Shaping media in Bhutan

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 09/05/2010
In a nascent democracy like Bhutan, the media is perceived as having a socially committed role to play, and the government is actively promoting media development.
Journalists there sound very different from the way they do here, says SEVANTI NINAN. Pix courtesy

    This is an expanded version of a column which appeared in the Hindu on May 9, 2010





Sevanti Ninan


Last fortnight the SAARC summit focussed attention on a tiny mountain kingdom that was hosting such a large influx of foreign leaders, officials and media for the first time. It was in a sense a coming out party for Bhutan, a time to showcase why and how they are different. And one of those differences is in their approach to media. There are not too many places in the world which did not permit television until 1999, and which made do with a single government-owned newspaper until 2006.


Media development, meaning a conscious effort to develop a body of media, is currently happening in two parts of South Asia: in Afghanisation and in Bhutan. In Afghanistan it has been mostly an American sponsored initiative after their entry there.. In Bhutan  it is careful government policy to try and develop  media that will serve the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) that the country has adopted. And promote democracy which the monarchy introduced in 2008. Two days before the summit began  prime minister Jigme Y Thinley drove from Thimpu to Paro to explain to a conference of South Asian journalists why a "fragile, emerging democracy" needed media support of the right kind.


Part of the message had to do with the theme of the 16th SAARC summit which was devoted to environment and climate change. When a carbon negative country like Bhutan wants to remain carbon neutral it has to make tough choices. Intensive agriculture and mass tourism have been avoided, 50 per cent of the land area has been placed under parks and protected areas. Mining leases are temporary ones. Explaining this "ecologically correct" and "morally correct" path to the people and getting their support for it is part of the media’s job here, says the PM. 


"Our government will support media development, particularly at this early stage of their growth, to ensure that they are effectively involved  in governance."  Media has to provide the public space for discourse with Bhutanese society needs at this point, the PM said.  He went so far as to call it a fourth branch of government, and when at least one pair of eyebrows shot up in the hall, hastened to clarify that "when we talk of branches we talk of independent branches. As to how much of interaction, we are looking at it as an independent sector as we look at the judiciary."


So what shape does media development take in Bhutan? Tax breaks and advertising support for new media ventures, media literacy lessons for schools, encouraging a university from Australia to train journalists in Bhutan, giving scholarship to aspiring journalists to study abroad.  The young fifth king has set up a foundation to support media development here. When you are bringing in a media culture you also have to train bureaucrats and others to do briefings. Hence the need for a Media and Democracy Foundation which also exists. Bhutan’s secretary for information Dasho Kinley Dorji, says he wants to push content•encourage GNH content. "Our government is new and naive at the moment." He worries about what advertising does to the people of a country which is trying to encourage sustainable development.


"Our government is the largest advertiser. When you put government notices and advertising you want the right kind of reach: if you want to reach herdsmen you have to use shortwave radio, in their language."


. "What kind of  content should we be encouraging? Where are the Bhutanese media heroes•the current ones are all derived from Hollywood and bollywood. I want to see private channels for Bhutanese content… media is pervasive and decides values. We take it as very influential. this is a relatively naive society which is exposed to media and you know what that means."


Part of the problem is that Bhutan now allows satellite channels, which threaten to swamp the country’s oral tradition. Says Kinley Dorji, "Oral media is imp. is powerful here. We have a story telling tradition, but who is now telling stories to our kids? Television.  TV’s  reach is there, and grandmother cannot compete.     I have to help grandmother by encouraging story telling meetings. nuture story tellers. that is where media literacy comes in. Criticial thinking. Our media literacy intitiative is just starting."


Bhutan currently has less than a hundred journalists, and six newspapers of which only two are daily. There is no home delivery, given the topography in much of the country. And 70 per cent of the total newspaper circulation is in the capital city  of  Thimpu. Talking to scribes here is illuminating. "One is first a citizen and then a journalist," says Passang Dorji, from the weekly newspaper The Journalist, which is just a few months old.  Jurmi Chhowing, who has started a monthly newsmagazine called Drukpa  disputes the notion that the Bhutanese media is not independent.  He says the Government newspaper Kuensel  which has brought in 49 per cent private equity,  has turned around its image and is "strongly aggressive and critical." He thinks papers here in general have maintained their independence.


In Bhutan you cannot write about the monarchy•the idea is that the royal family is above criticism.  But  editors at one of the newspapers explain that royalty is clearly and narrowly defined in the constitution and where family members of the four queens ( the four sisters who are married to the fourth king) are concerned, their business dealings have been written about when issues have arisen. In a land case involving their father,  prosecultion has also followed. They also tell you that since the conduct of the main family has been exemplary so far, "even if we wanted to write there is nothing to write."


The coming of democracy has meant an important change. Earlier you could not criticise the bureaucracy because they represented the monarcy. Today the system is separate from the monarchy and can be put under the scanner. "There is an amazing turnaround in the amount of criticism the government can now take, says a chief editor,  "and the PM has played a very positive role in this." He adds that the higher level of government understands the value of media criticism. Meanwhile the growth in publications in the last six years has also meant a lot more stories being done on corruption in Bhutan.


In some ways the media in Bhutan is like the media in tribal societies in India. No direct personal attacks, and all criticism is taken so personally in a close knit society that it becomes difficult to criticise.  Phuntsho Wangdi, the editor of Kuensel  reminds me of editors in Nagaland when he says, "if you write a film review and say the film is terrible the whole crew is here, asking why have you written about me?"


One of the constructive things the media is expected to do here is publish at least a few pages in the local language, Dzonkha, even though the demand is for media in English. So every issue of any  paper contains some pages in Dzonkha. That involves additional staff. Kuensel for example has a separate, full fledged team the 8 pages in Dzonkha in  a 22 page paper.


The main worry for the media here, even as it is beginning to blossom, is viability. The advertising pie is tiny•80 to 90 per cent of the advertising comes from government,  the private sector is not yet havily into advertising and branding.   The cover price is high, Rs 5 for a daily, rs 10 or 15 for a weekly. There are no broadsheets--Phuntsho Wangdi explains that they are not possible without circulation volume. His paper sells 10,000 copies, the others not more than half that. If media continues to grow in Bhutan they will soon run into a  viability problem. Yet media is important, and needs to reach a much greater part of the country.


As part of its media development policy the government has instituted awards including one for GNH reporting. Ironically, last week, it was won by a story in Bhutan Observer about . a trip with the Secretary of Gross National Happiness Commission to one of the farthest and poorest villages in Bhutan. The villagers tell the secretary they are happy. To the reporter they confess that they are not•they live in hunger and debt, with no access to roads or electricity and life is very tough.


The editors here tell you that the country needs a lot more investigative journalism but it needs to be done by more experienced people. Wangdi says  the stereotype of a politician  as corrupt comes from media in the South Asian region. In the Bhutanese media we have to do it in a way which strengthens democracy."


Try explaining such nuanced notions to our braying pack back  home.



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