists.
The former government, as part of its offensive – apart from the circular, also resorted to issuing defamatory and untrue statements questioning the credibility of media houses that did critical stories. Apart from the usual barbs of being biased or politically motivated, new adjectives like a ‘corrupt media’ or a ‘divisive media’ were used without any evidence and basis in fact. However, some of the government’s lackeys in the media picked up on the propaganda and attempted to further expand on it by making it a discussion point in their discussions. A sudden, vague and short spurt of concern over ‘corruption in the media’ without any proof would serve as an indicator of this propaganda attempt.
All of the above shows that Bhutanese media has been far from united in the last few years, especially when it really mattered and came to issues of Press Freedom or practicing the watchdog role.
While the government and media would always be at odds – the real and lasting damage to media freedom or Free Press comes when media houses and journalists let narrow interests and differences triumph over the greater good of journalism and democracy.
The Bhutanese media, now and in the future, needs to hold itself to much higher standards or risk becoming irrelevant.
“There is nothing to fear except the persistent refusal to find out the truth.”