The 2013 Elections, was equivalent to the ‘Bhutan Spring’ – where a powerful and increasingly autocratic political structure fell down to put the world’s smallest Opposition party in power.
There were several factors like- the state of the economy and unemployment, but the critical voices and stories that surfaced in the private press- bringing to light several failures and abuses of power by the previous government also contributed to bringing in a change.
Underfunded, outnumbered-even within its own community, and irrespective of the intimidation tactics- the critical elements in the free press became a focus point of the majority’s unhappiness and disgruntlement with the previous government.
Like in all situations of political change- many powerful and vested elements in state institutions including some in the state media, directly or indirectly, wanted to preserve the status quo and not allow change at all.
What happened in the 2013 Elections leading to the ‘Bhutan Spring’ was the culmination of a longer process that started in 2006- with the launch of two private newspapers.
Though democracy may have come in 2008, a democratic press started in 2006 with the launch of two private papers that gave a strong impetus to critical journalism, or in other words- turned the ‘lap dog’ into a ‘watch dog’.
This kind of journalism also had a competitive and strong effect on state- owned media houses where young and critical journalists, especially in the national paper, also turned up the heat and actively competed to come out with more investigative stories, scoops and breaking news.
This new era of journalism that cut across newsrooms and young reporters had more spine to stand up to power and also more heart to feel the pain of the downtrodden and speak for them.
The impact on the nation and its people has been understated but profound. Though electoral democracy had taken place in 2008, a ‘democratic culture’ and ‘democratic attitude’ was yet to take strong roots. The free and vibrant press, in that sense, considerably strengthened the discourse and practice of democracy by asking tough questions of the powerful, going after the corrupt, encouraging people to speak up and making powerful institutions accountable to ordinary citizens. In doing so, it strengthened the Bhutanese democracy and also the internal stability and well-being of the nation.
This is not to say the private media was perfect given its large numbers, and at times- quality journalism suffered as some private media houses veered between a ‘confused dog,’ ‘blind dog’ and ‘lap dog’. However, the new spirit of journalism had been unleashed and some took it higher than others contributing to a ‘Bhutan Spring’ of sorts in 2013.
There was some backlash from the previous government as critical elements of the private press were made to suffer politically and financially in a trial by fire.
Today, the very institution of the private press and in that sense the free press is in dire straits or using medical terminology- in an “intensive care unit” with no doctors or nurses around.
One private paper shut down last year, the country’s second private paper had to stop printing and go online recently, while the country’s first business paper is contemplating a shutdown. Now, some private papers print only when there is advertisement while many only have some skeletal manpower left.
Newspaper owners say that if nothing is done then most private newspapers will have to close shop within the next six months.
It will only be a matter of time when the media space will to go back entirely to state- owned media houses- vulnerable to government interference.
The popularly touted theory, which some private papers have themselves bought into, is that there are too many papers and limited government advertisement.
The truth is more complicated. In a system and economy where the government and its employees are used to owning and running everything-from mobile phone services to banks to state-owned media, the entry of the private press was a big deviation from the norm.
The private press received not only the traditional and entrenched hostility within a semi-feudal government system towards private enterprise, but it was looked upon with suspicion for daring to question the government.
There was little recognition or acknowledgement of the tremendously important role and contributions of the private press in Bhutanese democracy and polity.
With such attitudes- the policies and actions soon followed. The 200 8-2009 first Pay Commission report saw a group of mainly senior civil servants not only recommending the highest pay hikes for themselves, but also a drastic cut in advertisements among other things. Though the then government implemented a more realistic and equitable pay hike, the second part of the report was implemented with gusto.
In 2010, a leaked finance ministry circular betrayed the government mindset when all government agencies were encouraged to advertise with state- owned media outlets instead of private papers.
Until 2010, though there were around 10 newspapers- the costs of operations could be met even though state owned-media were consuming more than 60 percent of the advertisement pie. The circular changed all that and matters got considerably worse with austerity moves in the following years that aggressively targeted advertisements to private papers.
In 2012, another aspect of the government mindset was revealed, when an April 2012 government circular marked ‘Confidential’ asked government agencies to blacklist this paper from government advertisements due to its critical content. It was clear, at the moment, that the then government system was destroying the Free Press by destroying the economy of the Press.
The new government now needs to do much more to reverse the actions of the previous government and the system in general that is killing Free Press. Its latest austerity measures though commendable is again seeing the already much shrunken advertisement pie shrinking even further.
In a general discussion behind closed door -the comment of a senior bureaucrat that the government ‘needs its mouthpieces’ implying the rest are on their own is quite revealing.
The new government, which has come about as a result of the ‘Bhutan Spring’ cannot shrink from its duty of promoting and preserving Free Press. In the end, its benign neglect or non action will make it as equally complicit in the death of Free Press in Bhutan as the former government’s aggressive and unethical actions. This government has both a moral and political obligation to uphold the key democratic forces and principles behind the ‘Bhutan Spring’ one of which is a Free Press.
The death of the private media and consequently Free Press in Bhutan will overtime lead to a regression and dilution in the several democratic gains made in the past six years. For all their importance- Constitutional Bodies, are government organizations manned by civil servants and except for a rare few individuals, are vulnerable to government control and pressure.
The Free Press is the only non-government, non political and a key long-term viable insurance scheme to ensure the success of the Bhutanese democracy. It will only be a matter of time before the entire structure of a healthy Bhutanese democracy comes crashing down, after the key foundational pillar of the Free Press is removed.
When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.