Myths and reality behind BT affairs

Published on Nov 03 2009 // Commentary
By I. P. Adhikari

The first private news paper Bhutan Times was forced to go for outsourcing to ensure its regular publication after a group of seven journalists, including its editor, resigned abruptly on October 22 afternoon saying management had undue interference on editorial issues.

The problem began shortly after enthronement of Wangcha Sangey as the new executive chief of the company already reeling under heavy debts. The resignation did bring some contrasting reactions from locals and global viewers. While onus to speak reality behind the incidence lies with the players, outsiders can only play with what has been said and seen physically.

In its editorial in the first issue after the mass resignation, the weekly indirectly blamed the journalists for failing to do their part on protecting democracy that is taking root very recently.

It is strange that private media was commissioned by the Fourth King to protect and promote democracy. Yet, the darker and more scarier side of democracy is also filtering in from the side of the media itself. It has been the dream of every Bhutanese to present a democracy that is as unique as its origin from the throne. A democracy that reflects and is hinged on our development aspirations of Gross National Happiness. This was stirred and shaken with the solidarity march which emanated mostly from people in the media.

The speakers who dared not to speak anything about democracy till some years back, alleging it to be a political form that destroys national harmony, now links everything with democracy. The editorial failed to mention how the management played role in protecting democracy while imposing its interest on editorial team. Media plays its role in democracy only when it is let to work independently, especially, letting the editorial team to decide what to write and what not. Management can suggest, not impose.

The ethnic discrimination continues to pass through Bhutanese mind despite reshuffle in the political system and adopting democracy. According to disgruntled journalists, the CEO warned the editor to realize this ‘social standing’, indirectly hinting this Nepali-origin editor to be a citizen of lesser status. In many occasion, the ruling community people term people of Nepali-origin to be migrant or from Nepal. The sore reached its peak in 1990 and is still not healed.

This group, who worked as voice of the people, became voiceless when they stepped out of the paper. None of the newspapers supported their cause of working for editorial independence. The first daily, in fact the only daily, Bhutan Today even challenged these journalists of trying to kill Bhutan Times and take up job in a new newspaper. Business Bhutan, the weekly magazine also supported the management of Bhutan Times. The way papers presented themselves has clearly paved a highway for the management to impose their interests in other media outlets as well in future. This is darker side of the free media in new democracy.

The new management of the paper showed its cruelty at the first show. From the day Sangey entered the company as CEO, he supposedly cut down tea budget for the reporters. According to him, it was necessary step to cut unnecessary expenses to bring down the losses company has been incurring. On the other side he, as chief of the board of directors of the company, increased his salary. While former CEO was given Nu 60,000 a month, this new CEO will take Nu 110,000 per month as salary. Will cost cutting measures like slashing tea budget cover this expense for CEO? The attempt of the new CEO to protect his step is questionable when it comes to relieving the company from debts. And possibly, the new CEO might have already chosen other reporters who can work in lesser budget under his command.

Right after the resignation, the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) wrote the CEO to submit the list of new journalists working with the paper with their credentials. It was a regular duty for BICMA as prescribed by law. The new CEO hired team from K4 Media, another private media company planning for a new monthly magazine shortly, to bring out the new issue of the weekly paper. The outgoing of the seven reporters and entry of K4 Media people within a few minutes time seems to be a drama already planned in advance. In other sense, Sangey had already contacted the K4 Media group to take up the job when reporters are likely to go out under force.

The reply CEO wrote to BICMA also reflects his personality as a media owner. This man has, proved worst in work history while in Royal Insurance Company of Bhutan, claimed himself to be a ‘senior citizen of 57 years with a track record of proven capabilities and established credentials’ and added the letter from the BICMA insulted his personality.

He writes,
BICMA shares the ruthless strategy of the BT News Room renegades to close down the publication of the news paper. And that you feel it is the right time to strike down Bhutan Times Newspaper which is the only news corporation independent of government or individual proprietorship influence in the the Kingdom of Bhutan. BICMA’s another stand is that the state must approve the editorial team which means the state controls the news. BICMA could do a great media sensitization service for the general public if you broadcast your vaunted “Provision of the Act” that dictates “Editorial Team” of “Free Media” must be approved by the state authority and this is legislated by a democratic parliament. I can see one silver lining for the near bankrupt Bhutan Times. Would the state pay the salaries of the state approved editorial team?

His response published in his paper instead of sending it to BICMA offices, also ironically blamed former Kuensel chief and secretary of the ministry of communication, Kinley Dorij, who rather has no links in the dispute. Sangey wrote,
Let me also state herein what you already know as a matter of historical Bhutanese media hierarchy. That the present secretary of the Ministry of Communication and Information, who is your boss, was for a long time both the CEO and the Editor-in-Chief of Kuensel Corporation. That Tenzin Rigden, the former CEO of Bhutan Times, was also executing the role of the Editor-in-Chief after Tashi P. Wangdi left Bhutan Times. In fact, the editor, Gopilal Acharya, was transferred as a regional reporter. I brought him back to do the job of the editor. Therefore, the objection of BICMA is directed against me as an individual and has nothing to do with editorial interference.

In sum, this is a bad precedence set in the budding media industry and a great instrument for management in other media outlets to impose their interest in new room, softly killing free media, in future. Management in Bhutan media comes from the bureaucracy and business circles that fostered under the absolute regime talking for years against democracy, rights, freedom of expression and trade unions. Under new face, the same people have groomed the liberal society to take advantage of their privileges otherwise provided them by closed and uneducated Bhutanese society.