For free, strong and vibrant media

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Bhutan’s press freedom has jumped 10 places up last year according to the World Press Freedom Index report released by the Reporters Without Borders this week. Bhutan is ranked 94 out of 180 countries, a significant improvement compared to the country’s ranking that had consistently dropped in the past few years. In fact, Bhutan is ranked top in the press freedom index among the South Asian countries.
The World Press Freedom Index measures indicators such as freedom of information, media independence, the rule of law, self-censorship, transparency and abuses in 180 countries in the world.
The country’s new ranking is certainly a reflection of the positive efforts put in by media development agencies, which include government, non-governmental organizations and donor partners. The new ranking should definitely come as a breather particularly because Bhutan’s press freedom ranking had constantly dropped in the past few years.
That said holistic development of media in Bhutan would surely take more time and efforts. The Bhutanese media require careful nurturing both through policy reforms and regulatory innovations. Although Bhutan’s media environment went through unprecedented developments since liberalization of the media market in 2006, privatization of the media has been plagued with many unforeseen challenges.
Increase in the number of media houses has not necessarily translated into quality content, wider coverage and reach. In fact, the quality of media content has dwindled over the years. In this wake, state owned media houses continue to dominate the media scene in Bhutan.
Yet again, despite the poor financial wellbeing of media in Bhutan, the industry has braved the challenges and survived yet another unpredictable year. Although many private media houses continue to battle financial uncertainties owing to a small ad market and cut throat competition, not a single media entity closed shop.
The deteriorating financial position of media organizations has led to shrinking newsrooms. Many senior editors and trained journalists have left the sinking media industry for more secure jobs. This exodus of trained journalists has created a situation where newsrooms are managed by a crop of young, mostly untrained editors and reporters. As a consequence, the quality of journalism has taken a serious beating. At this critical juncture, there seem to be no easy answers on how to revive the media in the country.
Viability remains a major bottleneck in media development in Bhutan. The opening up of the media market encouraged an unfettered growth and proliferation of private media houses, resulting in overcrowding of the small advertisement market. The government is the biggest advertiser and print media depends on ad revenue from the government.
There is still lot of work to be done to streamline government advertising, so that scarce government resources are optimally used while also benefiting media houses that rightfully deserve.
However, the advertisement guideline, which was drafted and discussed several times a few years back, is still waiting the cabinet’s approval. Meanwhile, there is no update on the Right To Information bill, which was passed by the National Assembly but couldn’t be tabled in the National Council. As a disputed bill, RTI has silently disappeared from the public sphere.
As a democratic institution, there is no denying that media play an important role. Yet, lip service alone isn’t going to take the media anywhere. There needs to be genuine effort combined with the political will to create a free, responsible and robust media.