Bhutan’s press freedom jumps 14 spots in 2019 partly to correct low ranking of 2018

The findings on the World Press Freedom Index by an independent NGO with consultative status with the United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the International Organization of the Francophone called the Reporters Without Boarders (RSF) revealed that Bhutan ascended14 spots, taking the country’s press freedom index to 80 in 2019 from 94 in 2018.

However, before celebrations can begin the huge jump in rankings in 2019 is to largely adjust for the controversial ranking of 94 in 2018 which was a drop of 10 places from 2017. The ranking in 2018 was controversial as it was partly based on the wrong assumption that journalists had gone into exile.

“The kingdom is now evolving and the media landscape with it. Radio plays a major role in providing the public with news,” states the report.

The findings by the RSF also stated that journalists who dare to post investigative reporting or criticism are subject to online campaigns by political activists that combine disinformation and defamation with personal and sometimes racist attacks.

Implying on the pressing issue of media sustainability in the country, the report states that although privately-owned publications exist, the economic environment is difficult, above all because of insufficient state advertising.

“The level of self-censorship continues to be very high in the land of gross national happiness because many journalists avoid covering sensitive issues for fear of appearing to challenge the social order. The Internet is meanwhile booming, with more and more news circulating on blogs and social networks.”

The Executive Director of Bhutan Media Foundation, Needrup Zangpo said that the manner in which Bhutan’s press freedom index has been fluctuating every year poses a crucial question. “Has the situation of the media or the press freedom in the country really improved on the ground or is it otherwise when the press freedom index drops. So, we really need to ask ourselves and get to the core of the issue.”

The report says that the 2018 Information, Communications and Media Act confirmed the creation of a Bhutan Infocomm and Media Authority whose five members are directly appointed by the government. This, the report says, poses a major threat to media independence.

It goes on to say that the main daily newspaper, Kuensel, which is published in both English and Dzongkha, still belongs to the state, while the state-owned Bhutan Broadcasting Service lacks any legal status guaranteeing its editorial independence.

On the positive side the report says that media pluralism nonetheless continues to develop and that this was evidenced by the balanced coverage of the campaign for the general elections in September and October 2018.

The report says this year’s report shows how hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear. The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline.

It says that the hostility towards journalists expressed by political leaders in many countries has incited increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence that have fuelled an unprecedented level of fear and danger for journalists.

“If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly towards a civil war-style atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Halting this cycle of fear and intimidation is a matter of the utmost urgency for all people of good will who value the freedoms acquired in the course of history.”

Bhutan had the highest rank the SAARC region as usual.

Norway is ranked first in the 2019 index for the third year running while Finland (up two places) has taken second place. An increase in cyber-harassment caused Sweden (third) to lose one place.

Many authoritarian regimes have fallen in the Index. They include Venezuela (down five at 148th), where journalists have been the victims of arrests and violence by security forces, and Russia (down one at 149th), where the Kremlin has used arrests, arbitrary searches and draconian laws to step up the pressure on independent media and the Internet. At the bottom of the Index, both Vietnam (176th) and China (177th) have fallen one place, Eritrea (up 1 at 178th) is third from last, despite making peace with its neighbour Ethiopia, and Turkmenistan (down two at 180th) is now last, replacing North Korea (up one at 179th).

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