Media’s Role in Fighting Corruption
Bhutan’s ranking in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index in 2008 was 45 out of 180 countries and number one in the SAARC region. Bhutan improved its ranking to 33 in 2012, and finally in 2013, it stood 31 out of 175 countries, and is still number one in the SAARC region.
There is corruption in Bhutan, but unlike in other countries, it is not pervasive, like traffic police or any police in Bhutan will never ask for a bribe to let somebody off.
The credit for such a good rankings goes to a variety of factors, but one of the key factors is the role of the media.
One leading institution which has had great success in fighting corruption to the extent of even prosecuting and convicting ministers is the Anti-Corruption Commission. Its chairman in a 2013 interview on BBS stated that the media has played an absolutely key role in fighting corruption in Bhutan and bringing the powerful to account.
This is also widely acknowledged by the intelligentsia and public in general in Bhutan.
As explained above in detail, the media became bolder and stronger with the evolution of the democratic process and the introduction of the private media. After elections, a democratic environment and the Constitution that guaranteed freedom of media and freedom of expression as fundamental rights further emboldened the media.
It also gave people, like me, the privilege of coming back and practicing investigative journalism in 2008 after a two-year stint with the Indian Express newspaper in Delhi. I had the opportunity and honour of being behind many major investigative stories in Bhutan that exposed and tackled corruption.
I will give an example of a few of the stories, to highlight the impact that media had on corruption.
The media found that Bhutan’s only international airport was in for a grave risk of plane landing due to the substandard work done by an unauthorized sub-contractor. This early expose in our young democracy caused a fair amount of controversy in a society that was not used to investigative journalism. The impact was that the whole airport was resurfaced with quality material, and therefore, minimizing the risk to the lives of the people.
The media did several investigative and critical stories on illegal mining to unethical mining practices across the country causing environmental violations which lead to ACC investigations, court prosecutions. It also resulted in more awareness, transparency and accountability in the allocation and running of mines and quarries by government agencies.
The Ministry of Health is the fourth largest recipient of government budget as it provides free medical care to the citizens in hospitals and basic health units spread across the country. There are no private hospitals in Bhutan as the rules do not permit it. A huge chunk of the budget in the ministry goes into the procurement of drugs and medical equipment every year.
I wrote a five-part investigative report series in 2009, uncovering that over a period of many years, a system of institutional corruption had been built up between the international companies and their middlemen that supplied drugs and medical equipment, and corrupt senior bureaucrats in the ministry and even health professionals.
It resulted in a public outcry, leading to subsequent and more detailed investigations by the Anti-Corruption Commission and Royal Audit Authority that verified the reports, and come up with more damning findings that lead to prosecution of the guilty and resignation of the Health Secretary at the time. An important outcome was the revamping and restricting of the entire Bhutan health procurement process, making it more transparent and healthy.
The media also exposed several irregularities in the procurement of goods or services by other ministries and agencies. This has contributed to Bhutan adopting a more stringent norm and international best practices in tendering norms. In many ways, the media has lead to improved systems and procurement rules that reduce legal loopholes and discretionary powers of procurement committees and individuals.
Another major impact of the media was in exposing cross border corruption in Bhutan Lottery, mainly on the Indian side, at a scale running into hundreds of crores. Bhutan Lottery is a government of Bhutan lottery, which was one of the most popular lotteries sold in some states in India, like Kerala, West Bengal, etc. Based on more than 20 investigative articles, that I wrote, the government did a special audit on Bhutan Lottery and decided to shut it down.
In a third world country, land is the prime source of wealth and capital, and at the same time, it also attracts a lot of corrupt activities, particularly by the powerful.
The media exposed some major land scams revealing grave issues of accountability and transparency in the distribution of prime land in Bhutan. This has, more than any other corruption issue, struck a chord with the people. Some investigative stories that I did on plot allotments in a commercial town lead to the conviction of two ministers and a legal ban on them from political office. Around 60 plots were sized from high profile bureaucrats, judges, and three other ministers and handed back for re-allotment to the real beneficiaries, the common people.
After the land scam stories, it is not uncommon to find farmers and ordinary citizens regularly calling the media to cover such land issues.
The media has been active in exposing major and minor corruption cases and bringing the powerful to account.
Overall, the relentless coverage of corruption by a few dedicated media houses and journalists have made people are more aware about corruption, and as a result, less tolerant of it.
Corruption has become a part of the national dialogue as everyone, from newspapers to politicians, picks up on the issue.
The 2013 National elections saw the political parties raising concerns on the many corruption scams reported by the media in their speeches to the voters. Many election observers felt that the corruption issues and critical stories brought out by the media played a major role in the election outcome, where the world’s smallest Opposition party of two members came to power with a landslide of 32 MPs in the lower house.
Challenges for the Bhutanese Media
While the Bhutanese media has achieved much, however, it has been suffering since the last three to four years, primarily due to economic reasons. Given the media’s role in fighting corruption and exploring new boundaries, there has also been some backlash.
The Bhutanese media, which consisted of three papers in 2006, mushroomed into 12 papers by 2012, allowing for a much needed diversity and views, but it also increased the competition for limited advertisement resources. The majority of the advertisement revenue comes from the government, given Bhutan’s relatively undeveloped private sector.
Due to cost cutting and austerity measures, the government spending on advertisement started dipping from 2010. However, the big crunch came from 2012 onwards, with the onset of an economic crisis that forced the government to tighten its belt.
As a result, the lack of advertisement, being the main source of revenue, forced papers and other media outlets to lay off staff and carry out other cost cutting measures. Given the tough times Bhutan’s two private papers had to fold. There are also other papers on the brink of closure. There also has been a trend of senior journalists leaving journalism and taking up other professional fields.
The former government responded to critical and investigative stories that exposed corruption by using the economic stick of withholding advertisements.
During the 2013 general elections, one of the major election issues was press freedom raised by the Opposition party and other parties in the fray.
A Journalists Association of Bhutan (JAB) study on the situational assessment of journalists in Bhutan showed that the media situation in the country was not very good. The survey covered 90 journalists working in 16 media organizations and 29 former journalists.
The majority (71%) of working journalists felt that journalism has lost its attraction.
About 58% of working journalists felt ‘unsafe’ to cover critical stories fearing reprisal. They felt uneasy due to practicing journalism in a small close-knit society, lack of adequate skills and objections from their management.
About 66% of working journalists stated it is ‘difficult’ to access public information. In fact, 11% of them mentioned it as being ‘very difficult’. 58% of working journalists mentioned the existing media legislations and policies failed to ensure media development.
By Tenzing Lamsang
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. IDSA is the Indian government’s premier autonomous think tank.