Advertisement Policy presented to Committee of Secretaries

A new media scenario is likely to unfold soon in the country with the implementation of the long overdue ‘government advertising guidelines’ (GAG).

Secretary of the ministry of information and communications (MoIC), Dasho Kinley Dorji who held a presentation of GAG to the committee of secretaries earlier this month said, one or two government agencies have already started implementing it.

The draft GAG hasn’t been formally discussed nor approved by the cabinet as yet. However, in spite of the draft GAG some big government ministries have been controlling advertisements to papers that criticize them irrespective of reach or content.

At a recent press conference with local reporters, the secretary said, “even if the cabinet doesn’t pass it formally, we will start moving in because the advertisers are beginning to do it”.

The secretary said while the law allows any eligible Bhutanese citizen to start a newspaper, GAG is likely to impact the number of media houses.

“With this advertisement guideline, it will control the numbers because if you are not reaching you will not get the advertisement,” the secretary said.

He explained that when media houses start competing in terms of circulation or content with limited resources, there will be newspapers falling.

This, Anya Schiffrin of Columbia University said was normal in young democracies where there is huge media explosion.

“After Ghana went to democracy they had about 120 newspapers and now they are starting to consolidate”, she said.

Anya also doubted if twelve newspapers will really last in Bhutan given the number of readers across the country.

CEO of The Journalist, Sonam Gyeltshen who is skeptical of the strategy is of the opinion that it might land up controlling the media rather than the number of media houses. He said, less media houses is dangerous for a democracy since a ‘concerned’ party or authority will have the ability to buy and control the media that is heavily dependent on revenue from government advertisement.

Anya said, couple of studies done by students in Columbia university shows “a lot of countries like Australia and Argentina where there is been a lot of government advertising in the media, the government has used it to buy support. So, now in many countries there is no government advertising or very limited”.

The secretary said, apart from efficient use of public resources for advertising, GAG shall also help in protecting media houses.

He said, neither government official nor agency can stop advertising with a particular media house on the basis of a critical story carried by the particular media house in the interest of public.

“In fact government authorities do not have the authority to stop ads”, he said.

In the case of a dispute regarding advertising between a government and a media house, either of the party may appeal to the media council which will be instituted as proposed in the Information Communications and Media Amendment Bill 2012.

Meanwhile some media owners on the condition of anonymity stated that they may take some government agencies before the council and even court if advertisement is continued to be used as a political ‘carrot and stick’ to bring papers in line, regardless of reach and content. This they said this was in violation of the Constitution, Advertisement guidelines, Election Act and the Media Act. The media owners said that if this continues they may also approach the ECB with ‘irrefutable evidences’ and file specific complaints so that the ECB can investigate it as a part of pre-election fraud and malpractices that would impact free and fair elections both for the primary rounds and the general elections.

GAG in theory eventually boils down to government agencies advertising with a media house that has the circulation capacity to reach the target audience of a particular advertisement and also good content.

Bhutan Youth’s CEO Yangchen Dukpa said, while it is good that the specific advertisements will be given to a particular newspaper that has the desired audience of the advertisement, newspapers will also miss out on other advertisements which they used to get earlier.

Bhutan Observer’s CEO said, “Advertisement policy will not only contribute the healthy growth of media industry but will also ensure that the government advertising funds are used for the intended purpose of reaching the information to the public and not as a subsidy to the newspapers”.

Media owners have argued about Kuensel, possessing a comparative advantage when it comes to circulation being in the market for more than four decades.

However, the government is considering providing subsidies only in terms of sharing infrastructures.

The secretary said, young media houses needs to be creative in competing with the older ones and it is possible with current technologies such as the information and communication facilities available.

He said, community centers are being established across the country with 18 Dzongkhags connected by fiber optic cables through which the media houses can transfer or send information online.

Deputy CEO of Kuensel, Thinley Dorji said “being a new or old newspaper doesn’t make a difference as long as they are creative in their own field”.

The secretary said, “If you can reach the desired audience of the advertisement, then you can demand for it”.

Currently the government spends about Nu 200mn a year on advertising.

Bhutan Observer’s CEO Phuntsho Wangmo said the liberalized licensing policy and the practice of distribution of government advertising to all media license holders regardless of quality of content, reach, copy sales or costly investment does not support quality media development nor does it encourage national coverage.

“It is encouraging growth of the media outlets in numbers while severely reducing the quality”, she said.

 

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