Until a couple of years ago one of the biggest achievements of the DPT government was the establishment of what was seen as a generally liberal environment for the media.
The media wowed at how ministers including the Prime Minister took late night calls and were also an accessible lot through Meet the Press being held once a month. The government also kept reminding the press of its important role and in fact a few journalists were singled out and honored either with awards or public praise.
The fairy tale is now over as a chilling realization has set in that the Bhutanese media is not as free as it would like to believe it is, and there is a heavy price to be paid for criticizing the elected government.
Some of the biggest investigative or critical stories after the 2008 elections by default hit either supporters of the opposition party, past government ministers not sitting in the DPT and expendable bureaucrats. Journalists were hailed as heroes by the government for delving into stories like Bjemina, Phobjika, Ministry of Health procurement scam, etc as none of them affected the current government.
However, as the media also delved into stories like Bhutan Lottery, Gyelpozhing, Education City, Chang Ugyen, Trowa Theater etc the tune changed drastically from support to open hostility. These stories unlike the initial investigative stories directly or indirectly impacted the real power center within DPT which is its core guard of older ministers lead by the Prime Minister.
This was also in the context of the incumbency factor setting in as the government’s own 2008 honey moon with its citizens started to disappear as people started getting more critical of its failures and also started noticing its many omissions and commissions.
At this critical juncture the all powerful set within DPT had a clear choice of either allowing the media to remain professional and free or start cracking down. All signs indicate that the DPT government and its ministers have opted for a crackdown.
One sign is the increasing intolerance at the ‘Meet the Press’ which is no longer an event that journalists look forward to as many of them have to be coaxed by senior editors to go and ask questions. This is because even when sensitive but valid questions are asked, ministers more often than not respond by either giving a tshoda or defaming the reporters or media organization involved. ‘Meet the Press’ has become a feared venue for journalists where legitimate stories are lampooned and political dirt is thrown on the integrity of papers and journalists. The atmosphere is more akin to a strict headmaster talking to a group of young students than a real press conference.
In a time when the media is suffering the government instead of helping this important democratic institution has decided to selectively use advertisements to kill off what it sees as the critical elements in the press.
There is no doubt that government media relation has reached an all time low.
This hostility towards the media will impact the development of a free media, strengthen corruption and in-transparency, hamper good governance, limit democratic rights of citizens, affect free and fair elections in 2013 and over time contort our democracy into a virtual dictatorship.
The above has also exposed a serious flaw in our current leadership where older ministers who fitted well in the old system are not able to cope with the pulls and pushes of a young democracy. These older ministers who never really saw strong media criticism and scrutiny prior to 2008 have also convinced their other ministerial colleagues and MPs that what the media is doing is unnatural when in reality the media is just doing its job.
The result is a new system with old world players who are intent on shaping Bhutanese democracy to fit outdated perceptions and ill fitting moulds.