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.