It was already tough for the media in Bhutan to access information, but things have gotten considerably worse in recent times with now even senior officials unwilling to talk to the media.
With the situation only getting worse and the fourth estate being hampered in its job the Editors of all media outlets, Journalists’ Association of Bhutan and the media community in general called upon the Media Council to take action on the issue.
The Media Council was created by the Parliament under the ICM Act 2018 as an independent statutory body to promote and protect freedom and independence of media, regulate media content, accredit journalists, set standards, hear complaints, protect the public, provide recommendations and frame rules.
The Council heard the matter and decided that the lack of access to information would impact the quality content of the media and also hamper their ability to operate and do their jobs effectively.
Following this the Council drafted a letter which was sent by its Chairman to the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) in relation to all civil servants and also to the Supreme Court, Royal Monetary Authority (RMA), Druk Holdings and Investment (DHI), Office of Attorney General (OAG), Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) and Thimphu Thromde in early September.
The letter from the Council stated that it is on behalf of the media houses and journalists of Bhutan.
It said, “The representatives of the media houses and journalists submitted to the Council that the access to information has lately become restricted, leading to the journalists’ inability to write stories of public interest with adequate clarity and depth. They have appealed to the Council to help facilitate easy access to information from public institutions, including yours.”
“Therefore, as an organisation mandated to ‘promote and protect freedom and independence of the media’ under the Information, Communications and Media Act 2018, the Media Council would like to request your agency to kindly facilitate easy access to public information for the media so that they can play their role to inform and educate the people for our shared national goal of an informed citizenry,” it added.
The Council letter said that any public information made accessible to the media is ultimately not for the media, but for the public and the media is a critical conduit.
It said, “For all their limitations, the media share your good intentions for public service in the spirit of transparency and accountability stressed by His Majesty The King. We also share no misconception that free access to information will jeopardise the good intentions and works of public institutions. In fact, the contrary is true. Lack of access to well-rounded information will lead to the spread of misinformation and disinformation, the newest nemeses of the digital age.”
The letter called on the institutions to support the media by granting freer access to public information.
The Media Council also offered to facilitate a better communication between the institution or organisation and the media.
As of 30th September 2022 which is around three weeks later only the RCSC and the Judiciary responded.
The RCSC deputed a Commissioner to meet the Media Council Chairman and officially clarified that they have never issued any directives to civil servants not to speak to the media. They said they are working on streamlining access to information.
The Supreme Court said that all queries must be routed through the Media Unit.
However, apart from that RMA, DHI, OAG, ACC and Thimphu Thromde did not even bother responding to the letter from the Media Council, far from doing anything to rectify the issue.
Apart from officials not talking another growing problem is of agencies asking for all questions in an elaborate written manner involving a lot of bureaucracy.
This started in the Thimphu Thromde which even requires journalists to fill up a form with their CID number and personal details before submitting the questions.
The JDWNRH has adopted this model with even the MoLHR recently asking for the same.
JAB conducted a survey on access to information in Bhutan recently with 30 journalists.
On a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being terrible and 5 as amazing- 3 gave the score of 1, 17 journalists gave a score of 2, eight gave a score of 3 and, two gave a score of 4 and no one gave 5.
Around 80 percent of the 30 journalists felt that access to information is worse than in previous years.
When journalists rated various government agencies based on access to information from them the worst performing was the RMA and Thimphu Thromde.
The next group was ACC, OAG, Judiciary, DHI, RCSC, ECB, RAA, Foreign Ministry, Finance Ministry, Education Ministry, Agriculture Ministry and Home Ministry.
The best rated was the Prime Minister’s Office in terms of sharing information.
The direct implication of the current situation, if not rectified, will be an expected and sharp drop in Bhutan’s international press freedom ranking after many years of upward progress.