The Department of Information and Media commissioned report on overcoming the financial crisis in the private media has hit the figurative bull’s eye, in identifying the main problem plaguing private newspapers, and it has also found the way out.
The report has been drafted by a well regarded and neutral consultancy group, after much study and analysis, and also after talking to various stakeholders.
It has shown that the private media crisis is mainly due to a drastic reduction in advertisement expenditure by the government over the years, and not due to the popular misconception that the crisis was caused only due to the increase in number of papers.
The other major problem is that the advertisement available was disproportionately given to state-owned media houses.
What is revealing in the report is that if the current trend in advertisement allocation and distribution continues, Bhutan may very well have no private media.
Therefore, the report’s main recommendation, that advertisement be divided and distributed by a central body between state-owned media and private media, is a very good idea. It is also something that private newspapers have been asking for all the while.
The report is correct in saying that all private papers will not survive and only the good ones will make it through, which is an acceptable scenario to private newspapers.
Some people have said that ‘market forces’ should decide the fate of the media, especially the private newspapers.
First of all, the current scenario goes against the every principle of ‘market forces,’ ‘free market’ or fair competition. On one side, there are the government supported and funded behemoths that enjoy near monopolies, and on the other hand, there are the struggling private newspapers, unable to compete against the array of government provided and owned resources. Also the ‘market’ will itself eventually suffer if there is a government-owned media monopoly and a lack of competition.
Secondly, the media- given its very nature and responsibility cannot be treated like any ordinary profit and loss business, especially in a young democracy. The media has huge roles and responsibilities in a democracy, and it is too important to be simply left to the ‘market forces.’
There may be some who question the very need for the private media, given Bhutan’s limited resources, small market and other pressing priorities.
Then the next logical question should be on the very need for a democracy, Parliament, elections, Constitutional Bodies, etc., given the limited resources.
A free press is the lifeblood of any healthy democracy. The closure or absence of private media will eventually lead to the severe limitations on free press, and do irreparable damage to a democracy.
State-owned media houses are editorially more active today, only due to the competition provided by the private media. Private media outlets also provide an indirect check on any government misusing state media by providing alternative sources of information and views. Take away the competition and alternative source of news and Bhutan will have two very large and powerful media organizations owned by the government.
With governments changing every five years and political parties and political competition getting more active and ambitious, it will leave the state media organizations vulnerable to political maneuvers.
The media plays an exceedingly important role in a democracy – to the extent that the health and quality of most democracies are known from the state of the media.
The private media is not asking for handouts or asking for all outlets to survive, but only for the fair and balanced policies that provide a level playing field, where the best will survive. Apart from the election promises, any elected government’s most sacred mandate is to make democracy a success in Bhutan- and for that to happen -the media is crucial.
The current system of distribution of advertisements is highly prone to corruption, nepotism and even abuse by political forces. The report’s recommendation for a transparent Advertising Placement Board that transparently allocates advertisements is a good idea. It would be this body that divides the advertisement between the state-owned media and the private media in a fair manner.
It is now up to the government of the day to ensure that it fulfills its election promise of strengthening the media and also strengthening democracy.
I tell you, in my opinion, the cornerstone of democracy is free press.