A young Brian C. Shaw in an early visit to Bhutan

Congratulations! What news?

By Brian C. Shaw

The timing of the birth of The Bhutanese (TB) in 2012, on the day of His Majesty The Fifth King’s birthday (a week after being formally licenced by BICMA), helped underline its patriotic credentials and aspirations for the future.

TB’s Editor, Tenzing Lamsang (previously Reporter with The Indian Express, Chief Reporter with Kuensel and  News Editor with Business Bhutan) said then that the paper “has not been planned as a short term paper but rather a long term venture dedicated to serious and good journalism”, joining the (then) 10 existing papers (most of which have since expired).

TB has now reached 10 years, and is no longer a child. It can stand on its own feet, has independent thoughts and judgments, and can defend its opinions.

Is this enough?

The original plan – to publish as a daily broadsheet – could not be achieved, and Plan B – to be a bi-weekly – had its own difficulties. TB effectively became a weekly around 18 months later. 

TB was never a for-profit venture, yet even to break even financially has always been a challenge (not least when the then ruling party in 2012 “black-listed” the paper in the allocation of public-service advertisements).

TB came to life in part because of frustrations with circumstances, notably the corruption and non-accountability involved in the Bhutan Lottery Scheme operating in India. Other major issues reaching the public eye largely or primarily through the independent Press include the “Education City” land grab, and sharp reports (often without follow-up) by the Royal Audit Authority of vast (and often deliberate) losses of public wealth, often into grasping private hands.

The effectiveness of communication by longform journalism is increasingly challenged by the shorter attention spans engendered in large part by the “instantaneity” of social media (although even Twitter can offer valuable, thought-provoking “long threads”).

This is an issue affecting the prospects for print media worldwide and has no easy solution.

Common politicians (especially in “new democracies”) tend to be the opportunists of the community, although some leaders may indeed have longer term visions. Since this is the case, there is great need for checks and balances to constrain policies that bereft the community of treasure or welfare.

Persons of brief authority can make self-serving “small-circle” decisions negatively affecting the lives and livelihoods of the citizens, without much redress in the absence of an informed public.

Importantly, there is a strong and continuing case to be made for two correctives: an effective “Right to Information” Act, and an effective “Records and Government Archives” Act. Politicians resist both for partisan reasons.

The legal system of Bhutan, although strengthening by institutional initiatives, is by no means yet mature and trusted. Where there is smoke there is usually fire, and the public is well-attuned to sniffing the smoke, and informally commenting on the perfume.

Sniffing may be necessary but it is not sufficient to correct injustices or criminal actions. A journal of record dependent on government advertising resources may be reluctant to delve too deeply into allegations of miscarriages of justice (elephants in the room often own the room). Thus, discussions of public policy should be encouraged, even to the level of robustness: policy-makers themselves should be capable of thoroughly analyzing, defending, and if necessary correcting policies.

There are issues of the day which may be considered “off the record”. Yet there are ways of venturing opinions on even these matters. As the Germans observe, in a new situation, “words must be found” for analysis and direction.

Education is a major contributor to this light. To grossly overgeneralize from another region, if the English are a talking people, the Germans are a reading people. Reading, some might argue, is a step beyond. Reading widely introduces stories and ideas to receptive minds, and can convey facts and arguments in a reproducible format.

Even in the continuing debate about what is “wrong” with education policy in Bhutan, and what might be a “right” policy (or indeed whether a “dynamic” educational content might be “better”), longform journalism can make major contributions by identifying the issues, the obstacles, and the feasible alternatives in policy, without the (often) dustiness of academicism.

Longform journalism can also make important contributions to policy-making, provided the content is comprehensive, up-to-date, relevant, and constructive.

Of course, policy-makers need to be willing to pay attention to this information: politicians need to respect the expertise of civil service experts, and the civil service experts themselves need to respect that ultimate decisions on policy are to be made by politicians rather than themselves.

How to achieve this symbiosis is a problem as old as the hills, yet is solvable with the recognition of mutual benefit and the utility of compromise. This is a great and continuing opportunity for longform analysis, even in a time of social media growth. Social media displays the smoke, but the twigs for the fire of debate are laid on the fireplace of longform argument (apologies for this horribly mixed metaphor).

But the real tests are to come, when this wretched pandemic has subsided. The public has an opportunity to be more informed than ever before, and the politicians too have an obligation to be more than “accidental politicians”.

They have to communicate more with (and listen to) an increasingly better informed public, and gain a stronger feel for the individual and collective compromises necessary to enhance livelihoods.

TB has a great potential role in developing and strengthening this consensus, more so than in the past. May I suggest:

* Consider inviting guest editorials by politicians and also local leaders, giving a voice to them outside of the localities

* Without giving up the longform style, consider more investigative journalism focused on a place, to examine community issues holistically and opening up a debate on options, priorities and compromises. The complex issue of food security, for example, deserves much more attention than it has received. The same might be said of other sectors, notably health and education. Wide, informed public debate can be more valuable than a series of workshops.

* Prepare to help the reading public to be not just well, but better, informed for the 2023 general elections (TB readership is already informed)

* Given the growing ubiquity (and sophistication) of internet involvement by citizens, consider what form of internet involvement might best augment the original goals of the printed paper –  encouraging opinion, news, analysis

* Longform, to be read in full, needs to be well edited and well presented. Consider the utility of regular and strong graphic content. Cartoons have been only sporadically used by Bhutan media, perhaps given personal ego sensitivities to lampooning, but those with temporary authority should accustom themselves to give and take, and exchange pomposity with willingness to listen and self-deprecate.

Is TB’s future to be an alternative journal of record? Or a watchdog of (and for) society? To achieve any or all of these or other future trends would take dedicated staff and money, at a time when more and more are leaving the print media for other livelihoods, and advertising revenue is merely token.

The alternative is more of the same, which has merit, but would result in inevitable further decline in readership and ultimately defeat the purpose of the effort. The fate of the excellent Bhutan Observer is clear to all. 

His Majesty the Third King of Bhutan instituted many reforms to the polity, with the notable aim of “bringing my people from the darkness”. If I had the authority, I would – with the greatest respect – certainly award a Medal to TB for its institutional achievements and especially its contributions to informing the public over the past decade. His Majesty The Third King would surely approve. Tashi Delek again to TB, and hope to unfold you again every week!

The writer also known as the ‘Hong Kong Chimi’ has published multiple research papers on Bhutan in International Journals and is a recipient of the  National Order of Merit Gold for his services to Bhutan.

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