Has the Bhutanese Press gone quiet?

In a democracy, all institutions – whether formal or informal including the Press are accountable to the public, as all of them claim to represent or uphold public interest.

The press, unlike political parties, cannot be beholden or susceptible to every whim and fancy of public opinion, but it also cannot be isolated in its ivory tower. In fact, the press has to be among the people – learning from them and understanding them to get the bigger picture.

There is a perception among some people of late that the Bhutanese press or media has gone quiet and soft. A few would even point out the difference in the relatively severe treatment that the previous government got compared to the perception of kid gloves treatment of the current one.

However, it is not that simple as there are also a lot of reasons, timeline and context that must be put in place.

If one goes through the media archives available online or in most news organizations, the former government from 2008 to early 2011 enjoyed a near three year honeymoon period.

The economy was in good shape, although corruption was being unearthed in a big way – it was not linked to any ruling politicians and people in general were just getting used to its first democratic government.

Things started turning sour for the government from mid-2011 onwards with a worsening economic crisis in the form of rupee and credit crunch, unpopular decisions like Pedestrian Day, corruption allegations against ruling politicians, growing confrontation with democratic institutions, worsening relations with the media and the then government’s ill advised reactions to some of the above.

This was all in the context of a relatively strong media then, whose mandate of being the Fourth Estate was even heavier in the absence of a strong Opposition party. The media can never be the Opposition party in any democracy, but due to the absence of a strong Opposition party, it made the criticism of the press sound all the more loud.

The new government had a 10 to 11- month honeymoon period with moves like politicians taking personal austerity measures, appearing more ‘humble’ and reversing unpopular decisions like Pedestrian Day.

However, this honeymoon period came to an abrupt halt with the recent pay hike and taxes issue. The media overall, and especially this paper, has been relentless and merciless in its coverage and criticism of the new dispensation over these two issues. The press is also getting increasingly critical of what it sees as the mistakes or blunders of the government. The impact of the innate unpopularity of such decisions and the critical media coverage can be seen in the popularity of the new government sinking to never before seen lows.

Though just one year in office, the current government, if it continues in this direction, may have a tougher time with the media and public opinion in the coming four years than what the previous government faced.

Apart from stating the obvious, there are real problems facing the media. The first is that starting from 2010 onwards – there has been a drastic cut in the government advertisement pie making media houses unsustainable. The media size today, in terms of journalists, is only around 25 percent of what it was in 2010. A reduction of staff by 75 percent including senior journalists leaving does have a major impact on coverage.

The other problem is the weakening of the very foundation of Free Press in Bhutan, especially by the actions of the previous government. In response to some critical and fact based articles, the former government launched an economic embargo and crackdown on this paper, which included a confidential government circular asking government departments not to advertize with this paper. This paper was also regularly defamed and the then government made up all kinds of accusations- publicly and unofficially its supporters spread dark rumors. The issue cannot be seen as an isolated incident because it had the overall and chilling effect of silencing other critical voices and considerably weakening a nascent Free Press.

This was also made worse by the former government’s advisers, lackeys and supporters in the media, instead of supporting Free Press backed the government crackdown or closed its eyes.

With the irreparable damage being been done to media and democracy in Bhutan from this episode, the little that is left of the spirit of the Free Press in Bhutan will take time to recover.

The new government came to power on the platform of strengthening Bhutanese democracy and also on strengthening free press. It must fulfill this mandate in its five year term both in terms of resources and tolerance.

At the end of the day, the remainder of the Bhutanese media – is struggling for its survival on a month to month basis, but despite undergoing such huge odds and suffering much damage in the past – it is still trying. Perhaps, it is time that others pick up the shovel to clean our nation instead of only holding their nose and complaining.

Opinion by Tenzing Lamsang

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