Black mark for Bhutanese media

A visiting editor kept asking if it was true that most Bhutanese journalists have the mobile numbers of the prime minister and his cabinet, and that reporters chat with ministers on social media.

It is true.  And reporters call the prime minister or his ministers at odd hours for information or clarification.  Most of the time they are successful.  Such a thing would be impossible in many countries.  It takes weeks, even months, to get an appointment with a minister.  A French journalist was shocked when she was successful on her first attempt to interview a minister.  She lauded the accessibility.

Ironically, Reporters Without Borders, a France-based organisation that keeps tab on press freedom around the world released a bombshell on the same day.  Bhutan had dropped by 12 places in its ranking.  A ranking based on 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 media operates.

We do not know if the government would take the ranking seriously, or if they would even care.  But for the media, it is a huge concern.  Visiting journalist write stories that sell.  And in Bhutan, it is still either the happiness or the Shangri-La tag that sells well.  Local journalists would know best why we are dropping.

The poor financial health of the media industry that makes headlines often indicates the state of media.  A study by the Journalists’ Association of Bhutan revealed that about 50 percent of practising journalists disagree that there is freedom of press that the Constitution guarantees.

That was a year ago.  The association expected its study to be a basis for policy interventions to enable the media to play its role and contribute to the growth of a healthy democratic society.  Did it happen?  The answer is a resounding no.  Media policy does not encourage the growth of a healthy media.  Media was liberalised to encourage healthy competition, but the policy, although well intended, is killing the industry.

We have about a dozen newspapers, excluding he radios, competing for the small pie of government advertising, in the form of announcements and notifications.  Numbers have not translated into quality and healthy competition.

Reporters may have access to mobile numbers, but has the access to information improved?  Again the answer is a resounding no.  Journalists are still frowned upon as nosy people.  Those with information are tight lipped or ordered not to talk to media.  This is one order that is strictly followed, as it could be interpreted as disobedience.  The consequences for the vocal civil servant could be severe.

There are more orders coming out to gag the media.  For instance, the judiciary has recently come out with a circular stopping all judges from talking to media.  If those with information are not allowed to talk, the spokesperson in government agencies are mere appointees to fix interviews and receive e-mail or faxed questions.

At this rate, we will not be surprised if we see our ranking drop by another 12 places next year.

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