“Waiting for written response.”

“ Written to media spokesperson for an interview.”

“Response not coming. Couldn’t get permission to talk.”

“Asked to send in writing.”

These updates from Kuensel reporters on the newspaper’s WhatsApp group speaks volume of how getting basic information has to pass the layers of bureaucratic procedures, if not making access to information difficult.

 “Aooo lakha du (It is risky).”

“Daben nathey bego bay. (We have to be cautious now).

These are the responses from those with information, but without the authority or “permission” to talk to the media. The said information are surprisingly about crop yield, water shortages, government decisions – that has bearing on the people and many more.

It is becoming even more difficult. Yesterday was the World Press Freedom Day. Bhutan jumped to 33rd place in the press freedom Index ranking published by Reporters Without Borders –  up from 65 last year.  Journalists or even the public would challenge the ranking, particularly with what is happening in recent times. The ranking can be easily ignored, but those in the media are assured that the ranking will drop to the lowest next year.

This is because the lid on information is getting tighter. Officials with information are scared to talk to the media, including on social media. There is no room for criticism going by how people talking to the media are treated. The civil service rule is clear. Civil servants cannot criticise the office they work for. If they do so in mainstream or social media, they pay for it.

The rules, unfortunately, are misinterpreted and hampering media. The World Press Freedom Day this year was a low key event. But it is still a good day (like our Zakar says) to remind the government and policymakers of the importance of media and the media professionals on our role and professional ethics.

What is happening now is not good for the media and democracy. For years we had been encouraging the public to be active in the media. It was about involving the Bhutanese society much more in the Bhutanese media in making our democracy more meaningful.

Freedom of media is not only for reporters. They are just the link. It is for the people and the media represents them. In recent times, efforts are made to inculcate a feedback culture. This was looked at as a break away from the “maray laso (Yes Sir)” culture, but the restriction on media or information sharing is taking us back to square one.

In an age where social media platforms enable anyone with a mobile phone to be a source or publisher of information, the role of media has become crucial. The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example. The work of journalists, if not saved lives, has provided reliable information, countered misinformation and held people accountable.

Freedom ranking is based on many parameters including the safety of journalists. We are not concerned about journalists getting kidnapped or killed. Our problems are basic and easier to handle. We are still talking about access to information that the people need or holding officials accountable for their lapses or wrongdoing.