According to a draft National Broadcasting Policy that is being reviewed by the Gross National Happiness Commission, a person who owns majority shares in one media or telecommunications business will not be permitted to own more than five percent of the shares of another such business.

It is widely acknowledged that undue concentration of media ownership can pose serious threat to media diversity, as well as to the very foundations of democracy given the enormous power of the media as a platform for democratic debate.

To address this issue, the draft policy states that it is common for democracies to adopt special rules preventing the concentration of media ownership, which are normally more stringent than the normal rules governing monopolies and anti-competitive behaviour.

“Given the very small size of the media market in Bhutan, such rules are of particular importance for the country,” the draft policy states.

The current Bhutan Information, Communications and Media Act of Bhutan allows information and communication ministry to adopt rules limiting concentration of media and telecommunications ownership and cross media ownership. It also provides that no one who owns more than 25 percent of one media or telecommunications business may apply for a licence to operate another such business.

The government has drafted new Bhutan Information, Communications and Media Bill, and it transfers the power to set rules in this area to Bhutan InfoComm and Media Act (BICMA) and revised the minimum rules so that no one who owns majority shares in one media or telecommunications business may be permitted to own more than five percent of the shares of another such business.

While both the draft and old Acts rule out foreign ownership of Bhutanese media, the new draft Act allows the cabinet to approve foreign direct investment in media. “While it is clearly important that the media sector in Bhutan is owned and controlled by Bhutanese citizens and companies, at the same time, in some other countries, the benefits to allowing for some foreign participation the media, including attracting much-needed funds and expertise into the sector, have been recognised,” it states.

The policy opens up the media sector to foreign investments. According to the draft broadcasting policy, studies will be undertaken by the information and communications ministry to assess what the impact would be of opening up the broadcasting sector to more foreign involvement, for example along the lines of a rule that would presumptively place a ceiling in foreign participation, “perhaps of 20 or 25 percent”.

Many media houses have become dependent on government advertising, which is now being transformed from a system of sharing among media outlets to being allocated on a cost- benefit basis. “This is an unhealthy situation both for the media, because it poses a threat to its independence from government, and for the government, because advertising risks being used as a non-performance based subsidy system which is costly and inefficient.”

The policy suggests that the placement of public advertising should be done on an objective, cost-benefit based (market) model. A need for regulatory standards relating to advertising, which if not controlled could work against GNH values has also been proposed.

BICMA will undertake periodic audits to assess the circulation and reach of different media outlets to serve as an evidence-based system for the allocation of public advertising. Media outlets shall be required to be open about their circulation and reach, including to existing and potential advertisers.

Under the new policy, broadcasters will be required to preserve or archive materials of historical importance so that it is available for future use. If they do not have the resources to do this themselves, or do not wish to provide this service, the material can be transferred to the National Library and Archives for this purpose.

MB Subba