Controlling the Media through advertisements

The lifeblood of a vibrant democracy in Bhutan is a free media that practices two key principles of a democracy, which are the freedom of speech and the right to criticize.

One of the easiest ways to destroy free media is to hit media houses where it hurts the most, which is its advertisement revenue. The calculation is simple; no advertisement means no revenue which in turn means no newspaper or worse, a tamed newspaper.

This is especially effective when used during a time when there are many papers, a small advertisement pie, and expenditure cutbacks.

This unhealthy practice is increasing in the private sector and the government both of which are using their advertisement revenue to ‘fix’ critical papers and even critical reporters.

Almost all media houses especially newspapers will have had the unpleasant experience of being ‘black-listed’ by private companies when they do critical stories on the said companies.

Most reporters and editors can also relate to irate marketing officers asking the editorial on why they had to do the critical or investigative story on X or Y company which has now stopped advertising with the paper.

Though unpleasant and unethical this practice by private companies cannot be termed illegal. This is because it is their money and what they do with their money is entirely their prerogative.

The impact on the media houses are also not very damaging as private sector advertisement form only under 20 percent of the advertisement revenue of most media houses.

In spite of such black-lists most newspapers continue to write about the companies in question risking their financial wrath which is admirable.

However, it is a completely different ball game when government agencies which hold 80 percent of advertisement revenue resort to the same tactics.

Most newspapers will also have had the experience of being denied advertisements by some government department or division usually by some irate mid level bureaucrat unhappy with a story that shows the department in poor light.

In the past, these occurrences were rare but in recent times this is becoming more the norm with government advertisements.

Either due to the upcoming elections or a spate of crises facing the government there is an increasing level of sensitivity with criticism from the media.

Highly credible sources say that some people in the higher echelons of the government have figured out that the best way to handle criticism is to deny critical newspapers advertisements even if the papers in question enjoy good reach and content. So in the past newspapers would be blacklisted by a department or two but now there are even some ministries doing the same.

This they hope will bring the errant papers in line and if not, do some serious financial damage.

Advertisement across the world is given either based on content or circulation or a combination of both factors. This is why newspapers in Bhutan have asked that advertisement be distributed based on content and reach following international best practices.

However, if advertisement is being used to muzzle the press then there are some fundamental questions that must be asked about the freedom of press, free speech and Bhutan’s democracy.

It is nothing short of a coup being conducted against an important democratic institution using the resources of the state and the people.

These kinds of moves will serve as early death blows to Bhutan’s young democracy and prove that the pen after all is not mightier than the sword.

These moves will also set extremely unhealthy precedents for future governments in Bhutan who will use the same tactics to control and muzzle the press to an extent that free press may cease to exist in Bhutan.

When democracies fail in many countries across the world there are always a variety of factors including forces that do not favor democracy. However, the majority of the blame must go to the ruling government of those particular countries.

It is only when they resort to undemocratic means and start undermining democratic institutions that people lose faith in democracy, allowing other forces to fill the void.

Our leaders should remember democracy without free press is equivalent to having a body without lungs , the body is bound to collapse sooner or later.

A weak press means a weak democracy which in turn leads to a weak nation.

About The Bhutanese

15 comments

  1. This is a matter of serious concern. It seems all this talk of freedom of media and democracy by the ruling govt is exactly only talk. 

  2. If the government is trying to clamp down on the media houses using the 80% advertisement revenue then democracy will not survive in Bhutan. His Majesty the King should step in and save democracy now. 

  3. Pervez Musharraf used soldiers to take over media outlets in his coup broadcast live on BBC a decade ago. This government it seems has decided to use advertisement revenue and the bureaucratic machinery to take over media houses.

  4. The government is shooting itself in the foot with such stupid practice. Our ministers and their family members have so much dirt on them. The media will now go after this dirt in response to this clampdown. 

  5. This is serious and shocking. With such moves by the govt Bhutan will be no different from any African dictatorship. We will become a banana republic. Once the media is stopped then the only way for the people to get their message across will be the ballot box. In the meantime the govt will even get away with murder during the five years since a strong media will become non existent. 

  6. What is the Ministry of Information and Communication doing about this. The government here is like a little kid playing with dynamite sticks and a matchstick box at the same time. If it is not careful then such moves are bound to blow up on its face. 

    This government has already made some big mistakes but this would be the biggest one if it continues. 

  7. DPT seems to be on a suicidal mode. Election is near the doorstep and they are busy pissing the media off with such antics and not just any media houses but the critical ones. I suspect the reply from the media houses to DPT will come during the time of the interim govt period when election campaigns are going on. 

  8. One of the few positive points about the DPT govt is that they have promoted media freedom and strengthened democracy. DPT ministers now seem hellbent on destroying 4 years of achievement on this front with such moves. 

  9. Tsecho Tshering

    Prime Minister JYT always waxes eloquent on how he and his government has done so much for media freedom even encouraging the media to criticize. I guess what he actually meant is that the media is free to criticize the enemies of the govt but not the DPT govt.

    JYT might go down in history not only as Bhutan’s first democratic PM but the one that murdered the free press. 

  10. The controlling of media by controlling advertisements will have serious ramifications on our young democracy. 

    I would like to appeal to the government to withdraw this destructive policy as it will harm our media, democracy, good governance and safety checks systems. 

    One of the reasons we are in this rupee crisis that threatens to engulf the nation is the lack of a strong and critical media from 1993 onwards when rupee borrowing first started. 
    The only media was Kuensel whose only priority was to please the government and give only good news. State media like Kuensel and BBS while keeping our leaders happy and undisturbed failed to sound the alarm bells or at least wake up the nation to a brewing crisis. 
    Even star BBS new anchors like Dawa still feel the rupee crisis was ‘blown up by the media’ as apparent in his leading questions to OL on his program.This demonstrates the danger of having only state controlled voices and state fed intellectuals.

    While this may please any ruling dispensation it is like stopping a fire cracker of problem from exploding today to only have the fire cracker turn into a dynamite stick and explode on you tomorrow.

    Now  if the government wants to have a tame media then we will be witnessing much bigger disasters in the future. 

  11. Firstly, criticism is part of democracy. We have grown up in a working system where in you don’t question and don’t discuss  with your senior officials in planning and implementation of the any activity. Critics’s comments should be taken in good sense and as relative terms. People’s ideas and views are not always same and should respect that. My sincere request would be our Government should not resort to such tactics if it is indeed true. The job of media is to act as watch dog. The job of the government is to work for  holistic development . these are completely two different fields. Let each of them have Independence in their responsibilities. 

  12. Firstly, criticism is part of democracy. We have grown up in a working system where in you don’t question and don’t discuss  with your senior officials in planning and implementation of any activity. Critics’s comments should be taken in good sense and as relative terms. People’s ideas and views are not always same and should respect that. My sincere request would be our Government should not resort to such tactics if it is indeed true. The job of media is to act as watch dog. The job of the government is to work for  holistic development . These are completely two different fields. Let each of them have Independence in their responsibilities. 

  13. Ha  ha ha Mr Tenzing Lamsang during his stint in Business Bhutan had praised the prime minister in his piece ‘Mr Prime Minister’ saying that the PM’s biggest achievement is in strengthening democracy and media. It seems that Mr Lamsang has now found out the real face of this PM who is intolerant of criticism and is now willing to murder democracy and free media just to protect his image. 

  14. Free media and democracy are the two biggest jokes shared with the Bhutanese people. 

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