Bhutan’s press freedom ranking has improved in the past year according to media rights group, Reporters Without Borders. Bhutan is now ranked 84th out of 180 countries. The question is whether journalists in Bhutan will agree that the state of the media has improved in the past year or two.
The degree of freedom available was determined by looking at several categories.
There has been an improvement in pluralism. More voices are being heard. The media is conscious of its responsibility to reach out and give voice to the unheard: the youth, the remote rural communities, the elderly, among others. But all journalists would probably agree that there is still room for improvement in not only giving voice but making sure that voice reaches those who need to hear it.
The emergence of social media has also aided in strengthening pluralism, and the media’s role is evolving to filter and sift through the noise and find those voices that need to be amplified.
Journalists in Bhutan value their media independence. The influence of political parties and the government on the media is limited and resisted when encountered. However, the power of big business is increasing and the media, especially those financially strapped newspapers, will have to be wary of succumbing to the financial incentives on offer to have their “news” published. We can already see the influence of big business creeping into the news sections.
The environment in which Bhutanese journalists operate is vastly better than in most countries. We are not killed or subjected to violence for stories we are pursuing or have written. There have been a few threats, but nothing serious. Sometimes names were dropped. But the media is aware that as long as it reports factually and accurately, and is balanced, it is serving the interests of the nation.
In a country with a small population, self-censorship to a certain extent can occur to protect our relationships. There are also some areas that the media is today mostly dependent on the government for information, but this is understandable given that we’re a young industry, and therefore may lack the expertise or knowledge of the full picture. With time and maturity, it is only natural that the media will venture into such areas.
On transparency, Bhutanese journalists have so far had mostly unfettered access to news sources. The Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, and most senior government officials are easily available. A monthly Meet the Press is held to allow the Cabinet to be directly questioned.
The government is in the process of training media focal persons, and the concern is that information dispersal becomes centralised, and of only sanitised information being provided. It is hoped that more raw information is made accessible to journalists and that those officials working in the field, and best aware of the situation on the ground, are allowed to speak to the media.
We have too many anonymous sources talking to the media, even for harmless information. This culture must change.
Despite the existence of minor questionable provisions in existing legislation, the media has been been able to do its job. But the recent case involving media watchdog BICMA taking the national broadcaster BBS to court is a damper on media freedom. There is also a need for clarity on where the courts stand when it comes to defamation and freedom of expression. Another questionable policy, that of naming and shaming suspects accused of heinous crimes by the police, requires legal interpretation.
There is one persistent threat facing the media. However, as with all other professions in Bhutan, attrition in the media will always occur. There will always be a greener pasture somewhere.
But many experienced and passionate journalists remain. They continue to push boundaries and bring verified news to the public.
Some may say that the quality of media has been declining, but quality is a subjective term. Stories that matter continue to be told, and most importantly, questions continue to be asked and injustice revealed. It is crucial that the public support the strengthening of the free press, by reading the news, by talking to the media, by contributing your opinions, by providing feedback, and by respecting its independence and role, to build a stronger Bhutan.