Some members of the first editorial team in February 2012

The story behind The Bhutanese paper

The whole idea of The Bhutanese started in 2011, as a newspaper that would focus on in-depth and investigative journalism and also push the envelope. 

A difficult birth

The paper was subject to an extraordinarily long licensing process by BICMA from October 2011 to February 2012.

Even after completing all the onerous formalities, and even getting an in principal approval from BICMA, the then Cabinet, itself, stepped in mid-January 2012 to stop the license from being given by a whole month till 16 February 2012 after some media houses led by the PM’s former media adviser approached it on sustainability issues.

The Bhutanese finally got its license coincidentally after this writer called up a political appointee in the PMO, and let it be known that legal action may soon follow.

The Bhutanese was supposed to launch as a daily newspaper, but an overnight doubling of initially quoted rates by the printer ensured we had to start as a bi-weekly first.

What the paper stands for

What the paper stands for was made clear in the very first Editorial of The Bhutanese along with a 13-point Editorial Policy making this the first paper in Bhutan to publish its editorial policy so that the public can also hold it to account. It also published the amount invested in the paper and the name of its owners.

The paper chose the name The Bhutanese, as the name stands for the commitment to the Bhutanese people to uphold public interest at the heart of the paper.

Our slogan of ‘Leading the Way,’ was a pledge to our readers that we will always endeavor to maintain a high editorial quality, and further the boundaries of Bhutanese journalism.

In this line, the 21 February 2012 launch issue Editorial of the paper made a few important pledges to its readers.

It pledged to not be ‘just another paper’, but make a difference in the lives of the Bhutanese people, and for that reason the paper said it will lay special emphasis on investigative journalism.

The paper said it is strongly against corruption as it degrades and weakens the nation, and supports transparency. The paper said it stands for the human rights of ordinary Bhutanese citizens, and will take part in helping create a vibrant democratic culture.

It said democratic institutions, including the media, have to be protected and strengthened.

This paper said it believes in the importance of journalism in Bhutan and will do everything, within its capacity, to give both respectability and teeth to this vital institution.

It committed to strengthening the intellectual culture in Bhutan, and also pledged to challenge old norms and ideas that are counter-productive to our development.

10 years later, it is up to the readers to decide, if we have lived up to our pledges or not.

Apart from the above, the recent National Day address saw His Majesty talking about ‘Ngar’ and Accountability. 

This rings true and at home for The Bhutanese. This paper has never been satisfied with mediocrity or just producing another issue, but we like to believe that we have always had the ‘Ngar’ to forge ourselves into something better.

We also believe, deeply, in the concept of accountability and holding everyone to account, regardless of their position or titles.

The Advertisement Ban

On 16 August 2012, The Bhutanese ran its first ever front page editorial titled ‘Muzzling the Press’ after it got a copy of a confidential April 2012 Circular from the MoIC directing government agencies to not advertise with this paper.

This was an economic embargo or blacklisting of the paper for its investigative stories.

The ban not only hit the paper’s finances, but it had another impact, as potential investors balked and backed away, and so the paper had to give up its dreams of becoming a daily paper.

At the time, some private newspapers did raise the issue, but there was no support from any other media or journalists’ bodies or CSOs who all maintained silence over the blatant attack on press freedom.

Impact Journalism

One of the key beliefs of this paper is that journalism, as far as possible, must make an impact. It cannot be silent chronicler of events or simply a paper of record.

It must not only have the ability to do a story, but it must also have the stomach to follow up an investigative story to its natural end. This is why most of the investigative stories of the paper go into several parts, with some even going on for years until authorities’ act or justice is done.

This is the reason why this paper has had a lot of impact over the years, and has been successful in ensuring various changes for the better.

It has also not shied away from sensitive topics, like racism in Bhutan writing the first ever lead story and two Editorials on the presence of this shameful social blight in Bhutan.

A good paper is also a good team and here a special word of thank you must go out to the many reporters that have written in this paper and some that continue to do so.

The paper made an impact in not only corruption or abuse of power reporting, but it made its impact in a variety of fields like hydropower, economic stories, political stories, social stories and more.

The DPT and PDP debate

One charge levied against the paper in the past is that it was anti-DPT and pro-PDP.

However, if one looks at the body of the work of the writer who is also the founder of the paper, from 2008-2010 in Kuensel and 2010-2011 in Business Bhutan, a respectable number of the writer’s investigative stories were on the business supporters and family members of PDP leaders and candidates.

This was not a conscious choice, but dictated by the stories that came up in the course of events. PDP supporters at the time tagged the writer to be a supporter of DPT.

So when the writer started doing investigative stories on the government of the day, then the opposite happened, and the writer was accused of being sympathetic to PDP.

A few other key factors were at play. The first is that the 2008 elections were really the old guard vs the old guard, in terms of the party leadership and senior candidates who were all ex-ministers or senior officials under the pre-democracy system, and even related to each other. So when one of them, in the form of DPT, came to power – they continued like in the earlier system where privilege trumps accountability, just with more power, and this is where a lot of controversies and investigative stories came up.

By 2013, when PDP came to power, it had learnt the lessons of what happened to DPT, and was keen and very mindful to avoid a similar fate and the controversies that dogged the first government. It was a victory, of sorts, for the media, oversight bodies, judiciary and public opinion. The old habits and blatant misuse of power would, henceforth, just not do.

The all out war declared by the first government against this paper also did its damage. We started with 35 staff including 15 reporters. By the time PDP came to power, we had been reduced down to less than half that strength and had to go from being a bi-weekly to a weekly paper.

In certain respects, it can be said that combination of the hammering by the DPT, and also a general decline in advertisement left this paper weaker.

This paper, however, pointed out whenever the PDP government went wrong from the generous pay hikes to ministers to BBIN.

The future

The media landscape in Bhutan is not an easy one, but over the years, this paper has managed to earn the trust of its readers.

It does not claim to be perfect, as there is always room for improvement and growth.

As the nation and its people grow and evolve, it is always important to have a frank voice that points out the obvious, and also at times, the not so obvious.

A good newspaper should also serve as a common public conscience, but it should be careful to not become the voice of the mob.

What we say may not always be pretty or what people want to hear, but you can expect to hear it straight from us.

The paper, at its heart, will try its best to continue and uphold public interest and stand for the truth, as after all it is the truth that sets us free.

And it will not hesitate to take on the powerful, and be incorrigible where public interest dictates it.

Ultimately, in a country where it is often said it has an ‘oral culture’ or lacks a ‘reading culture’, and in a social media age of information in small colorful packages, the biggest compliment for us is when our readers sit down and actually finish reading our long form journalism stories that go into thousands of words, but they still sit and read as it connects with them.

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2 comments

  1. Singye Wangchuk

    The Bhutanese seems more precise and informative than any other media publications

  2. Excellent product.

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