Save the Media!

The role of media in a democracy is important. This is generally the accepted mainstream thinking. And this thinking often finds overly loud expression and emphasis in conversations on democracy, transparency, and accountability. Every important institution within the democratic framework – political parties, bureaucracy, civil society, and even the judiciary accept and profess that media are important. So much so that it is almost a cliché now.

What is also repulsively cliché is the news of the dying media in Bhutan. Druk Nyetshul, a Dzongkha weekly, folded recently – the fifth newspaper to go down. Two really good monthly magazines perished a long time back. Two radio stations have gone off air. Once a vibrant industry, the mainstream news media have fallen into ruins.

All one has to do is pick up a newspaper, this one or that, to figure out how bad things really are. To that extent that an editorial written by a private newspaper on media’s current crisis – a desperate outcry – was riddled with errors.

And as if that was not enough, appallingly, a certain media development agency shared that editorial on social media – perhaps just to prove that there is nothing much to salvage from the ruins or to show how bad things really are.

Three governments have changed in the past 10 years. In that period, the strength of the media has been reduced to half, both literally and figuratively. Much of this has to be squarely blamed on the lack of leadership, vision and political will. The past two governments saw media as an adversary rather than an important democratic institution. No concrete steps were ever taken to address the challenges and bolster the growth of the media. Weak media is bad for democracy, not really for the powerful.

If rumors are true, the only government department that is responsible for media development has been thinking of relegating itself as a division. That speaks volumes on why media continue to flounder in such a wretched situation, without any direction or vision.

A popular thinking that reigned supreme in the information and communications ministry a few years back was that the survival of the media must be left to market forces. It was an easy way out. Just drop the old theory of survival of the fittest and then wait and watch – let the market forces decide, let the media die, let the weaker ones perish, until the right sustainable number is reached.

All that talk glorifying the importance of media in a democracy was conveniently forgotten. If media is in this situation right now, it is because that thinking was flawed and whoever propagated that thinking was wrong.

Media cannot be treated just as any other business. Media have a huge social responsibility, a democratic mandate at that. We must consolidate the media just as we consolidate the other three estates of governance. Media form one of the pillars of democracy. And the democratic structure will be incomplete and weak with a sick, dying media. That is why we must save the media. Before it is too late!