The Prime Minister in a meeting with the Media Owners Association of Bhutan (MOAB) made some important decisions and commitments to help strengthen the finances and sustainability of the media as a whole.
Also present at the meeting on 20th January 2014 was the Finance Minister Lyonpo Namgay Dorji and Minister for Information and Communications Lyonpo D.N Dhungyel.
The meeting was based on three letters submitted by the MOAB to the Prime Minister, MOIC Minister and the Finance Minister.
The first letter to the PM signed by all MOAB members and also the national paper expressed concern on the drastic cuts in government advertisement budgets over the years from 2010-2011 onwards that directly affected the economic health of the media.
The letter pointed to the Department of Information and Media commissioned report, ‘Private Newspapers in Bhutan: Proposed Strategy to Overcome the Crisis’ which said that if nothing was done then it could lead to there being no private media in Bhutan.
It was recommended that the government reconsider the drastic cuts in the advertisement budget and intervene to reverse the tide.
Lyonchhen and the Finance Minister both said that the government would not cut the advertisement budget any further. On increasing the budget the PM said that it could only be looked into after the formation of an Advertising Placement Board as full advertising data would be available only at that time.
The second letter signed only by the MOAB members requested for the formation of an Advertising Placement Board (APB) as recommended in the DOIM report.
MOAB also supported the DOIM report’s recommendation that advertisement be pre-allocated between private and state owned media through APB.
The MOAB on its part committed to be transparent with all its members coming forward for a circulation audit by July-August 2015 so that advertisement division and allocation can be done based on the reach and circulation of media outlets.
The MOIC Minister said that the Ministry was already looking into the DOIM report including on the APB.
Lyonchhen instructed the MoIC Minister to present the report and recommendations to the cabinet once it was completed. The PM and FM was supportive of the idea of forming an APB to ensure transparent, fair and scientific distribution of advertisement.
However, no specific commitment was given on pre-allocating advertisement between private and state media by the APB pending a final report by the MOIC.
The letter also supported other measures recommended in the report like content financing, reducing printing costs and subsidizing distribution costs.
The third letter put up by the MOAB brought out the issue of full funding for Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) and also the clearing of dues to private media houses.
On BBS the MOAB letter requested the government to give full and stable funding for BBS and also finalize its status, so that it does not have to rely on the limited advertisement market for its revenue which in turn affects other media companies.
Responding the MoIC Minister said that the ministry was already working on a report on the Public Broadcaster Status of BBS. The PM asked the MoIC Minister to submit that report to the cabinet and also come up with a separate advertising policy for BBS.
The MOAB in its letter also put forward the issue of unpaid dues by government agencies to media houses with some dues going unpaid for years. The letter said that this was not in keeping with standing government policy to clear dues within a month.
The Prime Minister said bills not being paid on time to media companies was not acceptable, especially since it would lead to media staff and reporters going without pay. He said that when government employees get their pay on time the government should similarly pay its bills on time.
Lyonchhen directed the MOAB members to submit their dues with bills and evidence to the Finance Minister who would get it verified with the respective agencies and then accordingly release payments.
Meanwhile, Lyonchhen floated the idea of the many private media houses merging into a small number of companies to make them more sustainable. The MOAB promised to discuss and consider the idea from the government.
The MOAB in two meetings on 20th January and 27th January discussed the idea. It was found that under the current circumstances most companies were not in favor of mergers but there would be interest if the government could provide three incentives. One would be a seven year moratorium on new media licenses, second would be transferring the high interest bank loans of media companies to BOIC and finally a onetime grant to help interested companies with the merger.
The MOAB comprises of 14 media houses with 10 in print and 4 in radio. Its main aim is to help address the issue of sustainability in the media and also lobby for policies that can strengthen the media as a whole in Bhutan.