Opposition and PM debate Press Freedom in Bhutan

The Member of Parliament (MP) from Panbang constituency, Dorji Wangdi, during the Question Hour session, questioned the government on Press Freedom, and on senior journalists leaving the profession.

The MP, without providing any specifics and names, said that on the World Press Freedom Day, issues of interference by the government on Press Freedom and media professionals had surfaced, due to which, a number of journalists including some senior ones have either resigned, or taken long leave, or have been relegated to indifferent assignments.

Responding to the question, Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay said his support for the media has been there since the time the present government was the Opposition.  He said that various strategies are being initiated to support journalists and media houses.

Lyonchhen said that in 2007 and 2008, some newspapers, like Kuensel, Bhutan Times and others played a huge role before, during and after the 2008 elections.

Prime Minster said that it was during the tenure of the previous government that journalism and media houses started to decline, and it became a serious cause of concern for the Opposition party then.

Lyonchhen said that soon after getting the question from the Panbang MP, the Office of the Prime Minister immediately carried out a study to find out if those journalists resigning are due to government interference, or if there is government interference in other areas.

PM said that he did not make the calls, as it may intimidate journalists and they may not be frank, and instead asked his junior officials to enquire with journalists.

He listed the names of the President of Journalist Association of Bhutan, and names of editors from Kuensel, BBS, Bhutan Times, Bhutan Today, Business Bhutan, Gyalchi Sarshog, Druk Neytshul, The Bhutanese and Druk Melong, who were all asked if the government was interfering with the media in anyway.

PM said that none of the editors have said that the government was interfering with the media.

“If there is anyone that intimidates journalists, the present government will reprimand them and take action,” Lyonchhen said.

Regarding the senior journalists quitting the profession, the PM said that the number of journalists resigning was much higher between 2008 and 2013. He said that apart from the much larger numbers of journalists, around 11 Editors themselves had resigned between 2008-2013.

PM said that after 2013, three senior journalists resigned from Kuensel to set up a consultancy firm that is now training and guiding young journalists.  Lyonchhen  said that when he enquired about the whereabouts of the former Kuensel Editor, he was informed that he had been transferred to Publishing Department as an editor, as an internal administrative exercise of Kuensel management.

Meanwhile, PM also informed the House that a senior journalist from BBS is on extra ordinary leave, like any other civil servant who takes such a leave.

PM said that newspapers were in the most awful state during the final year of the former government, when journalists in media houses that wrote about the then government were scolded. PM said that the former government even issued a circular cutting off government advertisement to a private paper for critical content.

As for accessibility, PM said journalists can call his mobile number for information on the government. PM said that it is impressive to know that Bhutan is listed  94th among 180 countries in the International Press Freedom ranking, and is rated number one in South Asia. He said this is a major achievement for a young democracy. Bhutan has moved up 10 places in the ranking this year.

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader, Dr Pema Gyamtsho, said that the newspapers no longer cover critical issues like they used to do in the past, instead many papers carry similar content.

The OL named The Bhutanese and alleged that the paper during the previous government’s tenure criticized the government, but it was now engaged in ‘praising’ the present government.

Regarding the senior journalists leaving the profession, OL said that it might be due to shift in career choices, seeking growth and for better opportunities.

OL added that since the media plays an important role in democracy, the Opposition party also supports the government, in order to strengthen and give them confidence.

Responding to OL’s charge that The Bhutanese was going soft on the current government, PM said that it is not true. He said The Bhutanese, in the past and recent times, has brought out various corruption issues, like Gyelpozhing, Bhutan Lottery, Denchi Land compensation scam, Education City and also on BHEL giving commissions to a Bhutanese company.

PM said that the paper wrote about such issues as those were corrupt practices and the stories were based on facts.

He said that the paper has not written about any major corruption scam on the current government as there are no major scams to write about, showing a decline in corruption cases.

PM, however, said that The Bhutanese still writes critical stories on the present government.

PM said that the intention of both Opposition and government is one, which is to reinforce media excellence in the country.

PM said that in the current scenario the media is doing better as compared to the past, which is supported by the International Press Freedom Index rankings.

“The core problem is that media houses are unable to make money, and as a result, the journalists survive on meager pay and finally choose to leave the profession,” Lyonchhen said.

Towards supporting the media, PM said that as the number of papers cannot be reduced, he suggested that papers club and work together. Similarly, he said that meet-the-press session is being carried out every month, and asked senior reporters to take part in it as well, and not only send junior reporters. PM said senior journalists did not seem to take interest in coming for gathering news at the session.

Lyonchhen said that some people may wonder how The Bhutanese newspaper gets all the information. He credited the Editor of the paper for his relentless effort in seeking information and making numerous phone calls, sending text messages and even writing multiple emails with questions.

During the Question Hour session of NA, Lyonchhen said that he has shared his number with all Editors, and so far, it is only The Bhutanese Editor who keeps calling him for information, and in the absence of others not calling, he ends up sharing some information with The Bhutanese.

PM added that the government, in collaboration with international organizations, is increasingly supporting media houses in the country, in the wake of private media houses facing sustainability issues.

Editor of The Bhutanese, Tenzing Lamsang, said, “We were the first paper to point out the need for the resignation of the former Foreign Minister for Lhakhang Karpo, and we have criticized the government on multiple issues from MP’s pay hike, private sector development to the mismanagement of LPG cylinders and more.”

He added that the paper will continue on its cutting edge of investigative journalism.

The Bhutanese won the annual Best Investigative Story of the Year awards in 2014 and 2015 from JAB for investigative stories, the latter of which involved a ruling party MP.

 

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