Media and the Democratic Process
The media really took off during March 2008 Parliamentary elections, as for the first time a grueling election process between the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) saw the once mighty pre-democracy ministers going around in the most humble homes and villages begging for votes. A sight that was common in other South Asian countries, but in Bhutan- it was extraordinary.
The power equations had changed overnight, and the people realized that they could vote for leaders of their choice.The media was an important factor in this equation as it played the key role of informing the people about the candidates and parties so that people could make their choices.
The 2008 elections was also an important turning point for the government which had traditionally relied on a top down system, with the King at the top. Now suddenly, the government also realized that it had to function in the bottom up system of democracy and elections.
Since none of the ministers were in power, and the interim government functioned with limited powers, the media, under the watchful eyes of the Election Commission of Bhutan, came into its own and started to play an active role.
The elections further enhanced the critical and independent role of the media as a whole. It was for the first time that political parties criticized each other, not sparing the party presidents and candidates. The media, in carrying the criticism and charges being traded, started to find a deeper and stronger voice.
In a society where ministers were not used to hearing criticism, the media played the role of not only a reporter, but also that of a critic and analyzer. Soon it was not uncommon to see editorials lecturing and chiding both parties and their leaders.
The 2008 elections was crucial in bringing the three key and relatively new components of a young democracy together, the empowered voters, the new politicians and the media each played a part and found a role for themselves in Bhutan’s new democracy.
This was also in the context of a situation where the ministers and bureaucratic figures, on an average, were double the age of their much younger and in-experienced journalist counterparts.
All in all, the media that emerged after the 2008 elections was more familiar with the politicians, more experienced and politically aware, and also bolder and much self assured.
This was useful and needed confidence, especially in a democratic era where various democratic institutions were also finding their own place, power and responsibilities within the larger system.
Media and Policy
With the democratic government in power from 2008 onwards, the young but confident and increasingly powerful Bhutanese media plays an important role in informing the people, criticizing the government, and in forming policy.
In Bhutan, given the stage of development, the main intelligentsia and movers and shakers still work in the government as a civil servant. The government continues to employ a large majority of people, around 25,000 out of a population of around 700,000.
Governments in the past had the power to fix the pay revision of civil servants and then announced it. However, the media coverage of the pay hike proposals, giving higher hikes for senior officials and politicians, in 2009 virtually replaced the pay commission as civil servants responded to the news.
The government was forced to reject the report of the pay commission and come up with separate provision based on feedback from the media and public.
The media in 2008 also highlighted an attempt by the then ruling party to get state funding for political parties which was hidden in the national budget that was being discussed in the Parliament at the time. The media expose lead repeal of such an attempt.
In 2010, the government was on the verge of taxing junk food, like soft drinks, chips, chocolate and other packaged snacks as a part of larger taxation measures, but when the plan was exposed by the media, it became a major issue for small shops and price sensitive consumers, forcing policy makers to repel the tax.
The public opinion against other provisions of the taxes also lead to the Opposition party, PDP, taking up Bhutan’s first Constitutional case on the basis that taxation measures had to be approved by the lower house as part of a Money Bill and not be imposed ad-hoc by the Executive arm. The Opposition won the case, which has become a landmark case in our democracy of anyone taking the government to court and winning.
Similarly, a few months later, even after making record profits, Bhutan’s monopoly and state owned power utility companies proposed doubling electricity charges. The media’s leaking of this proposal prompted outrage, and the government rejected the high hikes, and instead levied more realistic power charges.
The draconian Tobacco Act that criminalized a bad habit and saw scores of people going to prison was also amended after significant media pressure on the issue.
The media was well used by tour operators in conveying their opposition over the consultancy company McKinsey’s recommendation to lower tourism tariff leading to higher tariff rates.
The government on June 5, 2012 introduced the Pedestrian Day on the World Environment Day, whereby every Tuesday, people were not allowed to use vehicles with only highly limited vehicle movement allowed. This was seen as a draconian step, and the media, while conveying people’s unhappiness, again managed to convince the then government to reduce it to one Sunday per month. The new PDP government has done away with it.
A key role played by the media was in bringing about the Right To Information Bill, which is currently in the upper house of the Parliament after being passed by the lower house.
The media raised awareness on RTI from early as 2008, just after a new democratic government came into place, forcing the previous government to promise an RTI Act. However, with bureaucratic resistance and faced with some scams, the former DPT government did not come through with it.
The media then made it an election issue in 2013 and all parties promised to bring about RTI. The new PDP government had lived up to that promise by introducing a not perfect but still fairly liberal version of the bill in Parliament. Like in India and other parts of the world, the media hopes that RTI will be a positive game changer for transparency and good governance.
The media’s increasingly critical tone has made the government more aware of deficiencies in government services and governance, and it has lead to many more cases where rectification measures, big and small, has been undertaken.
A strong example is what some rural folk say about the media. They say that earlier when they faced problems they only had His Majesty the King to go to, but now they first come to the media.
Media and a Democratic Culture
Bhutan is a different place after democracy and a stronger media. Leaders and decision makers, at many levels, in the past did not accept criticism. Even at the societal level, people refrained from saying anything critical to each other.
The media has played a major part in changing this practice, by not only publishing critical stories, but also giving more voice to the people. People today, from farmers to civil servants, are not afraid to question and ask for accountability from their leaders and also of each other.
In the absence of a strong civil society in Bhutan, the media has also been the champion of the various rights of the people like fundamental rights, human rights, and more. .
Apart from dissent and criticism, the varieties of views, ideas and expressions in the media have made Bhutanese democracy only richer and stronger.
The media, is also a source of intellectual content and dialogue on a host of issues.
The media has also played an important role in encouraging national dialogue.
The free and vibrant press, 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 has also contributed to internal stability and well-being of the nation.
The Global Peace Index for 2014 has ranked Bhutan at 16 out of 162 countries. Bhutan’s successful and peaceful transition to a democracy has made such a ranking possible. This would, by itself, highlight the positive role played by the media.
..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.