The Bhutanese media has had a major impact on the evolution of Bhutanese democracy, government policies, laws, corruption, individual mindset and governance.
Serious and credible newspapers using thorough research, reliable information networks, ethical norms and also a certain degree of boldness has created a significant impact especially in the last four years.
However, weaker and less professional media houses have made minimal impact mainly due to their lack of credibility and professionalism thereby failing to connect with their readers.
The most immediate impact that comes to mind is on fighting corruption. It is due to a series of investigative stories on mining practices across the country that agencies like ACC, RAA, DGM and DoF are today ensuring there is more transparency and accountability in the allocation and running of mines and quarries.
Institutional corruption in the Ministry of Health cost the health and safety of patients for years. It was the media that exposed the nexus between suppliers and procurement staff and the unreliability of medical equipment and drugs.
The media similarly has exposed several irregularities in the procurement of goods or services by other ministries and agencies.
This awareness on corruption over procurement is gradually leading to improved systems and procurement rules that reduce legal loopholes and discretionary powers of procurement committees.
Another major impact of the media is in exposing large scale corruption in Bhutan lottery mainly on the Indian side at a scale which was around twice the size of the tenth plan. While the media suggested cleaning up the operation the government decided to shut it down.
The media’s expose on some major land scams showed that are major issues of accountability and transparency in the distribution of land in Bhutan. This more than any other corruption issue has struck a chord with the people. After these land stories, it is not uncommon to find farmers regularly calling newspapers and journalists that cover such issues, showing that what has come out so far is only the tip of the iceberg.
It is also the numerous stories written by the media against fronting and the software business that has encouraged the government to ban the software business as a part of its measures to resolve the rupee crisis.
Resignation of senior figures, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago, can also be ascribed in part to the impact of the media.
It is due to the relentless coverage by a few dedicated media houses and journalists that people are more aware about corruption and less tolerant of it.
Apart from corruption the media has had a significant impact on policies and laws. In 2009 the government was on the verge of taxing junk food but when this was exposed it became a major issue for small shops and consumers forcing policy makers to repel the tax. However, this also lead to the opposition taking up Bhutan’s first constitutional case.
Similarly few months later even after making record profits power utility companies proposed doubling electricity charges. The media’s leaking of this proposal prompted outrage and better sense prevailed as the government rejected the high hikes and instead levied more realistic power charges.
The draconian Tobacco Act that criminalized a bad habit and saw scores of people going to prison was also amended after significant media pressure.
Recently concerted pressure from the media on the Right to Information Bill prompted a socially conscious Member of Parliament sponsoring a private members on RTI bill in the Parliament.
The media was well used by tour operators in conveying their opposition over McKinsey’s recommendation to lower tourism tariff leading to higher tariff rates.
The media in 2009 virtually replaced the pay commission as irate civil servants responded to the media’s coverage of the pay hike proposals that gave higher hikes for senior officials.
Strong media coverage is also leading to better accountability in the construction of infrastructure from farm roads to national highways as local citizens no longer hesitate in calling up media houses if the quality is not as promised.
In short the media has become one of the democratic tools that not only acts as watchdog but also has a much more complex role of influencing policy, laws and etc in the public and national interest. Media houses that are not watch dogs and also unable to influence policies for the public benefit are not fulfilling their roles in a democratic setting.
However, the biggest and far reaching impact of the media has been on the evolution of a democratic mindset among the ordinary Bhutanese. People today from farmers to civil servants are not afraid to question and ask for accountability from their leaders and also of each other.