Bhutan’s press freedom index ranking drops by a record 12 places

Bhutan’s ranking has dropped down the ladder for the third year in a row

The France-based international non-governmental organization, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) which conducts an annual ranking comparing each nation’s state of press freedom, has placed Bhutan at 82nd, 12 places down in the rung from last year’s 70th position.

Finland is rated as the country that respects press freedom best for the third year in a row while Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea are ranked as the worst four countries for press freedom for the second year in a row. The Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Withouth Borders

(RWB) takes into account protection for the freedom to produce and circulate accurate news and information, legislation and violence against journalists, among others.

General Secretary of the journalist association of Bhutan (JAB) Kinley Tshering who is also the former editor of Business Bhutan said “The difference in the ranking could be because of the changes in certain indicators compared to the past year. Particularly the situation of the private media has deteriorated in the last few years and perhaps that could be a reason why we have fallen in the rankings.”

President of the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa and a media observer, Lily Wangchuk said, “Bhutan’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index had increased steadily since 2008 until 2010. Since 2011 it has been decreasing from 70 in 2011-2012 and to 82 out of 179 countries in 2013. With the introduction of democracy, our ranking should improve rather than decrease, so this drop in the ranking by 12 places is disappointing as it reflects badly on our country.”

Lily said that the drop in the ranking could be attributed to ‘restrained’ news because of heavy reliance on the government and few corporate organizations for revenue generation which places them in vulnerable situations.  “Further, editorial independence which is an important aspect of the media is also threatened by several players and situations,” said Lily.

She said, “Bhutan should make note of this seriously and reflect where we have gone wrong in our management of the media and related issues.”

She also expressed concerns on the state of Bhutan’s media freedom and its relation to the upcoming 2013 General elections.

She said the quality and also the outcome of the 2013 elections can depend largely on the extent to which the government will promote and ensure greater press freedom as soon as possible before the general election.

“This is necessary to ensure fair press coverage of the election process, to ensure free, fair clean and transparent general elections, so that there is full public accountability and national integrity,” said Lily

The DCT President pointed out that it was important to raise the standards of press freedom urgently and well before the primary and general elections.

The Opposition leader Tshering Tobgay said “A free media is critical for a vibrant and honest democracy, and the fact that we have slipped 11 places does not bode well for our media…or our democracy. But what’s worse, and what should be of extreme concern to us, is that our press freedom ranking has now slipped for three consecutive years. The trend during this government’s tenure is not good.”

Accusing the government of intimidating the media the Opposition leader said, “There have been reports that the government has, at times, intimidated journalists and, at other times, pandered to them. When a “carrot and stick” approached has failed, the government has gone as far as penalizing newspapers by not giving them government advertisements.”

He said to make matters worse the government had delayed the issue of private TV licenses, and now, after almost two years, decided not to issue licenses. And on top of all that, websites critical of the government have suddenly become inaccessible within Bhutan.

He said, “Should we be concerned that Bhutan’s press freedom ranking is taking a plunge? Yes! But more crucially, we should be alarmed that important provisions in the Constitution – those that grant citizens freedom of expression, and the right to information – may be compromised or even violated.”

President of Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa Jigme Zangpo stressed on the accessibility to information and attributed the low ranking to a lack of proper legislation such as the Right to Information Act.

Interim Party President  of Bhutan Kuen-Ngyam Party Sonam Tobgay said “one has to give due regard to the article 7 (Fundamental Rights), section two and three which talks about the fundamental right to freedom of speech and right to information.”

He said if Bhutan’s ranking as per RWB is dropping, “we have to live up to the sections in the constitution and we may have to examine ourselves in terms of why the rankings aren’t increasing rather than dropping.”

The previous year has been a bad year for the media.

Some international news outlets had earlier reported on attempts by the DPT government to silence criticism from critical papers by using advertisements. The MoIC had in April 2012 issued a circular to its agencies to not advertise with this paper in retaliation for some investigative stories.

Another circular from ECB later quoted a Finance Ministry circular to advertise with only government owned media houses though the circular was later withdrawn.

The World’s largest organization of journalists called the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) also expressed concern at the DPT government trying to control media content through advertisement.

The government also delayed the entry of Bhutan’s first two private TV stations with an eye on the upcoming elections.

Recently there has been controversy on the blocked Bhutannomics website.

