Journalists explain the big but unsurprising drop in Bhutan’s press freedom ranking

Bhutan dropped its press freedom ranking by 57 places to the 90th place this year from 33rd last year according to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) which is compiled by the France-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The rank was an unsurprising drop as reporters have been facing increasing troubles with access to information, attrition in the media houses and sustainability issues.

The Editor of Kuensel, Tshering Palden shared that the drop would be for two reasons. “I would say two main reasons, sustainability issues and difficulty in getting access to information. The Bhutanese media industry has serious survival issues which is also captured in the report. The report shows that Bhutan fell 32 places against the economic indicator. This has serious impact on the quality of journalism the media houses can produce as then advertisement or revenue earning will become the priority. As new rules and protocols are dished out in every few months, there is a growing reluctance among the bureaucrats and civil servants to share even basic information.”

He also added that growing attrition from the media houses, with journalists leaving for greener pasture abroad leaves a huge vacuum which impacts sustainability of the media houses.

The editor of Business Bhutan, Ugyen Tenzin shared that different protocols must have affected the ranking. “It is a concern especially taking into consideration the associated Rights enshrined in our Constitution. I’m not surprised with the drop considering what we witnessed in the past years. Agencies like Thimphu Thromde came up with their own diktats for the media. Then we had the RCSC focusing on a Code of Conduct that restrained civil servants from speaking to the media. The flame became a fire when civil servants faced disciplinary actions for subordination and speaking to the media. This was followed by ACC’s model code. We lost our sources and these would have definitely impacted our ranking.”

Over the past years, media’s access to information has become stricter. Bureaucracy is a big problem to working journalist, who have to go through so many troubles to get basic information. Newly minted ad hoc procedures make it more difficult for journalists to get information which leaves journalists demotivated.

A senior seasoned journalist shared that there are times when a reporter is compelled to drop their stories. “As evident from the drops, access to information is tightening each day. There are also instances where few institutions do not even have the courtesy to text us back. Therefore, there are times where we don’t have much options aside from writing report-based stories.”

A similar opinion was shared by the Kuensel’s editor. “We face many challenges in terms of access to information which can be mostly attributed to the lack of understanding of the importance of the media. Most people think they are doing us a favour while giving us information when its their duty to do it. The information is not for the media but for the public who has a right to information guaranteed by the Constitution. It has now become a fashion for the offices to throw out a general press release on their social media pages and not even share with media houses. When we ask for details, either they don’t have it or takes days to get a response.”

According to the RSF’s report, it states that Bhutan Infocomm and Media Authority’s (BICMA) members are all appointed by the government and pose a threat to press freedom. It also highlighted that journalists express difficulty in gaining access to material that the government holds, and points out that bureaucracy in particular fosters a culture of secrecy and mistrust of the media that deprives the populace of information of public interest.

The report also shared that private media’s survival depends on advertising which is 80% generated by the government which has an eventual impact on the editorial decision. It also touched on censorship stating that the level of self-censorship is one of the main problems.

Former Editor, Yeshi Lhadon shared that the level of censorship in the country is high and so she opts for social media over mainstream media. “It is a fact that many seasoned reporters have left for better opportunities so the new reporters face challenges in terms of access to information and censorship. Institutions and organisations don’t want to be quoted and many opt to stay anonymous.”

A new reporter, shares her experience of struggling with access to information. “As a new reporter, I have to get used to a fast-paced environment, learning to report effectively and building sources which can be attributed to challenges in accessing information, and not being able to meet deadlines due to lack of information.”

The country’s huge bureaucratic nature already hampers the journalists work to inform the public, and other factors such as censorship, stricter guidelines to access information, already dwindling media fraternity with poor salary and working conditions saddles the country’s media scenario and its journalists.

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