Bhutan says 'no seats' for journalists
Logistic coordinators in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, are up against housing over 300 journalists who reached Bhutan to cover-up the 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. Media coordinators have found themselves at a loss when India and Pakistan decided to send 43 and 31 media persons respectively. This is not the final list. It could grow higher and is likely during such a mega event in the region. The organizer on April 25 decided to shift regional summit of South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) to Paro, some 52 kilometer away from the capital citing lack of rooms in hotels in Thimphu.
For journalists without high altitude experience, SAFMA meet (April 26, 27) in Paro was awesome and demanding. For these journalists, acclimatizing in Paro, Bhutan’s only city with airport situated at 7000 feet above sea level, was challenging due to windy roads and related climatic factors. For easy immigration mechanisms to media persons, the Ministry of Information and Communications appointed five liaison officers and several supporting staffs in and around Thimphu. The Royal Government of Bhutan even chartered a special flight from Kolkata to carry SAFMA participants from Nepal and Srilanka.
Director of civil aviation, Phala Dorji, who is the media liaison officer, agreed that media gallery at national assembly hall where the SAARC submit takes place just contains 106 seats. Having failed to provide seats for all journalists, Bhutan finally decided to share opportunity on rotation basis. “We can’t accommodate all of them in the gallery but we’re drawing up plans so that everybody gets an opportunity,” various media reports quoted Dorji as saying, “we’ll distribute the 106 seats equally to all media so nobody is left out.”
According to this seat plan, SAFMA journalists will get 20 seats, while journalists covering the summit of their own will get 25 seats. Majority, but not all, of those journalists accompanying the member-country official delegation will get seat in the media gallery. More than 75 journalists confirmed their entry into Bhutan with various SAARC delegations. Similarly, some 60 media-persons including photographers and cameramen from the observer countries will reach Thimphu. A few of them will get the seat while others will be allowed to enter the hall only when their leaders address the summit.
The Ministry of Information and Communications has arranged an information center in Thimphu. This center will distribute video footage and photographs to those journalists who do not get opportunity to enter the summit hall. The state-owned television will make live telecast with proper access to newsfeed at information center from where the signal can be uplinked to any channel free of cost. Even the national radio station will transmit the signals from the information center. Possibly, no privately run FM stations or newspapers will be allowed to enter the media gallery due to lack of seats, and such a deal is usually a common media censorship in Bhutan.
Bhutan is much afraid that such a large mass of journalists, almost tripling their number in Bhutan, would report other things besides SAARC events. Prior to SAARC summit, even reputed media like BBC and CNN have had little access to depth reporting from inside Bhutan. Mostly, Reuter’s reporters from India are seen first to have some access to government officials in Thimphu for reporting.
Bhutan contemplates that such a large influx of journalists during this SAARC is due to wide-spread speculations of India-Pakistan talk between Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani. It has been a common speculation on this issue during each SAARC summit since its formation. Away from this long-standing bilateral dispute, journalists would definitely explore hidden secrets on gross national happiness, regime-trumpeted democratic elections 2008 and crux of prolonged refugee crisis in the region.
Journalists, who have reached to Bhutan to cover-up SAARC, must be informed that dozens of refugee organizations and their leaders have written to SAARC member states asking to raise their concerns during the SAARC, be it formally or informally. Expelling over 100,000 citizens away from their homes, Bhutan is holding such a mega event without any hesitation for making these citizens stateless. Even those inside Bhutan are strictly warned not to speak to foreign journalists or accept international calls during SAARC session, and accordingly Phuentsholing border has presumably come to Nepal-India border for security check to filter entry of refugees into Bhutan. Therefore, these hatred refugee souls will definitely cry if journalists covering SAARC do not incorporate this issue in their reporting.