Media: The Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC) has submitted to the Gross National Happiness Commission a draft national broadcasting policy that seeks to transform the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) into “a true public service broadcaster”.

The policy is expected to make BBS independent of the government with a clear mandate to work in the public interest. As BBS is a state-owned media house, questions about the extent to which BBS is independent of the government in terms both of management and content are frequently asked.

The country lacks a clear law in reference to state-owned media establishments.

BBS and Kuensel Corporation Ltd have been functioning as state-owned enterprises (SOEs), whose mandate normally is to make a profit. BBS employees however believes that the main mandate of the organisation should be to inform the nation.

Kuensel Corporation Ltd on the other hand, is a listed company with the government holding 51 percent of the company’s total shares, while the public holds the remaining. Kuensel Corporation Ltd stopped receiving government subsidy since 1998.

The government during the Parliament session in December 2014 announced that BBS would be a public service broadcaster. Since then, the national broadcaster has been looking forward to its new status.

Approval of the policy will pave the way for enactment of a new legislation or a PSB Charter, adoption of which will to transform BBS into a PSB.

The draft policy states that the “independence of BBS shall be formally guaranteed”. Formal recognition of BBS as a public service broadcaster will be reflected through changes in the appointment of a chief executive officer and the powers of its governing body and the way in which the public service broadcaster’s funding is provided.

As part of the guarantee of independence, BBS shall report to and receive its funding approval from Parliament rather than the Ministry of Finance.

The company currently meets about 50 percent of its recurring expenses from advertisements. But becoming a public service broadcaster would entail public funding for both current and capital expenses.

The policy states that budget for BBS should be proposed by its management and approved by Parliament in consultation with the government. However, the policy proposes that the finance ministry ensures that the budget is allocated in a practical way to BBS.

As a part of its mandate, BBS will be required to carry a certain amount of public service announcements for free, for example three to five percent of airtime. A clear procedure for allocating this time fairly and appropriately will be put in place.

Clear limits will be placed on the overall amount of funding that BBS may obtain from commercial sources. For instance, the maximum amount of time that may be devoted to advertising should be in the range of 15-20 percent.

The rest of the funding for BBS shall be provided via public sources and consideration will be given to alternative sources. They may include taxes on hydropower and public companies.

In the past, BBS’s coverage of activities has been criticised by the government and the corporation itself has come under the scrutiny of the National Assembly. Some MPs think that BBS should toe the government’s line because the company receives its funds from the finance ministry.

It is construed that as a public service broadcaster, BBS will be accountable to the state, not the government.

The policy states that the development of the broadcast media, as with all development sectors, should be done in a manner that gives effect to the values and principles of GNH. There are concerns that the development of the broadcasting sector has been driven more by commercial and political interests than GNH and public interest considerations.

As for an example of the mandates of a broadcaster, broadcasters have public interest obligations during disasters.

“The independence of the broadcast media is still not guaranteed to the level warranted by either the Constitution or international laws,” states the draft policy. However, it states diversity in the broadcasting sector does not mean simply increasing the number of available channels but that it can be promoted in other ways as well.

This policy is intended to provide a vision to guide the development of the broadcast media sector in Bhutan for the near future. It also seeks to clarify the roles of different institutional players, including the MoIC, Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) and the Media Council.

BBS shall provide direct coverage of the two Houses of Parliament and their committees, rather than having a different provider disseminate this programming, albeit subject to an obligation to provide access to this coverage to commercial and community broadcasters. This has come even as Parliament plans to set up its own TV channel.

Meanwhile, transformation of BBS to a public service broadcaster will pave the way for a private TV channel in the country. Once the government allows a private TV channel, BBS as a public service broadcaster is expected to receive only public announcements that are not commercial in nature.

The policy states that it remains unclear whether a commercial television station will be sustainable in the Bhutanese market. But the policy also recognises that there would be considerable advantages to having a local private competitor to BBS if a private channel was sustainable.

If approved, the policy will allow the licensing of one private, commercial television channel. “In due course, and once commercial viability issues have been assessed, consideration will be given to introducing a second channel,” it states.

BBS was delinked from the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) in 1992. Its employees think the company does not have a clear-cut identity either as a public broadcasting corporation or SOE.

Becoming a public service broadcaster, BBS believes it will help it become a neutral broadcasting channel, as they will be independent of government agencies and business houses. Media houses often come under pressure from advertisers to carry positive stories of the advertiser.

MB Subba