Kencho Wangdi

The Not So Bashful Paper

By Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)

For ‘The Bhutanese’ the view is never far

REPORTING the news in a small, close-knit society where everyone knows everyone by sight or by name is an enterprise laced with conflict. It’s a job riddled with personal, financial and psychological perils with booby-traps high and low where even well-meaning stories can entrap you into a lifetime of tension. It certainly is not a job suited to the faint. But The Bhutanese is no mere mortal.

In front-page stories and editorials, week after week, month after month, the paper hammers out one uncompromising story of government malfeasance after another, no matter the backlash.

With forceful clarity, the paper champions and challenges politicians over their promises to the voters and public officials over their duties to the public, making sure they are not dropped out of the political and cultural conversations.

While most papers shy from controversial stories, The Bhutanese is rarely bashful. When most papers hem and haw, The Bhutanese is straightforward bare and stark, with a high premium placed on facts. And despite being a weekly, the paper often breaks some of the biggest news in the country.

Over the course of its 10-year operation, everyone from enraged politicians to Dashos to civil servants to private sector persons has lambasted the paper calling it, among many other names, a demagogue, a mole even.

That the paper is still standing, despite the odds, is a testament to its tenacity and bearing.

Its journey is even more impressive when you take into account the fact that it’s a private newspaper with far fewer resources and clout than government fortified dailies. The paper has one editor and five reporters from a staff of 10.

Like most close-knit societies, Thimphu is all too often a tepid swamp of self-congratulations and delicate egos or, as someone put it, a warm island of Bhutanese gaiety in a sour sea of ambition and ill-will.

To stir the cauldron as persistently and as relentlessly as the paper is to invite at some point the sting of retributions from people whose reputations the paper demolished upon its business and certainly upon its reporters.

The retributions though have come swift and hot, sometimes in the form of loss in advertising, sometimes in the threats of disabling bodily injuries.

Perhaps no other newspapers or organisations in Bhutan have been vilified and shouted at and threatened the way The Bhutanese have been for doing its job.

Crossing swords with newsmakers is hardly fun but at The Bhutanese a young reporter whose nature is to shy away from confrontations quickly comes to find them an inescapable part of his job.

A former reporter of the paper who hung around in one of the many Thimphu speakeasies frequented by reporters used to say he drank in order to forget the misery he saw in his job. He undoubtedly saw a lot of it because he often drank twenty-five mugs of beer a night, and the beers made in Bhutan are by no means weak.

For the most part, the attacks are absorbed by the paper’s owner and editor— Tenzing Lamsang. In Thimphu, a few figures are regularly discussed by their name among people they have never actually met. One of them is Lamsang.

A heavyset man with a high forehead and bushy eyebrows, he would be seen on his phone on any given day embroiled in a series of increasingly sharp exchanges with the people he had featured in one of his paper’s exposes.

The conversation usually ended with the aggrieved person on the other end threatening unimaginable consequences and slamming the phone on him. For an editor who declared on Facebook that he eats threats for breakfast, it’s just another day at work.

Many politicians regard The Bhutanese as their adversary and see Lamsang as the avatar of the paper. With good reasons. Over the years, The Bhutanese featured several hundred investigative stories that took aim at the politicians and Lamsang wrote every single one of them.

The editor is not overly influenced by criticisms, which he argues come from second-guessers and tongue-cluckers anyway, not afraid to take on subjects that are edgy, not afraid to report those subjects independently and fairly, and if people don’t like it they can jump in the Wangchu River.

The Bhutanese, as far as he is concerned, will continue to do the hard work of asking difficult questions, digging deeper into issues facing the nation, and telling the stories that the public otherwise wouldn’t hear. 

Recently, the paper went after the prime minister for unilaterally deciding to ban the drayangs upon which many lives depended. Through in-depth stories and interviews, the paper framed its case against the stunning decision as an unholy clash between individual liberty and puritan righteousness.

Its story on the Khandu Wangmo case was a runaway hit. Unfolding against a charged backdrop of political intrigue and gender prejudice, the woman’s case quickly built to such a lurid, hysterical pitch that it became a national fixation, thanks in large part to the paper’s disbelief-suspending details in its coverage.

The logic of the paper’s argument doesn’t always carry the day, however. Nor is the paper above mistakes. One of the deafening complaints against the paper a few years ago, which the paper is alleged to have turned a deaf ear to, was that it was way too soft on one government, many likening its sudden change of tone from that of a tiger to a domestic cat.

There are some who when it came to romantic entanglements desired the romance but dreaded the entanglement. The Bhutanese not only relished the romance but took the entanglements in its stride, however bad, as an inevitable and necessary part of its job while not losing sight of its commitment to inform the public.

 For The Bhutanese, the view is never far.

The writer is the former editor of Kuensel and can be reached at @bonzk on Instagram

Check Also

Can AI Learn to Obey the Law?

CAMBRIDGE – If the British computer scientist Alan Turing’s work on “thinking machines” was the prequel to …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *