No Bhutanese journalists were sent into exile as reported, say journalists 

Bhutan’s press freedom ranking fell by 10 places this year according to the 2018 World Press Freedom index.

Bhutan ranked 94th out of 180 countries with a score of 30.73 out of a possible 100, a higher score being worse. In 2017, Bhutan was ranked 84th, which was a jump from 94th position in 2015.

The last time Bhutan fell was in 2014 when it dropped 12 places from the 82nd position to 104th position. The report released on the website stated that no journalist, citizen journalist and media assistants were killed in 2018.

The France-based organisation, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) world report ranked the performance of 180 countries according to a range of criteria that include media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operates.

It stated that the number of privately owned media outlets is still low but pluralism, which measures the degree to which opinions are represented in the media, seems to have progressed since transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy in 2008.

However, the report also pointed out that the adoption of the Bhutan Information Communications and Media Act in 2006 and the creation of a media regulatory authority have reinforced the government’s armory of draconian legislation, which already included a national security law that punishes any attempt to create misunderstanding or hostility between the government and people.

“As a result, the level of self-censorship is high and even increased after the recent approval of a law criminalising defamation, which drove several Bhutanese journalists into exile in 2017,” the report claimed.

In the SAARC region, Bhutan has the best working environment for the media industry. Nepal is close behind ranking 106, Afghanistan 118, Sri Lanka 131, India 138; Pakistan is 139 and Bangladesh 146.

Refuting the report, the president of Journalists’ Association of Bhutan (JAB), Rinzin Wangchuk, said that not a single journalist in Bhutan went into exile in 2017 nor are there any reports of any reporters being sent on exile.

“However, I believe that some journalists do exercise self-censorship due to the pressure from the sensitivities of being a small society,” he said.

JAB’s executive director, Needrup Zangpo, said that RSF is simply making some erroneous assumptions, which can be safely brushed aside.

“Their statement supporting the press freedom ranking says they know little about Bhutan’s press situation,” he said. “While the Bhutanese journalists exercise considerable amount of self-censorship, it is in no way caused by the recent approval of a law criminalising defamation.”

Needrup Zangpo said that defamation already exists in the penal code of Bhutan and the report cannot be credible because the RSF has not contacted any credible source in Bhutan. “The report looks like it was based on an individual’s perception.”

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay during meet the press yesterday, said that the finding on the exile is worrying and questioning which journalist is in exile and whom did the RSF hear from.

“If it truly reflects the state of the media, then we should be concerned and we have to repair because media is important for development and democracy,” Lyonchhen said. “If this is not true then we better repair because this would reflect the country’s reputation right now.”

Lyonchhen asked the reporters if the government has sued any journalist on defamation and said that journalists should think about how serious this report findings are and if there is a merit in it.

“If there is a merit, then we all should be worried and concerned. If the ranking has fallen because of the government’s interference then I will take the responsibility,” he said.

The prime minister did not comment on the self-censorship aspect and told journalists that if there is any, then they should report to him so that the government can help and support.

Meanwhile, in this year’s Index, Norway ranks first for the second year followed by Sweden, the Netherlands, and Finland. North Korea (180th) ranks last.

A total of 14 journalists, four citizen journalists and two media assistants were killed globally while 176 journalists, 126 citizen journalists, and 15 media assistants were imprisoned in 2018.

“More and more democratically-elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion,” the report stated.

Yangchen C Rinzin