The state of Bhutanese media

The state of Bhutanese media

Views from behind and beyond newsrooms

In conjunction with the commemoration of the World Press Freedom Day, the Bhutan Media Foundation ceremoniously honored journalists spanning diverse sectors on May 3rd. While the delineation of press freedom rankings among nations holds significance, within the compact confines of Bhutan, where societal bonds are tightly woven and familiarity among individuals is commonplace, the field of journalism presents formidable challenges. Furthermore, the private mainstream media faces substantial adversity, grappling with the adverse impact of reduced advertising allocations by agencies and intensified rivalry from social media platforms. Acknowledging the state of this state, media consumers speak about factors affecting the Bhutanese media both in terms of content and issues related to sustainability.

A former journalist says he can still see media personnel facing ethical dilemma and conflict of interest. This, according to him is due to the “social bonds” and relations, which are very much a part of Bhutanese culture. “As a reporter, I used to hear about strong front page stories while dining with relatives holding higher positions in the society. Do I start writing about my uncle? Should I leak it out to other papers? These were trials for me and I feel that this is still there in the media,” he said. When questioned about the media’s responsibility to uncover stories of the type, he said it is not easy unless you get the leads from the Courts, Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC). “As you begin to follow a story, what you are doing immediately reaches everywhere, including your family members. And you are asked: Are you the only one to clean the system?” “Unless relevant agencies support the media, stories, especially investigative ones cannot be done solely by the media. If some papers did cover investigative stories, it was primarily because of the assistance provided by agencies,” he said.

Tandin, an entrepreneur, who says that he reads almost all papers, underlined that the “brush between the media and the Royal Civil Service Commissioner (RCSC) earlier” hit the media, especially in terms of information. “I read clarifications from the RCSC that it has never said civil servants cannot talk with the media. But the information did not seem to have cascaded, as friends in the civil service said they cannot give any information, unless being asked to.” Tandin explained news is not only about crime and corruption, “though these sell.” “It is about informing people what is taking so long for a school building under construction or why the government has decided to close a school in an area etc. Government agencies may say that everything is in their website, but they should know that all 700,000 or more Bhutanese do not have smart phones.”

He further underlined that the Bhutanese media last year had voted the then Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) as the most media friendly. “It just shows that if the PM or his media team wants, they can find time for the media and answer their queries. And if the PMO can do it, I do not understand why others cannot.”

Chief of a corporate agency said he “empathizes” with the Bhutanese media. “Many say media content has declined in quality. It definitely would, as where the Bhutanese media today is, cannot be compared to its hey-days. Capital is required for quality and quantity.” He recalls the Bhutanese print media filled with advertisements a decade and few years back. “They had the money and so could do stories of quality, well researched by a team well paid and competent. Today, I hear that people in the media fall amongst those who are paid the least. Due to this, many senior faces in the media have moved on for better opportunities,” he said, adding he sometimes wonder how media houses even manage to pay their employees. “And when sustainability becomes the issue, compromises need to be made. You will need to run advertorials; self censor very big news for your regular advertisers etc.”

“Many will say that the solution is to diversify. But in Bhutan, I do not see many areas for the media to do so as there are consultancy firms doing the works that are ideally done by media houses abroad, such as publication. Media liberalization was done without study. A country of Bhutan’s size cannot have about ten private papers. So on the onset itself, there should have been a cap on the numbers,” he added.

In the last one year, some media houses have jumped to online marketing. But due to reasons ranging from unfamiliarity and others, many are not coming forth. “I have been approached by the private media several times about online marketing. I am not really aware of how useful it would be as I advertise on my own social media account too. And to be very frank, I do not need to be advertised as I have already captured the market,” a tour operator said. He explained that this is a problem the media must be facing. “I want to be true. Business that are already well-known and even have marketing agents abroad will not want to advertise here; those that need to be advertised do not have money and will be doing it on their own. Thus, the media has no space.”

Meanwhile, successive governments have acknowledged that a strong and vibrant media is important for a vibrant democracy. Pledges have also been made. As media houses desperately look for a permanent solution to sustainability, support from the new government is also a silver lining.

By Ugyen Tenzin, Thimphu