The annual World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders is damning. Press freedom globally, including in Bhutan, has nosedived in just one year. As the world marks the World Press Freedom day, journalists and independent media outlets are facing increased repression, questioning both  sustainability and free speech.

Bhutan’s ranking has declined from 90 to 147 in just one year when the latest report was released. The ranking is based on five indicators: political, economic, and the socio-cultural context, the legal framework and security. This year’s analysis shows that the political indicator is the one that has worsened the most worldwide, falling 7.6 points on average globally and even affecting the top three.

The situation at home is a little different. Journalists are not repressed, nor are media outlets harassed by political forces.  That is why we scored the highest on the security and political indicators.  The Bhutanese media’s problem is unique. It surrounds sustainability and access to information even with legislation in place. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan guarantees freedom of speech and press. What is happening on the ground is a stark contrast.

Journalists are finding it difficult to get basic information that should be in the public or facts and figures without climbing the layers of bureaucracy. It is far easier to question politicians or the elected government than an official with data or information. The understanding of the media is so poor that some officials believe reporters are paid by the stories they write.

The importance of media was long recognised. Media was liberalised in 2006 with the wisdom that media will play a crucial role in shaping discourse in a new political set up. After more than a decade, the media is staring at a huge wall blocking access to information, as basic as the amount spent on a failed project.

If it is said that a society can be judged by how it treats its media, we can say that we live in a very secretive society. With social media dominating the media landscape, many are made to believe that with social media, there is no need for mainstream media. It is true that social media has better reach, is cheaper and instant in reaching information. But it is also a platform for misinformation or disinformation. A good example is how many were cheated out of their savings from social media scams.

The dependence on social media has deprived traditional media houses of their advertisement revenue, threatening their sustainability. While the government and its agencies can save advertising costs, it is creating a dependence on the unregulated media with risks of harm to society. Social media has taken over the public service role of entertainment. Education and information, judging by local content, is rare.

Trying to save  the meagre advertising budget has impacted advertising revenue important for media sustainability.  Local media know they have to adapt to changes and remain relevant to the changing media landscape. It is easier said than done. Without resources or recognition of the media, they are left to fend for themselves.

Bhutanese media, even with all the changes, are trying hard to sustain.  The fact is that with even just 25 percent of the journalists with experience of less than a year, they can fulfil the role of the watchdog if they have access to information, given that employers invest to train them.

Sustainability means independence. Some are forced to choose. Money deciding content is risky. When money creeps in, ethics and professionalism flies away. 

The Prime Minister’s assurance of support to the media on the media day is reassuring. Lyonchhen assured training and media development support. He called on those in the media to tell him and his government, in the journalists’ own words, of how, why, when, what and where the government could help the media. 

This is at least a consolation on World Press Freedom Day.