Govt quizzed on media harassment and appointment of press secretary

The Member of Parliament (MP) from Panbang constituency in Zhemgang, MP Dorji Wangdi, asked the government about the Prime Minister Office (PMO) harassing the media and rationale behind the appointment of the press secretary during the Question and Answer session yesterday.

On the harassment issue, according to MP Dorji Wangdi, the opposition had received information of PMO harassing the media. “Freedom of press is fundamental to vibrant democracy and good governance and it is termed as the fourth estate,” he said.

Meanwhile, MP Dorji Wangdi was highlighting the issue that emerged after Kuensel did a story titled ‘Cabinet removes “wow factor”’ on May 23, 2019.

And towards the evening on May 23, 2019, a clarification was issued from the Facebook page of PMO stating that Lyonchhen’s quote in the Kuensel article  – ‘If the pay revision goes as a bill, the NC will have to keep shut and if it goes as a report, the opposition will have to keep shut’ – was wrongly reported.

“We would like to apologise if the quote, in anyway, undermine the importance of the two institutions, which was purely not the case,” reads an excerpt from the PMO’s clarification.

Further, the Prime Minister was also pictured on May 23 seeking the opportunity to clarify on the quote to the council members after the opening ceremony of the 23rd Session of the National Council

However, MP Dorji Wangdi said the voice recording media personnel approached with to the opposition clearly holds the PM’s statement true.

Responding to the query, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said he has always asked the media to work together and it is not healthy for the media to approach the opposition if one is harassed.

Lyonchhen added that the government has never harassed the media.

“If there is a problem between the government and media, we can work together,” he said, adding that media person can appeal to organizations like Bhutan Media Foundation and Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority.

On the recruitment of the press secretary, MP Dorji Wangdi asked if it was done so as she is the Prime Minister’s nominee and had worked with Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) during the election campaign.

The MP added that in the first and second parliament sessions, the decision was made not to appoint a private employee in the PMO, but that it should be from civil service. 

“Media expertise is also within the civil service,” MP Dorji Wangdi said.

Responding to the MP’s query, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said the press secretary was appointed as per the rules and procedure of the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC). 

“Despite giving vacancy announcement for press secretary twice, no applicants turned up. The government consulted with RCSC and finance ministry and RCSC reacted that the government can appoint on a contract basis,” Lyonchhen said.

“It is not that she is appointed because she worked with the party, but because she was eligible, capable and have expertise in media and would benefit the country,” Lyonchhen said.

“As per the rules and procedure of the RCSC, there is mandate to recruit four media personnel in the PMO, but PMO hired only one,” he added. 

MP Dorji Wangdi also quizzed the government on the fixation of press secretary’s generous pay and allowances, which he added was above government secretaries.

The Prime Minister responded that the government had referred the law and past precedence and documents.

According to Lyonchhen, the executive order in July 17, 2010 from the Cabinet that is valid until now gives importance to have strong media personnel in PMO and the PM has the authority to fix the salaries. In 2010, the government appointed press secretary with a salary of Nu 60,000 per month and that time the government secretaries used to get salary of Nu 50,000 per month.

“Looking at the eligibility, expertise and workload, we have fixed the salary at Nu 75,000 for the press secretary,” Lyonchhen said.

   However, MP Dorji Wangdi said the issue was not regarding the capability of a person, but on the procedure of appointment.

“From 30 to 40 thousand civil servants, it is impossible that PMO could not get a press secretary,” he added.

According to MP Dorji Wangdi, during the first government, the PMO recruited four media personnel in P1 to P3 category. But due to opposition and concern by public and opposition it was discontinued. Similarly, in the second government’s time, the government was allowed to recruit only civil servants in the PMO.

Lyonchhen said it was not that there was no eligible candidate among civil servants, but there was no candidate for the post and the government did not look in every ministry and department.

“In the previous government, not four but eight was recruited in P1 category, equivalent to salary of Nu 14,000 to Nu 18,000, but were provided Nu 50,000, Nu 53,000 and Nu 45,000 and later on seven media personnel were recruited in PMO,” he said. 

“If there is law and order that we cannot recruit, I will go by it,” the PM added.

Opposition Leader Dr. Pema Gyamtsho said as a political appointee, people could have doubts in approaching the person.

He added that the government should not follow the precedence of the first democratic government where the appointees had to be expelled due to talks from the people and opposition, and it being against the RCSC Act.

Thukten Zangpo from Thimphu