It has been a few weeks since the Friday Meet between the Cabinet members and the Press was put to a halt after a series of 31 press conferences in the first year, and the monthly meet was announced to be need-based.
Such a move has many questioning the rationale behind the halt, when such press conferences are means to better transparency and accountability for any ruling party.
Some of the media houses shared their thoughts on the matter.
Chief Editor, Business Bhutan, Namkhai Norbu, said, “Meet-the-Press is good to have as local journalists have access to many ministers at once. It is an avenue where the government can inform, address, present ideas, and justify their execution through the media. It is often hard to get through to ministers and focal persons, considering their busy schedules on regular days.”
Chief Executive Officer, Bhutan Times, N.B Ghalley, said, “We feel that the decline in the frequency of Meet-the-Press could be because of the engagement of Cabinet Ministers with other developmental activities. During the press meet, we get answers for the questions within a short time, however, in case of mainstream reporting, firstly, we have to get appointments. All of us know getting an appointment with the right person is very difficult.
Also, at times, when we send the questions to relevant personnel, they fail to respond within the given time resulting in us missing our deadline. It would be helpful for the journalists to have regular session to inform the nation about national issues.”
Chief Editor, Bhutan Broadcasting Service, Ashok Tirwa, “Meet-the-Press enables effective reporting as all media houses get centered-source of information-it accounts for transparency and reliability in the news since it balances the story from both the sides; the media as well as the Cabinet Members.”
According to Ashok Tirwa, getting the the government’s voice on urgent news is regarded as being more effective during such sessions. He said another good thing about the press meet is that the media houses come into sync on the information that they take away from the session.
“In the past, it used to be much easier to get fresh news with the government bringing a sense of direction during the Meet-the-Press sessions. Generally, it hasn’t impacted too much as their cooperation towards the media has been good,” he added.
Kuensel in a written statement said, “For us, as long as ministers and officials remain accessible to reporters, there is no issue. The government should call for press conferences as and when there are major announcements.”
Executive Director, Bhutan Media Foundation, Needrup Zangpo, said, “The frequency of the Meet- the-Press is not an issue as long as the government is accessible to the media, any time, as the Prime Minister promised. The difference between regular reporting and Meet-the- Press is that the reporters have direct access to all or most Cabinet Ministers at once during Meet-the-Press which is difficult at other times.”
He also said there is no such thing as a suitable timeline for Meet-the-Press. “It can be needs-based which the Cabinet decided. If the media find that the access to the government in dribs and drabs is not enough, they could request the government for a more frequent Meet-the- Press,” he said.
The Editor of The Bhutanese, Tenzing Lamsang said, “The monthly Meet-the-Press was an important institution established by the first elected government and it was in the spirit of holding an elected government accountable to a the Press. Similarly, the second government also carried on with this important democratic tradition and further strengthened it with a weekly press meet/conference with some senior Editors in the middle of its term. But it is unfortunate that both have now come to a close after almost a year into the third elected government.”
He said, “Yes, the concerns of some ministers not being asked questions is legitimate, but the overriding interest was that any question could be asked of any minister and the government of the day could not avoid the press if there were any major developments during the month or week. The issue was about ensuring accountability. It also strengthened our international democratic and free press credentials. The effectiveness of the session could be seen from how it generated not only big headlines but also got quite intense at times.”
“Now access is a much more curated and filtered affair and this is not healthy for a multitude of reasons. The unique access, environment, openness and accountability of the Meet-the-Press is being denied not only to the press but also the people of Bhutan. This is something to think about both for the government and the media,” he added.
On that light, the Media Unit, Prime Minister Office (PMO) clarified on why the decision was made for the press meet to be on a need-based practice.
The unit stated that the government is fully aware of the importance of the role of media, more so in a democratic setting. “It is a critical way to empower people with right information, seek wider consultation and promote transparency in the government functioning, thereby retaining trust and instilling confidence in people,” it added.
In regard to the press meet, there were 31 such sessions until 7 November 2019 leaving aside in-person, phone and email interviews that they had entertained. There were also additional press releases and interactions during official events.
“The Prime Minister and ministers have also been responding to questions from reporters on phone and messages, some even past midnight. We have also been entertaining walk-in reporters, irrespective of appointments,” the media unit added.
The media unit exemplified that the weekly Friday meet, coordinated by the PMO was discontinued because the government and some media houses felt it was held too frequently.
PMO resorted to scheduling three ministers a week each. However, the hour-long program saw only one or two questions for the ministers.
There were also times when ministers scheduled for the week were out of town or had more urgent programs under their wings. There was also feedback that the Cabinet and PM appeared too frequently on media.
This is also intended to encourage media houses to come up with relevant issues and story ideas rather than relying on press meets. Some media houses also preferred to save questions for one-on-one interview to maintain the exclusivity of their stories.
“The monthly Meet-the-Press is important, and how much ever possible, when the schedules of the Prime Minister and ministers allowed, the monthly program has been held. There will be one coming Friday on 29th November. Although the scheduled monthly meet could not take place, this does not mean that access to information or cooperation from Prime Minister and ministers have reduced,” the media unit added.
There were instances when press conference also had to be need-based, like the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a pre-parliament meet, UNGA return, after official visits to India and Bangladesh or when there was a need to respond to the Opposition.
Cabinet ministers have also held press conferences when required. The foreign minister held press conference before the visit of the Indian Prime Minister. Similarly, the economic affairs ministry held a press conference on tariff revision and health ministry on dengue outbreak.
“Interactions with media did not slow down. Media was informed of all the important government meeting (like the TVET and APA signings for example),” pointed out the unit.
When the government turned one year, besides the exclusive interviews sought with the Prime Minister, media was invited for the event at the RUB Hall. Prime Minister also addressed the nation LIVE on BBS and sat through the Q&A session the same evening.
“PMO realises the importance of social media, and thus operates Facebook, Twitter and also Instagram accounts, to keep the people updated of issues and activities related to the Prime Minister. The channels are also used to share Prime Minister’s thoughts and seek feedback from people on pertinent topics,” stated the media unit.
Furthermore, to enable access and free flow of information, a WhatsApp group has been created by the media division of the PMO which has more than 40 participants it said. Media focal persons have been identified in all ministries to assist the media with access to information and facilitate interview requests.
“In order to improve access, and work towards strengthening media, Prime Minister held discussions with the Ministry of Information and Communications, Journalists Association of Bhutan and the Bhutan Media Foundation. Finally, the Prime Minister, since day one, has acknowledged the importance of media. Subsequently, the government subscribes to information access to enhance good governance. But again, despite the intention, media should understand that time and situation do not allow interactions at all times or as planned. Meanwhile, much of research and ground works are also expected from the media, by way of generating content that will benefit people of Bhutan,” the media unit of the PMO stated.