Yearender/Media: Why don’t you ask tough questions?

That was what an Indian journalist observed about Bhutanese media when they were in the country during Prime Minister Modi’s visit.

Let alone tough questions, the Bhutanese media didn’t ask many questions.

So the visit was covered mainly through pictures, just as had been done on Bhutan’s foreign policy, or India.  But it wasn’t just during visits that the Bhutanese media remained an observer.  It didn’t ask tough questions for even attempts to clarify policy issues during the monthly meet the press sessions send the Cabinet on the defensive, belittling at times individual reporters for asking questions.

All they said was quotable, in fact more so than their responses to  questions the press asked on other policies.

If media is the weak slat under the bed of democracy, then the Bhutanese media was at its weakest in the Year of the Horse.

The Bhutanese media, which was already strapped with a sustainability issue, was unable to trot, as it watched journalists, most of them seasoned, leaving the profession more regularly than the number of newspapers that hit the newsstands weekly.

On paper, the country still boasted 11 newspapers.  Yet its urban centeredness continued to be one of the main criticisms against the mainstream media.  Which perhaps explains why the prime minister observed that while ‘it’s good for a young democracy to have 11 newspapers, for it offers choice in informing the people, it’s dangerous for democracy when the media is unable to reach and inform the people.”

The state and plight of the media was clearly reflected in the Journalist’s Association of Bhutan (JAB) report.  It made headlines when the study was released – Has journalism lost its mojo? wrote Kuensel.   JAB study finds poor state of Media in Bhutan, The Bhutanese said.  Concerns were “expressed” but that’s where it ended.

The opposition leader, (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho, observed that the papers are either writing the same stories, with often the same script and pictures, or not providing any critical analysis of current issues they cover. “The media on the whole portray a lack of conviction and dynamism that are fundamental for a vibrant democracy,” he said.

Given its state today, some media personnel say there are only two things that can happen now – either journalism will die or it will come back strong.  How the female sheep year will treat the media is yet to be seen, but it did survive the horse’s kicks.

One of the highlights of the horse year was the RTI bill discussion in Parliament.   The bill remained disputed and, without it, the speaker denied to share public information on who voted for what in the controversial pay revision saga.

But it also saw another effort being made to appoint permanent media officers “for a better working relationship between the government and the media.”  JAB was revived and new office bearers were elected, while a consortium of 13 media houses formed a Media Owners Association of Bhutan.

With the hooves snubbing discourse in the mainstream media on almost everything, conversations picked up on social media.  From bashing the media on their errors to filing petitions, leaking letters regarding the three government secretaries, to damning telecom service providers, netizens took to the social media like never before.

Even as work to draft a social media policy began, it was one such conversation on social media that pushed the opposition party to file a libel case against a former deputy minster.

And unlike in other issues, the Cabinet was unusually active on social media, in disseminating and sharing its press release on the three government secretaries. But the Cabinet secretariat wasn’t as keen to share why the selected candidate for the post of a media attaché was cancelled a month after a former editor was selected.

Unless it’s photographs of a delegate calling on the prime minster, or a reaction to a statement that political parties and the opposition have issued, or on the PM’s visit abroad, cabinet decisions were seldom shared with the media.

The wood horse year saw this stance of the government, whose party symbol is also a horse, on the media become contagious, with other agencies also not sharing information.

For instance, the royal civil service commission went back to claim its title of being the most media unfriendly agency, while the police used information as a bait to get the media to cover the opening of a community police centre.

The answer to why the Bhutanese media doesn’t ask tough questions is not easy.  But it’s for these reasons and more that the Bhutanese media doesn’t get answers …

Sonam Pelden