Bhutan has dropped six places in the World Press Freedom ranking from the 64th position in 2010 to the 70th position in 2011-2012 out of 179 countries.
The organization that conducts this survey ‘Reporters without Borders’ say that indicators like financial pressure on the media, self censorship, freedom to criticize, threats to journalists, ability to investigate and harassment to the media are used to calculate the total points.
If this were a classroom, Bhutan’s ranking in 2011-12 can be used as an analogy of an improving student falling down the grades with the danger of becoming a below average student.
This same index in 2008 pushed Bhutan from 116 in 2007 to 74 in 2008 recognizing Bhutan’s new democracy and constitution that safeguarded media freedom.
This latest drop is only one of the many indicators that the honeymoon period for the Bhutanese press is fast getting over.
If it was the Bhutanese media pushing since 2008, the push or resistance from the other side now seems to be getting stronger.
This pressure is getting increasingly sophisticated using an array of tactics that range from mollycoddling of reporters and media owners, to indirect threats and deliberate withholding of advertisement to critical papers.
Some media houses are indifferent and unaffected; other more idealistic ones are still trying to push, while a few are falling over each other to please the powers that be.
In the middle of this is a wave of media bashing that has almost become a fashionable trend. Almost all media forums that one attends these days inevitably magnifies the flaws in the media while glossing over its brave and hard won achievements.
Tiny Bhutanese media houses that are struggling to survive are picked up and compared to Rupert Murdoch while select ‘international media experts’ from countries with worse press freedom ratings than Bhutan visit Bhutan to dump a steaming pile of media advice and then leave. There is a lot of confusion.
The situation is such that even a religiously inclined former foriegn journalist who recently came as a ‘media ethics expert’ after some fancy power point presentations convinced some government officials and media professionals that the Bhutanese media was not giving religious coverage due importance and that the media was always focused on the negative. Some officials unaware of the real
dentity of the activist even compared his presentation to GNH and others agreed how foreign influences were making the Bhutanese media negative.
It was only later that internet research showed that the website advocated by the expert was a religious website, putting a question mark on his credibility but also a question mark on the perception of the role of journalism by the government and some media professionals.
In the current scenario in Bhutan investigative journalism is called ‘sensational’, the truth is called ‘vulgar’, criticism is criticized for not having the ‘right tone’ and watch dogs are called ‘mad dogs’.
Media professionals are asked to tone down their stories and criticism to have real impact and gain ‘respectability’ with the government.
It is not ‘toned down’ stories that exposed the Ministry of Health procurement scam or numerous other scams that affect the people and the nation.
The job of the media is not to fit like a cute pet dog in some snug corner while wagging its tail at intruders and thieves as the family gets robbed. The job of the media is to be a dependable guard dog that can ensure that thieves and crooks think twice about robbing the family.
In the middle of all this it must be noted that a lot of the aid and grants for the 11th plan is being committed by Bhutan’s developmental partners recognizing the need to support Bhutan’s transition into a strong democracy one of whose indicators is a genuinely free and vibrant media. This is welcome especially when there was initial talk of deflecting aid from Bhutan to what donor countries perceived as much needier and countries in Africa especially with a global economic slowdown and Bhutan’s improved development figures.
The media houses respecting the national interest and ignoring its own problems gave a rosy picture of media freedom through their media representative to the 50 plus donor countries and organizations in the 11th round table meet advocating in fact, increase in aid to support Bhutan’s democracy. The donors it seems have listened but the government is yet to fulfill their promise of ensuring
the growth of a healthy and vibrant media, and instead the policy towards the media off late seems to be that of secrecy,hostility, unfounded suspicions andself-defeating vendettas.