Though in the fifth year of democracy except for regular press releases updating the public on the PM’s activities and visits the ordinary journalist is finding it’s exceedingly hard to get information.

Also while the government provided generous subsidies to projects like the Education City in the 2012 budget the media advertisement budget was slashed drastically with the result that advertisements are mainly being directed to the National Broadcaster and Newspaper.

Head of media relation division, department of information and media, Dawa Penjor said one reason for the slip in press freedom ranking could be because of rapid media progress in other countries while in Bhutan, it may have remained constant in comparison. He added that it is important to know if Bhutanese media is at the same level as others.

Dawa Penjor also referred to the increased number of media houses, a liberal media licensing policy and the fact that there has been no abuse or attack on journalists.

He also reiterated on his earlier stand that the ministry and department continue to train journalists and support trainings for the growth of media.

Dawa Penjor also said much of the cause for the low ranking could be attributed to local newspaper reports and factual errors in news reports.  He also said that the DoIM had drafted an RTI Bill.

An ardent media watcher opined that the slip in the ranking could also be because of certain occasions on which the media has been barred from covering an event such as last year’s annual education conference. He also attributed it to the lack of a right to information (RTI) Act in the country.

National Council member Dasho Sangay Khandu, said “the general feeling and I subscribe to it is that, media has moved forward.”

“The ranking by various institutions can be a good benchmark but may not reflect its state in full context; however, it merits a reflection on what factors maybe behind it to be fair. It is also important given that there has been increasing discussions in the public on media and trust,” he said.

The NC member also said it’s about time we design and put in place our own approach to allow everyone to get an understanding of how healthy or not our media is in our own cultural context in democratic Bhutan.

However, Bhutan tops the index in South Asia followed the Maldives which has been ranked 103rd. Nepal has been ranked 118th, Afghanistan 128th, India 140th, Bangladesh 144th, Pakistan 159th and Sri Lanka 162nd.

Lily Wangchuk said, “If we compare Bhutan with South Asian countries we have fared better but I always believe if we want to see progress we need to look at better examples and incorporate international best practices rather than being too conservative in our approach.”

Bhutan’s ranking by RWB in 2003 was at a miserable 157 which later showed dramatic improvement following the adoption of the Constitution among other reforms. However, Bhutan’s ranking has rapidly dropped in the last three years as the government has become increasingly intolerant of criticism.

RWB advocates freedom of the press and freedom of information and freedom of expression as the “the foundation of any democracy.”

It is known to be the largest press freedom organization in the world with over 120 correspondents across the globe. The organization publishes the Press Freedom Index which is an annual ranking of countries compiled by the organization based upon its assessment of each country’s press freedom records.

RWB prepared a questionnaire with 44 main decisive factors indicative of the degree of press freedom. The questions relate to every kind of violation directly affecting Journalists and netizens (including murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment). It also establishes the level of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations.

The questionnaire was sent to RWB’s partner organizations (18 freedom of expression groups in all five continents), its network of 150 correspondents around the world, and to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists. A scale devised by the organization was then used to give a country score to each questionnaire.

The study looks specifically at press freedom violations and also measures the level of self censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticize. Financial pressure, which is increasingly common, is also assessed and incorporated.

The questionnaire takes account of the legal framework for the media such as penalties for press offences, the existence of a state monopoly for certain kinds of media and how the media are regulated, and the level of independence of the public media. It also reveals violations of the free flow of information on the internet.

RWB do not include a country for ranking if there is a lack of reliable, confirmed data and is careful to note that the index only deals with press freedom and does not measure the quality of journalism.

Founded in 1985, RWB has been working to protect and defend journalists for nearly three decades.







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  1. The dramatic drop in Bhutan’s press freedom ranking should come as no surprise especially this year. The DPT government in many ways has turned away from its original commitment to ensure a free press and strengthen the freedom of speech. 
    The government in many ways is already launching an indirect war on private and independent media houses by cutting down its advertisement budget and giving the remaining advertisement to BBS and Kuensel. 
    The government has also stopped all advertisement to The Bhutanese paper for some critical stories.
    We can regularly see and hear about government ministers and bureaucrats bullying reporters into silence. 
    The Prime Minister in his recent tour defamed the media by accusing them of being owned by people who want to bring him down. The PM is perhaps mistaken that he is not the PM and perhaps some dictator who should not be criticized or ‘brought down’ for his mistakes. 
    We  should realize that the older leadership of old ministers are too used to an old system where they had absolute power and could not be questioned. Therefore for them they want only that part of democracy which gives them power and privileges and not the part that asks them to be accountable. 
    Bhutanese media was never free but even the limited freedom that it had got after democracy was introduced is rapidly and forcefully being quashed by a government that only pays lip service to democracy. 

