Less than a month after the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) issued a notification calling the third parliamentary elections, the office of the media arbitrator the commission identified for the National Council Elections 2018 has taken up several issues with the media houses.

A private newspaper, The Journalist, had suspended their managing editor for a month from March 12 after the office of the media arbitrator asked them to take action against a reporter and the editor for a story, ‘The Edge Lumang’s NC candidate has’ was published in the paper’s March 4 edition.

The story was published after ECB verbally communicated to the media houses to not run any profiles of the candidates.

While The Journalist’s chief editor, Ugyen Tenzin, said the paper accepts that they contravened the Election Act and the managing editor was reprimanded and severe administrative action taken against him, it is not stated which section and provision of the Act the media house breached by running the story.

The letter that the office of the media arbitrator sent to The Journalist stated that the article was a total contravention of the Election Code of Conduct by the media house but does not specify the provision and section.

“Although you have fully cooperated with the office of the media arbitrator in its investigation and in fact apologised and tried your best to retract the wrong doing to minimise the impact the article would have on public, we would like to reiterate not to publish such articles in your future editions,” the letter stated. “As promised by you, we are awaiting action taken report of the media house against the people involved.”

It was learnt that the editor used the draft of a story that was not meant for publication.  It was also learnt that the media house had to retract the unsold copies of the issue.

Kuensel has been asked to submit a written statement, explaining how a reporter, increased the no votes for Lhuentse’s Khoma gewog candidate Rinzin Rinzin from two to 49 and Gangzur gewog candidate Kinga Penjor’s yes vote from 269 to 275 in its March 6 edition.

This comes after its editors and the reporter met with the media arbitrators where it was explained how the error occurred. A corrigendum was also published soon after the error was spotted.

It has been learnt that the arbitrator’s office has also informed the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) for airing Lhaki Dolma’s movie in its channel 2.

A BBS general manager, Tashi Dorji, confirmed that a colleague conveyed to him that the media arbitrator office communicated the issue to them. “But we are waiting for them to call or write to us. We would be able to communicate only after we receive the call or a letter.”

Officials of the Journalists Association of Bhutan (JAB) said the role and powers of the office of the media arbitrator needs clarity. “The pressure on a media house to take action against an erring journalist may constitute overriding the roles of the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA),” a JAB official said.

Officials say that as much as JAB discourages professional misconduct among its members, they also discourage arbitrary decisions against them.

A senior reporter said too much restriction and policing the media might hamper free and fair elections, as it deters media houses from sending reporters to the field.

Other media houses raised concern about the need to submit a report at the end of elections.

The media arbitrator was not available for comment, although Kuensel sought a telephone interview.

ECB has identified Dr Chador Wangdi of Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority (BAFRA) as the media arbitrator. A legal officer Gempo Tshering of works and human settlement ministry and another BAFRA official from Paro, Tashi Samdrup assists him. Two officials from the DoIM have also been identified as social media monitors.

Who is the media arbitrator? 

The Media Coverage of Elections Rules and Regulations of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2018, state that the Commission shall appoint a public official as the media arbitrator responsible for the administration of the rules and the provisions of the Election Act that deal with political and campaign broadcasts and advertising.

It also states that the Media Arbitrator shall be responsible for allocation of campaign broadcasting time and space in print media and resolving disputes among broadcasters, political parties and candidates, receive complaints and other communications on the performance of newspapers, radio and television stations and also those related to social media and issue appropriate public statements.

“The media arbitrator, on receiving complaints shall resolve disputes among broadcasters, political parties and candidates in accordance with the Rules and the Election Act.”

It states that the media arbitrator shall obtain or collect all relevant documentation including correspondences, articles, scripts, audiotapes, videotapes or other materials concerning any complaint formally submitted for his or her consideration.

“The media arbitrator shall undertake review of all relevant materials and other information to determine, whether or not the complaint constitutes non-adherence to the Code of Conduct or non-compliance with the guidelines issued by him or her, and therefore justifies an investigation.”

It also states that the media arbitrator shall undertake an investigation, by whatever appropriate means under the law. “The media arbitrator shall submit his or her findings and conclusions regarding any investigation to the Commission for appropriate action. The decision of the Commission under section 6.8 shall be final and binding.”

Tashi Dema