Bhutan’s press freedom ranking climbed by 14 places this year according to the 2019 World Press Freedom index.

Bhutan ranked 80th out of 180 countries with a score of 29.81 out of a possible 100, a higher score being worse.

In 2017, Bhutan was ranked 94th that brought in controversy after the report claimed that Bhutanese journalists were sent into exile as a result of self-censorship and approval of a law criminalising defamation. The Bhutanese journalists refuted the claim.

The last time Bhutan saw its ranking fall was in 2015 when it was ranked 104th from 82nd in 2013. The report stated that no journalist, citizen journalist and media assistants were killed in 2018.

The France-based organisation, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 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.

The report stated that self-censorship held back emancipation in Bhutan. 

It claimed that the level of self-censorship continued to be very high in the land of GNH because many journalists avoided covering sensitive issues for fear of appearing to challenge the social order.

Although the Internet is booming, with more and more news circulating on blogs and social media networks, the report stated that journalists who dared to post investigative reporting or criticism were subject to online campaigns by political activists. “This combined disinformation and defamation with personal and sometimes racist attacks.”

In terms of the public news, the radio plays a major role. The report also stated that the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority was created as per the Information, Communications and Media Act 2018.

“However, the five members are directly appointed by the government. This poses a major threat to media independence,” the report claimed.

The report also stated that the main daily newspaper, Kuensel, still belongs to the state, while the state-owned Bhutan Broadcasting Service lacks legal status guaranteeing its editorial independence.

However, pluralism continues to develop, which was evidenced by the balanced coverage of the campaign for the general elections in September and October 2018 according to the report.

“Privately-owned publications exist although the economic environment is difficult, above all because of insufficient state advertising,” the report claimed. “The recent defamation suits and a national security law penalizing any attempt to create “misunderstanding or hostility between the government and people” have continued to act as a brake on journalistic freedom.”

In the SAARC region, Bhutan has the best working environment for the media industry. The Maldives is close behind ranking 98, Nepal 106, Afghanistan 121, Sri Lanka 126, India 140; Pakistan is 142 and Bangladesh 150.

This year’s, Norway is ranked first, followed by Finland and Sweden. Turkmenistan (180th) ranked the last, replacing North Korea (up at 179th).

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index shows how hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear. The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline, while authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media. The RSF Index shows that an intense climate of fear has been triggered, one that is prejudicial to a safe reporting environment.

Yangchen C Rinzin