  2. Bhutanese media made a mountain out of anthill regarding downhill journey of freedom of expression in Bhutan. Some media houses made comments on how Bhutan is heading to autocracy from monarchy. As an educated and citizen of this great nation, I don’t share the concern of media houses at all. The media houses whine so much of freedom of expression while many forget the responsibility of expression. They often forget that freedom of expression always has reasonable constraints differing in each country based on socio-political nature of the country. The media feels that they are being victimized by various steps undertaken by the state especially selective media advertising scheme of government while they forget their papers aren’t worthy to receive taxpayers’ money both in terms of quality as well as circulation. All they grumble is about dwindling revenue pie which most thought was their birthright. That is why many media houses mushroomed in Bhutan in first place and some just to get the portion of pie.
    Coming to media freedom in Bhutan, Bhutan is ranked 82nd position in the world in 2013, a slip of 12 places from 2012 and 16 places from 2011. While media houses are concerned about media freedom in Bhutan in last three years, they forgot to compare with freedom before 2008, the freedom before democracy. It will be only fair if we could do cumulative comparison between at least five years before 2008 and five years after 2008. This will give accurate picture of media scenario in Bhutan. Freedom of expression in Bhutan should also be compared with freedom in other countries. For instance, India and Indian prided themselves of being world’s largest democracy. Their press freedom ranking is in 140th position. Indian democracy was in making for more than 66 years. Comparing to that our democracy and press freedom is 52 steps ahead of our republic brother.

    So our media and journalists must understand the comparison before concluding their thesis and lament over something that is not a serious problem. They should think twice before penning their perception and thrusting into people’s court. Without such responsibility to safeguard the image of nation, the freedom of expression is not worth fighting for. For general public, how loud media can howl doesn’t matter. What matter is development, peace and prosperity though public had tendency to lose sleep over loud howling of media which is often much ado about nothing.

    As the finding of media freedom by Journalist without Border is based on statements of journalists, activists and researchers, the concept of freedom is flawed because of social and cultural contexts of each country is often ignored. It is also possible our journalist- respondents feel that way because of their low salary and because government’s financial support unlike earlier is selective. After all, our media fraternity expects government to pay them for service not worth from taxpayer’s money. If government has adopted liberal advertising policy despite economic problems, our reporters would have rated press freedom otherwise.
    The media house in the world faced huge financial losses in initial years. This is the period of time where quality is improved and public acceptance is sought through various strategies. They also don’t expect government to carry them forward. If the quality and acceptance is achieved, the revenue followed. Here in Bhutan, our media houses are being adamant. They refused the circulation audit which would have been basis of government support in form advertisement share. They needed an equal share of unfairly unequal work. Now when government do selective advertising based on target audience and reach, they feel their freedom is curtailed.
    On the other hand, innovative marketing and circulation strategies might help. How many of circulation officers are professionally trained for the work. All they do is distribute papers. How many marketing officers brainstormed to find new clients, to carry out innovative advertisement? All they do is flip announcements in kuensel and bothers client give them the same. Why can’t our marketing officers attract international clients? Every year, new brands and products are entering Bhutan. Why can’t our papers attract them? There are two main reasons; untrained professionals and ignorant management. As it owned by one or few people who are often under-educated, all they could see is monthly profit and lose statements. The possession media marketing knowledge by management, marketing officers and even reporters would help hugely in generating revenue. They must understand, their jobs are not mutually exclusive.
    However, this is not to say government should ignore responsibilities of media. The government too should enable the creation of conducive media environment through proactive legislation and policies. In the eyes of observers, two things played major roles; selective advertising and failure to introduce Right to Information Bill. On top of that childish decision of education ministry to disallow media presence in annual conference was insult to already grumbling media fraternity. The media sustenance and freedom of expression are often responsibilities of media fraternity themselves not the government. Just that I am not paid to write this crap, media house shouldn’t expect to be paid. After all, under constitution, media only enjoys freedom of expression only as much as common people.

  3. The credibility of such findings is highly questionable, and as usual, this paper will also try blowing things out of proportion…

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