Background and Evolution of the Bhutanese Media
Media, in a modern sense of the word, started only from the 1970’s onwards in Bhutan. Media, like much else, took off as a part of Bhutan’s process of planned development and modernization that started from 1962 onwards with the country’s five-year plans.
The Bhutanese media’s initial role, like in many small developing countries, was primarily as a tool for development and keeping citizens informed of the government’s plans and activities.
The media in Bhutan could have continued to remain as such, like it still does in many countries of the world.
However, in the case of Bhutan, His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck also involved and empowered the Bhutanese media as a part of his process of decentralization and gradual transition from an absolute Monarchy to a democracy.
This process was further taken forward by His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, under whose reign Bhutan saw the advent of a very vocal and active private media, and the tremendous growth of media, both in quantity and variety.
Therefore, the free and vibrant media in Bhutan is also a major part of the democratic process and decentralization of power.
It was on this premises that the Bhutanese media really took after and became a player in governance and state after the introduction of democracy.
The State Owned Media
The development of media in Bhutan started with the national paper, Kuensel, and the national broadcaster, Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS).
Kuensel began in 1965, as a government circular that was meant mainly for government officials as a source of basic information on the government’s activities, which had just finished its first five-year plan.
It was from 1986 when Kuensel started its publication of a weekly paper managed by the Department of Information under the Ministry of Communications.
In a sign of the changing times and decentralization process in 1992, Kuensel, by a Royal Edict was made independent from the government ministry that ran the paper. It remained as a government owned media. In 1998, it stopped receiving government subsidy, and in 2006, the paper sold 49 percent of its shares to the public.
BBS was started in 1973, initially known as Radio NYAB and managed by the National Youth Association of Bhutan (NYAB). In 1979, Radio NYAB was taken under the Ministry of Communication and become a national broadcaster providing the news for the masses, apart from the national paper, Kuensel. BBS was delinked from the government in October 1, 1992 through a Royal Edict allowing it to function as an autonomous broadcaster.
In 1999, with the introduction of television in Bhutan, BBS also launched its national television station. Currently, the national broadcaster has two channels, BBS 1 focusing on news and current affairs, and BBS 2 focusing on education and entertainment. BBS also has two radio channels; the 1st Radio Channel carries news and programs in local dialects, Sharchop and Lhotsam, and in English. The 2nd Radio Channel is broadcast in the national language, Dzongkha.
The development of the state media is interesting, in that, it brought about the introduction of professional journalism in a relatively closed society, and it showed the prominent role that media can play in the development and evolution of the Bhutanese society and polity. At the same time, the state media, in many ways, reflected the evolving Bhutanese society, polity and economy.
Kuensel began its life as a government circular that followed the very proper government announcements and developments in a reflection of the times, both economically and politically.
However, with increasing economic development and political reforms initiated from the throne, Kuensel evolved into a professional newspaper run by professional journalists and editorial board. The delinking from the government brought in visible changes, as one could see more critical articles, and even the odd investigative journalism, which would have been considered as explosive by Bhutanese standards at the time. The unthinkable also started happening when Kuensel started criticizing the failures of the government and also started highlighting audit reports and corruption reports.
The state media played an important role in forging together the idea of a modern and cohesive Bhutan of today. At an early period of Bhutan’s development, the state media also played an invaluable role in the development process of the country, educating the people about issues in the areas of health, education, agriculture, etc.
It was also an active participant, along with the state, in the gradual process of democratization of Bhutan culminating in the 2008 Parliamentary elections.
The state media, in its early days, was criticized for being government owned and toeing the government line. It has come a long way from that point, becoming more independent, but what truly set the cat among the pigeons was the advent of the private media.
The Private Media
The media revolution in Bhutan started from 2006, with the advent of Bhutan’s first private newspaper, Bhutan Times, in 2006 and followed a few months later, by another private newspaper, Bhutan Observer.
A spate of other private newspaper launch, in English and Dzongkha, began in 2008. Bhutan Today in 2008, Bhutan’s first business paper, Business Bhutan in 2009, The Journalist in 2009 and The Bhutanese in 2012.
Then private Dzongkha papers, like Druk Neytshuel was launched in 2010, Druk Yoedzer in 2011, Gyalchi Sarshog in 2012 and Druk Melong in 2012. In the same period, a news magazine, Drukpa, and entertainment magazines, Trowa and Yeewong, were also launched.
Not to be left behind were the private radio stations, like Kuzoo FM launch in 2006, Radio Valley in 2007, Centennial Radio in 2008 and Radio Waves in 2010. These radio stations are mainly focused on entertainment, given the licensing conditions.
The advent of the private media was a game changer, not only for the Bhutanese media, but also in terms of the media’s impact on democratic evolution and governance.
The first major impact of the private media was not only breaking the monopoly of the state media over news, but introducing a more critical and investigative journalism, or what we in Bhutan like to call “controversial articles”.
The private media also gave a strong sense of competition to Kuensel and BBS. The state owned media upgraded its editorial quality and also started doing a higher number of investigative and critical stories.
Kuensel, free from government funding and separated from government control through the Royal Edict, was particularly active, and on many occasions, even outdid its nearest rival Bhutan Times from 2008 to 2010 in the number of investigative and critical stories.
The private media combined with younger and more exposed journalists in Kuensel and BBS did not make it just out of the ordinary to criticize the government, but in fact, made it a norm.
The private media also strengthened the critical media and brought about new and independent players, in the form of private individuals or corporate houses owning newspapers. Though both the government ownership of media and private ownership has its own well known flaws, but in the bigger picture, there was a healthy balance. -To be continued
The writer who is the Editor-in-Chief of The Bhutanese presented this paper to the Institute of Defence and Studies Analysis (IDSA) in a South Asia conference. The IDSA is the Indian government’s premier autonomous think tank that deals with foreign policy and defence issues.