Smart phones, new media, and ignorant users-Rabi C Dahal

Whether you live in cities or a rural Bhutanese village, the ability to sift through information and evaluate media messages is an important skill in this 21st century – and the digital revolution has made it even more critical.

The explosion of digital media and social networking platforms has transformed citizens into publishers and broadcasters. This is true even in the remotest of a Bhutanese village. Thanks to the mobile phone and internet coverage.

Villagers receive latest news and updates on their mobile phones. They connect to their friends and relatives, far and near. However, many of them are not equipped to analyse and evaluate incoming information. This means that media literacy programs need to be prioritized to reach the masses.

A truly media literate citizen in 2017 is someone who not only understands the meaning behind the messages he or she encounters, but one who can also create quality content and distribute it in a variety of forms in order to become a part of society’s larger dialogue.

Bhutanese societies, particularly in rural areas, that directly jumped to smartphones, unlike nations around the world that saw convergence of media, consumed a lot of media and trusted almost all of it. And they seemed vulnerable to being misled by media, whether they took the form of fake story posted by anonymous users or amateur obscene videos shared by their friends.

Fully aware that media literacy programmes have a long way to go before they have the size and scale to be truly effective, the Journalists’ Association of Bhutan has taken a small initiative – media literacy training in four remote communities in four regions of the country – to engage communities often left out from similar programmes, occasionally conducted by government agencies.

I was invited by JAB to give a basic media literacy class to the people of Dorokha (now Dophuchen), one of the remote Gewogs in Samtse. JAB was looking for someone who could clearly convey messages in Dzongkha and Lhotshamkha. I readily accepted the offer. It has been ages since I had visited rural Bhutan. I was once asked by my editor to go to Dungtoe, far above Dorokha, to cover a murder story where religion was involved. I didn’t go. There were no roads then. I didn’t want to walk days through thick jungles all alone for days. I did story on the same topic from Phuentsholing and Tading in Samtse that didn’t require much walking.

This time, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see breath-taking Dorokha, the place that produced a number of Bhutanese intellectuals, including ministers. And Dorokha is now connected to farm road with most of the stretch black-topped.

Just a night before the programme, I received the outline of the presentation from the JAB’s Executive Director. The topics ranged from media to traditional media, social media and how they worked, using social media vis-a-vis government’s social media policy, and examples of good and bad use of social media. Of course there were lots of examples of good and bad usages. Most of the 65 plus participants did receive pornographic materials on their mobile phones via social media app like Wechat and didn’t know what to do with it. Some deleted it after viewing, while others shared with their friends. Many of them read (fake) news about the death of the only Bhutanese actor in the South Indian Film Industry, Kelly Dorji, and shared it.  On the positive side, they didn’t have to know the alphabets to communicate. A lot of social media apps provided voice and videoconference facilities.  In the same time, many were victims to advertisements. Some simply didn’t know what to do with the advertisements.

Radio is still very popular in Dophuchen. Many of them depend on radio for news and entertainment. They complained that the BBS radio often broke down. Due to its proximity to international border, the Gewog also receives radio waves from Nepal and India and people do tune in to these stations. The participants even suggested on making BBS call in program and infotainment – not just dedicating the songs but also letting the listeners know more about the village. The callers could tell stories of people who have contributed to their communities and show how they can be followed.

Like any other places in Bhutan, Dorokha is not without problems. Monkeys jump over the electric fence, porcupine tunnels beneath it, and destroy the crops. Some 60 percent of the crops are lost to wild animals annually. There are no proper irrigation channels and farmers depend on rainwater for paddy cultivation. Newspapers don’t reach this place and people don’t know when did a news reporter last visited their place. While their cousins and elected members enjoyed sumptuous means and sitting fees to attend a meeting, they have to travel hours to reach to the gewog centre to attend a meeting for free, leaving behind the fields at the mercy of the wild animals. Like many of the rural people, they too feel that people coming from the capital or ‘Zhung-gi-Dasho’ would solve all their problems, and all at a go. We had to explain to them who we were and the reason we were there.

Just after we introduced ourselves, we were bombarded with questions: Why is there no coverage on BBS when our crops are raided by wildlife, while BBS covers everything from the East? Are we not equally important? Why do media use ‘royal kupars’ on important occasions? These photographs, used for moneymaking, land up being pasted or thrown everywhere, they say. Why is media silent on illegal production and sale of ‘royal kupar’ by businessmen across border, on mugs and frames? Why is BBS signal irregular in Dorokha? Can Dorokha too have a community radio? Who do we approach? Is it legal to print and distribute news from mainstream media? Why is there no radio app for BBS Lhotsham? While we didn’t have answers to all these questions, I didn’t have an answer why the government is familiarizing their social media policy.  The social media policy is being implemented for civil servants. I made a presentation to the teachers, on the same topic, in the evening, but they too are not aware of social media policy. Like the local residents, the civil servants in the remote pockets of Bhutan are also ignorant of many government policies and guidelines.

Many of the participants felt that JAB media literacy programme was timely, if not late. Participants have already witnessed social ills of social media. It has already created problems among family and friends. I was told that the programme was a great eye-opener, but such programme should reach every citizen. It is, therefore, time that we take similar programmes to people in other remote communities, to people in other regions of the country.