Bhutan's fourth estate in bad
shape By Vishal Arora
Journalists in Bhutan are accusing the
nation's first democratic government of muzzling
press freedom by pulling government advertisements
from private newspapers to punish them for
negative coverage. The private sector is weak
owing to the Himalayan nation's geographical and
other constraints, and those ads make up more than
80% of newspapers' revenues.
Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), or the Bhutan Peace
and Prosperity Party, of Prime Minister Jigmi Y
Thinley pledged to nurture democracy before and
after it won the first general election in 2008
after about 100 years of absolute monarchy.
However, as the end of its five-year term
approaches, journalists say the fourth pillar of
democracy is crumbling.
"We used to
receive around seven pages of government ads until
about five months ago,
but that has now been reduced to barely two
pages," said Kinley Tshering, the editor of the
Business Bhutan weekly. He added that the
administration was "targeting and victimizing"
newspapers that are critical of the government.
"We have seen a dramatic fall in
government advertisement from all 10 ministries,"
said Tenzin Lamsang, chief executive of The
Bhutanese, a bi-weekly investigative newspaper.
Media houses complain they have been
unable to pay salaries for the past two months and
may fold unless the government ads resume or new
sources of revenues are found.
and Communications Minister Nandalal Rai has
blamed the cut in advertisements on a need to
minimize government expenditure. "The media should
understand that the government [alone] is not in a
position to sustain the media," he said.
Journalists say their allegation is based
On August 17, the partly
government-owned Kuensel daily carried a
notification by the Election Commission of Bhutan
that said, based on directives issued by the
Ministry of Finance, "henceforth all
advertisements, public notifications and voter
educational and information materials related to
elections will be published in Kuensel, televised
through Bhutan Broadcasting Service Corporation
(BBS) and broadcast over Kuzoo FM Radio only.”
While BBS is a government broadcaster,
Kuzoo was established by the Royal Secretariat of
the King of Bhutan.
It is not clear which
departments and ministries were recipients of the
finance ministry's directives, apart from the
election commission, which chose to disclose it.
Rai believes the election commission
should not have issued the notification. The
commission, he said, is "simply trying to point
fingers at and embarrass" the government.
Even more controversial was a circular
sent by the Ministry of Information and
Communications (MoIC) on April 2. Published by the
Business Bhutan, the circular directed all MoIC
departments “not to provide any advertisement,
announcement, notification, circular, etc to The
Rai has said the circular
was the result of an internal misunderstanding,
and had been withdrawn. "I meant to say all
Bhutanese media, but it was mistaken as The
Bhutanese newspapers," he said. However, the
newspaper isn't convinced.
was issued by the ministry in response to critical
and investigative stories done by The Bhutanese on
the government, all of which have been factually
correct and in line with the ethics of good
journalism," Lamsang said. "It seems that any
newspaper or journalist attempting investigative
work will have to pay a heavy price and enter the
government's blacklist. Forget investigative
journalism, journalists and newspapers in the
future will think twice before even doing remotely
critical stories of the DPT government."
Lamsang asks why the circular was stamped
"Confidential" in red if there was no national
security or important state secret involved? And
if the intention was to stop ads in all media in
Bhutan, why did it not happen? "The intention
clearly was to close down The Bhutanese," he said.
"If you look at the news coverage in
Bhutan, all critical stories have been done by the
private media. So the very institution of free
opinion is being dismantled," said Passang Dorji,
president of the Journalist Association of Bhutan.
"It's a regressive step," Dorji said. "I hope this
is a temporary, not long-term, measure."
Rai said the government's advertising
policy was based on a 2007 finance ministry
circular, which stated that advertisement should
be distributed in an equitable manner but keeping
in mind the reach of the media.
there's no level playing field. The private media
sector came into existence only in 2006 during the
country's transition to democracy. Kuensel and
BBS, on the other hand, have been around for much
longer, and have a better reach due to the
government's infrastructure support.
Bhutan, a nation of around 700,000 people,
has only about a dozen-and-a-half private
newspapers and magazines. All publications in
English are required to produce a version in the
national Dzongkha language, which adds to the
media's financial woes. Cross-media ownership,
which could help in pooling of resources, is
The government is formulating
advertisement guidelines that will reflect the
country's unique policy of gross national
happiness (GNH) - which is used to gauge national
progress. Journalists fear that GNH as a
criterion, requiring the media to promote the
vague concept of happiness, will pave the way for
the government to use discretion and exclude
If the ruling party
truly wants to sustain and deepen the democracy,
it will withdraw its exclusive advertising
approach, Dorji said. Some other journalists are
not hopeful. The nascent democracy "is dying a
slow and suffocating death," The Bhutanese warned
in an editorial last week on media freedoms.
Vishal Arora is a New
Delhi-based journalist. He researches and writes
on politics, culture, religion, foreign affairs
and human rights, primarily but not exclusively in
South and Southeast Asia. His articles have
appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the
Huffington Post, USA Today, World Politics Review,
Foreign Policy in Focus, the Religion News
Service, and many other outlets. He can be
contacted at email@example.com and some
of his articles can be read here. Follow him on
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