What does Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index mean to Bhutan? In particular, how ought we, the media professionals, to interpret the picture that is brought to our faces this day?
According to the index, Bhutan’s press freedom ranking improved by jumping ahead 20 steps in the last three years. In the same period, however, we saw media houses in this country slowly die with whimper. Media professionals feel that access to information and issues of sustainability, among others, are the challenges that thwart the growth of vibrant media in Bhutan.
But this new ranking gives us new hope. We can do better. As Prime Minister said at the Excellence for Journalism Award in Thimphu yesterday, “we need to be more free.” Media freedom and independence is vitally important for our young democracy. When access to information is largely circumscribed, exercising freedom can be challenging.
Even as we speak, media landscape in the country is changing. There are challenges we must address. Many a seasoned journalist has left the sector. The media managers and owners do not invest in journalism. We may have what could loosely be called media independence, legislative framework and safe environment for media practitioners, but freedom enough to exercise within such framework is vitally important for media to grow.
For the Bhutanese media to grow in terms of both quality and number, there is need to look at ourselves first. Media freedom and growth depends on many factors that are not necessarily their own. Structural changes will be required that guarantees transparency and accountability in public offices. In other words, access to information is what will ultimately determine media independence and freedom.
Because media in Bhutan have to depend largely on government advertisement for survival, freedom can be a complicated affair to define. Media’s intervention in public policies by way of inviting meaningful debate is often seen as blocking the move. While media professionals take it as their mandate to question and advise policy moves, public officials do not see it that way. This must change. We have a lot of work to do.
Where we, the media, stand today must be drawn from our own challenges. This new ranking is encouraging, but we must set our own standards.