An eventful year for the media  

It was a busy year for the media sector in the year gone by.

The third parliamentary elections shot a range of issues – from social media posts at home to Bhutan’s press freedom ranking by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Even the film industry grabbed headlines. After the Civil Society Organisation Authority sent the action taken plan to Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) on the case of PM’s award 2016, ACC recommended to restitute the prize money. As it tends to happen often, the recipients of the award didn’t comply with ACC’s recommendation on reinstituting the money. Instead, three more films received the PM’s award last year.

As the media houses complied with necessary decisions of the Election Commission of Bhutan and the office of the media arbitrator for free and fair elections, the media houses stood their ground on issues it believed were intrusive on the media’s mandate.

Issues sparked with the office of the media arbitrator asking a private newspaper to take action against a reporter and editor for one of its stories. This reportedly led to the suspension of the managing editor for a month. The actions hogged much press time, more than the event, the national council election.

And just as the issues in the mainstream media seemed to settle at home, Bhutan’s press freedom ranking and its reasoning by the France-based organisation, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was marked erroneous.

RSF ranked Bhutan 94th out of 180 countries, a drop from 84th in 2017.

Media houses and journalists in Bhutan expressed disappointment in RSF’s failure to capture the real story of the state of media in Bhutan. RSF’s statement on Bhutanese journalists going into exile due to a law criminalising defamation was condemned and got the RSF to retract its statement.

Misuse of social media was yet again seen as a major challenge for Bhutan. Social media policy and ECB’s decision to remove posts that contained hate speech, and mudslinging proved challenging. Except for the candidates, its officials and the mainstream media, others don’t really listen to the dictates of the commission.

Among the complaints lodged with ECB, social media contents topped the list with 22 posts. The timing of the former national council chairperson Dasho Sonam Kinga’s Facebook post on his upcoming book was not appreciated. The book, which was to be released in December is still not out though.

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) called the post on 2008 elections derogatory and stated that the post violated the election rules and contained a story with presumable intention to demonise the party. The party also lodged a complaint with the ECB. ECB deemed the post as third party election advertising, and a violation of social media rules. Dasho Sonam Kinga was asked to remove the Facebook post immediately.

The fourth annual journalism award also recognised 20 journalists for excellence in journalism. Eight journalism awards were cancelled, seven in Dzongkha category and one in radio. While most reporters were flustered by the cancellation, the decision could be appreciated for setting better standards for journalism.

And by the time the former government left office, more than six press conferences, 36 meet the press sessions, some 26 Friday meets and several media bashing sessions were held.

Better interactions and improved access to information was expected from the new government. The setting changed and a borrowed concept of holding press briefings outside, in the freezing courtyard of the Gyalyong Tshokhang began. A privilege, perhaps to journalists who are otherwise not allowed to enter the courtyard and disturb the members of parliament during tea and lunch breaks.

The first meet the press session saw another change. No advance questions were sought from the press but the sessions became theme based.  At the first session with the new cabinet, the prime minster berated the media personnel for not asking interesting questions on the theme, the 12th Plan and cited the media personnel as an example of how incompetent the Bhutanese people could get.

Pumogulay thu thup was the phrase that buzzed at every interaction with the new prime minister. Media bashing appears to be the common trait with every government. No government appears to realise that the media is a reflection of the society, of them, and that a society could be judged by the way the society treats it.

What the pig year has in store for the media depends much on how the government and the society sees the media as.

Phurpa Lhamo

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