Coinciding with the World Press Freedom Day, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering launches Journalists’ Association of Bhutan’s annual journal, Bhutan Press Mirror yesterday

Younten Tshedup 

No journalist in Bhutan has been victim of violent attacks. Neither has anyone faced life-threatening situations in the line of duty. However, practicing journalism in the country has come with its own set of challenges and obstacles.

The biggest hurdle confronted by many Bhutanese journalists today is access to information, according to one of the senior-most journalists, Rinzin Wangchuk.

The latest report compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a France-based organisation, ranks Bhutan 65th out of 180 countries on the press freedom index. This is an improvement from last year—67th out of 180 countries.

The 2021 ranking was based on a range of criteria, including media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, legislative framework and transparency, among others.

Rinzin Wangchuk, also the president of Journalists’ Association of Bhutan (JAB), said that Bhutan by far was one of the safest places to practise journalism in the world today. “Our ranking has been improving over the years, which is a good sign but this should not mislead people.”

He said that despite the improvement in the ranking there were many challenges for journalists in terms of access to information. “The bureaucratic system has been the biggest stumbling block for journalists in Bhutan.”

He said that as per the 2021 press freedom index report, journalism in Bhutan functioned in a “problematic environment” which was why the country was identified as an orange zone in the report.

“Our situation is problematic because there is high rate of self-censorship and it is very difficult to get information, especially from the civil servants,” said Rinzin Wangchuk, adding that some of the clauses in the Bhutan Civil Service Rules and Regulations (BCSR) restricted civil servants from speaking to journalists, denying media and people the fundamental right to information.  “Because of these clauses, majority of the civil servants, despite having better insights on issues, shy away from journalists. This impedes the process of information dissemination and hampers people’s right to information.”

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, who has been candid and forthcoming to all journalists since day one of taking the governance assured that he would take up the issue with the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC).

The motion, however, should come from the media fraternity in a written statement, he said.

Lyonchhen said that the current practice of the RCSC requiring a media spokesperson in the agencies allowed only ‘readymade’ information to go out which should not be the case. “Journalists should have access to uninhibited and uncensored information.”

He said that as long as the information is correct and is reported in the manner it is supposed to, there should not be any issues. “Nation building is a collective responsibility and journalists play a major role in it.”

However, he said that when uncensored information is made available for the journalists, it was also the responsibility of journalists and the media fraternity to use them professionally and unbiasedly. Balancing a news article is critical, Lyonchhen added.

Acknowledging the limitations in the media fraternity, Rinzin Wangchuk said that while young reporters were confronted with the problem of access to information, many seasoned journalists had left the profession for better opportunities.

“But I’m an optimist. With all the challenges of sustainability, high attrition rate, and lack of expertise, I see journalism prospering in Bhutan,” he said. “For people like us, it is the responsibility to inform the public that should come first. Journalism is not a profession, but a calling. And this should keep us going forward.”

Coinciding with the World Press Freedom Day yesterday, Lyonchhen launched JAB’s annual journal, Bhutan Press Mirror. The fourth edition of Bhutan Press Mirror includes experiences and perspectives of Bhutanese journalists during the pandemic and rural stories supported by JAB.