LG: As the polls closed at 5pm on September 27, a family in Tang, Bumthang stayed glued to their television. They were relying on BBS TV to know the results of the gup election.
Happiness knew no bounds when it was announced on BBS TV that their father was the gup-elect. The children waited for their father, who was returning from Chamkhar, to congratulate him.
Their happiness was, however, short lived. The father, who was aware of the EVM and postal ballot results, told them the result announced on BBS TV was wrong.
The gup candidate also said he received many congratulatory calls and it became difficult for him to explain the situation. “My children were affected and I had to console them,” he said.
The Tang gup candidate’s experience is not isolated.
In Umling gewog, Gelephu, a gup candidate’s children waited for BBS TV to declare the election results of the gewog. The children were so happy when it was declared that their father was the gup-elect. However, to their dismay, they learnt the announced result was wrong.
The gup candidate said BBS TV got the results wrong even on the second day and they had to go and seek clarification from the returning officer (RO) who told them election officials would clarify on September 29. “They never did,” he said.
Similarly, many candidates who couldn’t win but were declared as elected received numerous congratulatory calls and the incident led to many people questioning the role of the media and if the national broadcasting service could provide such wrong information to the people.
While officials from BBS explained that the incident occurred because BBS got an assurance from ECB that their newly launched SMS system was reliable and the election results would be declared by 5-6pm.
It was learnt that BBS conducted an informal meeting to discuss the coordination of election reporting on poll day and BBS officials were instructed that the SMS system was fast and could be relied upon.
“BBS used whatever results were declared on the election website, assuming it was correct,” an official said. “But we ran a disclaimer that the results we announced were not final and it was based on the election website,” the official added.
But media professionals reporting in the field during poll day say inaccessibility to information caused such gross misinformation.
Reporters in the field, including those from private media, in the majority of dzongkhags faced difficulties in accessing information on poll day.
“Going by how election officials refused to share information, such mishaps were bound to happen,” Kuensel reporter, Tashi Tenzin, who was based in Zhemgang for the election coverage, said.
Tashi Tenzin was told by the RO that the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) directed them not to allow reporters near their office let alone provide information.
He called the election media officials in Thimphu for clarification. ECB’s media officer, Karma Wangmo, told him it is the RO’s discretionary power to share provisional results. “I have covered elections five times, both local government and parliamentary but it was the first time I faced difficulty in accessing information.”
In Punakha, reporters had to argue with election officials as they couldn’t get information. “I couldn’t understand why election officials were so reluctant to share information,” a reporter from the private media assigned to cover the area, said.
A BBS reporter in Phuentsholing, Kuenga Tashi, said that when he approached the dzongkhag election officer for information he was told they were responsible only for logistics and that the media has to deal with ROs. “But ROs told me they are not allowed to give any information to media,” he said.
A private media bureau correspondent in Wangdue said he requested the ROs in the dzongkhag to share voter turnout statistics as and when the presiding officers report to them but he was also told that ROs had been directed not to share any information with the media.
“I was in Bumthang for the 2013 parliamentary election and ROs had then shared all information with us,” he said. “We were not asking for results but just the voter turnout and ROs refused to share that also. I don’t know why,” he said referring to the recent election.
During live calls BBS made to their reporters on poll day, many reporters said that ROs were refusing to share voter turnout information. In the past elections, BBS reporters got updates on voter turnout every two hours from the ROs.
Many senior reporters said there seemed to be a total media blackout for this year’s election. “If ECB is going to give such directives to their ROs, I don’t think there will be any use for media houses to send reporters into the field in the future,” Kuensel reporter, Yeshey Dema, said.
ECB’s media focal persons, however, refused to acknowledge the media problems and challenges faced by reporters.
The commission’s media spokesperson, Ugyen, said ECB has no say over what BBS has aired. Their stand is that results will be declared a day after poll day and what they posted on their website was not final. “We were just counting in the results and BBS picked from there,” he said.
Ugyen also said that the commission had made clear that ROs should not share any information with the media until the results are finalised and they would have the same directives even in future.
ECB’s media focal person, Karma, said that ROs could share provisional results with media but there is no standard practice about how ROs should divulge information to media.
Election officials, however, said they used their website to declare results for the first time and because it failed to function as intended, they will have to think if they would follow the same process in the future.