As we see the second parliamentary government assuming power, it is sad to note that the ‘fourth arm’ of the governance, as former prime minister JYT used to called the media rather patronizing, is dying, if not completely dead.
If the decision of Bhutan Observer to close down its print version is anything to go by, then it is obvious that the disease is indeed deeper than just a temporary ailment. Most of the newspapers in the kingdom are only just surviving, by resorting to such measures as downsizing its editorial and other relevant divisions.
Many newspersons, which joined the industry in the flush of the first move towards democratic governance, are today languishing in various jobs as glorified as media consultants or related professions.
Salaries in newspapers are not paid on time but some of the reporters had to accept a drastic slash in their monthly income.
Why do they accept such working conditions, and not move on to something better. According to one young reporter, “It is addiction. The profession has an aura that catches on to you.”
“It is not the money or fame or even your name appearing in a byline. I think it is about the sense of freedom in the way you operate,” another one said. “One feels one is part of the whole process of what’s happening around you that really gives you some kind of intoxication,” he added.
Whatever may be one’s reason to join journalism profession, money is not certainly a compelling factor, though a certain percent in the higher rung of the newsroom ladder do command a comfortable amount, much higher than civil servants.
Government allowed the formation of private media in 2006 in preparation for the advent of democratic constitutional monarchy in 2008. It was when Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer started.
The idea was basically to generate the spirit of free and fair discussions that would ultimately lead to informed decisions when people went to the first parliamentary elections.
Initially, the attitude of government towards the media was of benign tolerance. The media too, young and inexperienced as it was, had to tread softly and test the political water. As long as the media remained pliable enough for the government to manipulate it, with occasional flair-ups, everything was smooth sailing.
But this was not to last for too long. Despite the fact that media had to depend on the government for ad revenues to sustain itself, it felt that it had to play its role truthfully if it were to contribute anything concrete to the democratic process. The bogey of misquoting a minister or a civil servant was often raised. But the true colours of the politicians surfaced when BBS was warned how its budget would be passed, or not passed, if its reporting was not going to be favourable to the ruling government.
Towards the latter part of the five-year government tenure, the press started digging beneath the surface, because staid reporting was no more grabbing the attention of the readers. Not every one was interested in this “muckraking.” A few continued to play safe, especially after the ministry of information and communications issued a circular directing its departments not to give ads to The Bhutanese.
Yet, The Bhutanese was not to be cowed down. Whatever one may say about its style of reporting, but it did manage to unearth some of the most blatant scams which would not have come to the court.
It is safe to say that the press can and has helped bring out the truth, much to the benefit of the people in general and to the discomfort of the perpetrators. This by itself is good enough. Once it is out in the open the relevant organization can take over.
In spite of the fact that press can give stellar service in the general name of freedom and rights, some of the difficulties it finds itself in is of its own doing.
When media was given freedom, many jumped the band wagon, some to gain political mileage and some to make a fast buck. Media is also a business, but no one worth their salt ever thought of it as a long-term business that needs nurturing and strengthening through ploughing back the money earned through it. They took it as a side business to use as a bargaining chip to boost their other businesses.
The infighting within themselves also contributed to the status that they are in right now. That is why all the organizations formed to assist media houses and personnel could never do anything to address their problem. Bhutan Media Foundation was established with a lot of hope and representatives at the editor’s level participated to formulate its charter and bylaws. Yet, nothing much came out of it because most media houses tried to take advantage of it on the basis of their own needs without any consideration for the general good.
Most media houses are in the last death throes. They are all waiting for the new government to resuscitate them. But if they don’t pull their acts together, they can’t expect much.
K.B. Lama is the first editor of Bhutan Observer