Whether you live in cities or in a rural Bhutanese village, the ability to shift through information and evaluate media messages is an important skill in 21st Century. Digital revolution has made it even more critical.

The explosion of digital media and social networking platforms has transformed citizens into publishers and broadcasters. This is true even in the remotest of Bhutanese village. Thanks to cell phones and Internet coverage.

Villagers receive latest news and updates on their cell phone. They connect to their friends and relatives, far and near. However, many are not equipped to analyse and evaluate the information. This means that media literacy programmes need to reach a vast audience.

A truly media literate citizen in 2017 is someone who not only understands the meaning behind the messages he or she encounters, but who can also create quality content and distribute it in a variety of forms in order to become part of a society’s larger dialogue.

Bhutanese society, particularly rural areas that directly jumped to smartphones unlike nations around the world that saw convergence of media, consumed a lot of media and trusted almost all of it. And they seemed vulnerable to being misled by media, whether they took the form of fake story posted by anonymous user or amateur obscene videos shared by their friends.

Fully aware that media literacy programmes have a long way to go before they have the size and scale to be truly effective, the Journalists’ Association of Bhutan (JAB) has taken a small initiative – media literacy training in four remote communities in four regions of the country – to engage communities often left out from similar programmes, occasionally conducted by government agencies.

I was invited by JAB to give a basic media literacy class to the people of Dophuchen, one of the remote gewogs in Samtse. JAB was looking for someone who could clearly convey message in Dzongkha and Lhotshamkha. I readily accepted the offer. It had been ages since I last visited rural Bhutan. I was once asked by my editor to go to Dungtoe, far above Dophuchen to cover news – a murder case where a religion was involved. I didn’t go. There were no roads. I didn’t want to walk through thick jungles all alone for days. However, I did story on the same from Phuentsholing and Tading in Samtse.

This time, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see breath-taking Dophuchen, the place that produced a number of Bhutanese intellectuals, including ministers. And Dophuchen is now connected with a farm road, much of the stretch black-topped.

Just a night before the programme, I received the outline of the presentation from the JAB’s executive director. What is media? What are traditional media and new media? Social media – what they are and how they work. How to use social media with a particular focus on the government’s social media policy, examples of good and bad use of social media, were some of the topics to be covered. Of course, there were lots of examples of good and bad usage. Most of the 65 plus participants did receive pornographic materials on their mobile via social media app like Wechat and didn’t know what to do with it. Some deleted it after viewing, while other shared with their friends. Many of them read (fake) news about death of popular Bhutanese actor Kelly Dorji and shared it.  On the positive side, they didn’t have to know the alphabets to communicate. A lot of social media apps provided voice and videoconference facilities.  At the same time many fell victims to advertisements. They didn’t know how to read advertisement.

Radio is still very popular in this part of the country. Many of them depend on radio for news and entertainment. They complained that the BBS radio often broke down. Due to its proximity to international border, the gewog also receives radio waves from Nepal and India and people do tune in to these stations. The participants even suggested making BBS call in programme, an infotainment not just dedicating the songs but also letting the listeners know more about the village. The callers could tell stories of people who have contributed to their communities and show how they can be followed.

Like any other places in Bhutan, Dophuchen is not without problems. Monkeys jump over the electric fence, porcupines tunnel beneath it, and destroy the crops. Some 60 percent of the crops is lost to the wildlife annually. There are no proper irrigation channels and farmers depend on rainwater for paddy cultivation. Newspapers don’t reach this place and people don’t know when did a news reporter last visit their place. While their cousins and elected members enjoyed sumptuous means and sitting fees to attend a meeting, they have to travel hours to reach to the gewog centre to attend a meeting for free, leaving behind the fields at mercy of wild animals. Like many of the rural people, they too feel that people coming from the capital are ‘Zhung-gi-Dasho’ would solve all the problems. We had to explain to them who we were and what’s our mandate and why we were there.

We were bombarded with questions: Why is there no coverage on BBS when our crops are raided by wildlife, while BBS covers everything from the West? Are we not equally important? Why do media use ‘royal kupars’ on important occasions? These photographs, used for moneymaking, land up being pasted or thrown everywhere, they say. Why is media silent on illegal production and sale of ‘royal kupar’ by businessmen across border, on mugs and frames? Why is BBS signal irregular in Dophuchen? Can Dophuchen too have a community radio? Who do we approach? Is it legal to print and distribute news from mainstream media? Why is there no radio app for BBS Lhotshamkha? While we didn’t have answers to all these questions. I didn’t have an answer to why is the government not familiarising their social media policy.  The social media policy is being implemented on civil servants. I made a presentation to the teachers, on the same topic, in the evening, but they too were not aware of social media policy. Like the local residents, the civil servants in the remote pockets of Bhutan are ignorant of many government policies and guidelines.

Many of the participants felt that JAB’s media literacy programme was timely. Participants had already witnessed social ills of social media and created problems among family and friends. I was told that the programme was a great eye-opener.

Contributed by Rabi C Dahal

The writer is communications officer with Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation.

He can be reached at:  rabi@bhutantrustfund.bt