RSF retracts statement on Bhutanese journalists sent into exile

Reporters Without Borders has retracted its statement that several Bhutanese journalists driven into exile in 2017 from the World Press Freedom report, 2018.

The France-based organisation, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) world report ranked Bhutan 94th out of 180 countries with a score of 30.73 out of a possible 100, a higher score being worse. 

The report, published on its website had pointed out that the adoption of the Bhutan Information Communications and Media Act in 2006 and the creation of a media regulatory authority have reinforced the government’s armory of draconian legislation, which already included a national security law that punishes any attempt to create misunderstanding or hostility between the government and people.

The report claimed,“As a result, the level of self-censorship is high and even increased after the recent approval of a law criminalising defamation, which drove several Bhutanese journalists into exile in 2017.” 

In an email interview, RSF’s head of Asia-Pacific Desk, Daniel Bastard, said that the RSF had sent an email to JAB on September 8 2017, seeking advice on press freedom in the country and guidance to recruit a Bhutanese correspondent.

“I never had any reply and yes, I am totally aware of the organisation,” he wrote. “The association was actually informed. It just didn’t bother even acknowledging my email.”

Daniel Bastard said that after not receiving any response, he decided to find the information elsewhere.  

“Then I came across an article in The Diplomat and The New York times, which described that journalists like Namgay Zam had left the country because of a defamation case,” he said. “However, after the release of index report and after discussing with our soon-to-be correspondent, I realised that the article was not accurate.”

He said that RSF has deleted the part asserting that journalists left the country. “It was a mistake and I corrected it. I hope the journalist community in Bhutan can understand the whole process that led to this.”

Journalists at home condemned the report’s finding stating that no journalist was sent on exile. Both the president and executive director of Journalist Association of Bhutan (JAB) had condemned and refuted the report stating that no Bhutanese journalist was exiled in 2017.

Needrup Zangpo said the email RSF had written to is not in use anymore. 

In an earlier interview with Kuensel on the report’s findings, he had said that RSF made some erroneous assumptions, which could be safely brushed aside. He added that the report couldn’t be credible because the RSF has not contacted any credible source in Bhutan. 

Meanwhile, retracting the statement would not change the ranking, Daniel Bastard said. “We write the statement after we know the ranking, as an explanatory text. So the ranking won’t change.”

The ranking in the index, he said, is based on quantitative (number of violence against journalists, detentions, etc.) and qualitative analysis, consisting of 117 questions. 

The RSF had contacted two experts to answer the 2018 query from Bhutan. The report also took into account the remarks made by Bhutanese journalists in 2017 when Bhutan was ranked 84th.  

“It was published in Kuensel, stating that the score was overrated. I would be very happy if the JAB suggests new experts.”

He explained that with limited manpower and financial resources, it is not possible to send people to all 180 countries to analyse the index and RSF instead relies on a network build with 120 local correspondents across the world.  

“I have finally managed to identify a Bhutanese correspondent now, and we are in the final steps of the recruiting process,” he said. “But JAB has been absolutely no help in this.”

Yangchen C Rinzin

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