Political Transparency and the Democratic Transition

Published on May 01 2009 // Commentary
By IFJ South Asia Report 2008-09

With nation-wide elections on March 24, 2008, Bhutan formally stepped into democracy, ending its centuries-old absolute monarchy. There were expectations that with a written constitution being adopted, the right to free speech and the right to information would be widened and that the media would begin growing and functioning as a source of relevant information for larger sections of Bhutan’s estimated 680,000 population.

For reasons to do with terrain and the state of basic services, radio is the most accessible media for most of Bhutan’s population. A media impact study by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) revealed that radio still is the primary source of information for all Bhutanese though the print media has a degree of influence over decision-making at the governmental level.

Private radio stations have emerged in recent years, but are not, under the national broadcasting law, allowed to air news and current affairs programs. The government-owned Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) preserves its monopoly over news broadcasts. 

Of the respondents to the media impact study published in January 2009, 49.4 percent reported BBS radio as a source of information and 37.6 percent mentioned BBS TV. Kuensel, Bhutan’s first newspaper, begun in 1960 as a government-owned enterprise and in 2006 transformed into an enterprise with a minority public holding, was reported as a source of information for 27.5 percent of respondents. (All figures were gathered on a non-exclusive basis, and the totals add up to well over 100 percent for this reason.)

Private radio stations are almost exclusively a source of entertainment. With local stations being established, the audience for foreign broadcasters fell from 33.7 to 9 percent between 2003 and 2008. BBS TV, launched in 1999, has also overtaken international channels, increasing its audience  from 30 to 54 percent in this period of time.

Newspapers have the most modest reach among all major media. Among newspaper readers, 34.6 percent read Kuensel, 21.7 percent read the Bhutan Times and 20.9 percent read the Bhutan Observer. The broadcast sector uses mostly the Dzongkha language, while English is preferred in the newspapers.


Complaints process 

Although Bhutan’s Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and expression, there have been a few events over the year that have shown that the new Government is yet to accept the practices and norms of an independent and critical media. In one instance in December, the government imposed a fine of BTN (Bhutanese Ngultrum) 18,000 (about USD 370) on the state-owned BBS Corporation for televising a discussion where one participant criticised the Information and Communication Minster, Nanda Lal Rai.

The Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA), which is the regulatory authority for all media, stated in its ruling that the panel discussion on the quality of a pre-paid taxi service, was contrary to the media code of conduct, partly since there was no official representative to speak on behalf of the Government. The panel discussion did not meet the criteria of “fairness, decency and balance” as required under the Code of Ethics of Journalists. The BBS management clarified however that a representative of the Road Safety and Transport Authority was given ample opportunity to state the official viewpoint. He left shortly afterwards of his own volition and was not present at the time the criticisms against his agency were aired, for no fault of the broadcaster.

Following a critical write-up by Kuensel about the fine levied on the BBS, government authorities also interrogated the staff of the newspaper.

A bus driver and his assistant filed a case against Bhutan Observer weekly on January 21, alleging that a false report published in the paper resulted in the loss of their jobs. The case was filed at the Thimphu district court and is still pending. They said they were sacked from their jobs on January 17 following a report which said the bus carried passengers beyond the permitted number and that the crew overcharged and abused passengers. 

BICMA formed a tribunal to look into complaints, both on behalf of the media and about it, in February. The formal notification states that the BICMA Appellate Tribunal, in accordance with section 198 of the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act, 2006, will be presided over by a retired or sitting high court judge. It would have two other members, who would be well versed in the field of information technology, law or administration.

The Tribunal has so far received only one complaint, filed by a Paro-based cable operator – Sigma – against BICMA, for imposing a fine of BTN 9000 for allegedly providing eight channels beyond the permitted number to viewers. Along with Sigma, BICMA had also fined another Paro-based operator, TD Meto, a sum of BTN 3000. Meto paid up, while Sigma refused.

During a press meeting in July 2008 to mark 100 days in office of the Government, Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley criticised the media for being over-critical and not ascertaining the facts that would enable them to interpret government actions in the proper context.

The CMD has been active in bridge-building between the new Government and the media. At a seminar organised by the CMD in March 2009, the Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communication, Kinley Dorji, who until the previous month was the editor of Kuensel, said policies would be formulated to strengthen the media in three areas: quality, infrastructure and independence of content. He promised government support to the media in “capacity enhancement” of journalists and urged media personnel to be mindful of their “social responsibility”.


Expansion and losses

FM broadcasting will expand in the months ahead, with one of Bhutan’s oldest educational institutions, Sherubtse College, announcing in March that it will soon have its own FM radio. The college would be the first among Bhutanese educational institutions to host FM broadcasting and the operation would be the first radio station in eastern Bhutan. Programs will be managed and produced by the students themselves.

Job losses have affected the Bhutanese print media, with the country’s first private newspaper, Bhutan Times, laying off 15 of 80 employees in a bid to deal with adverse market conditions. The media house also shut down its book publishing unit during the year.

After almost five years of government restrictions, allowing the broadcast of a maximum of 33 television channels within Bhutan, BICMA approved over the past year of the airing of additional music and sports channels by Thimphu’s cable operators. The ban decreed on certain channels, allegedly showing excessive violence and explicit content, was lifted, though several others continue to be proscribed. 

On the day of Hinduism’s major festival, Deepavali, Bhutan got its first daily newspaper, Bhutan Today. Buddhist monks were invited to pray for its success at the formal launch ceremony on October 31. The first daily, an eight-page morning paper, is priced at BTN 5. In its first editorial, the daily complained of unfair competition and said other papers asked the Government to deny the daily a licence to operate. Tenzin Dorji, the newspaper’s 32-year-old managing director, said that Bhutan Today would begin with a print run of 18,000 copies, though total readership of English periodicals at the national level is as low as 13,000.


Limits to freedom

The implications of the large-scale displacement of ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan – a long-running sore in political ties within the South Asian region – were highlighted by the case of Shantiram Acharya, a journalist once associated with the Bhutan Reporter, a newspaper published by Bhutanese exiles in Nepal. Acharya was arrested in January 2007 while seeking to enter Bhutan from India and convicted shortly afterwards to seven-and-a-half years’ imprisonment on “terrorism” charges. It was only in January 2009 that the verdict against him was made public. Global human rights groups and media freedom bodies believe that he may have fallen victim to a draconian Bhutanese law that criminalises the return of Nepali exiles to the country.

The right to information is still denied in Bhutan, though it has been the focus of public debate since 2007. Two sessions of parliament failed to take up the issue. A news report in Kuensel in July 2008 spoke of the “sophisticated and sinister” manner in which ministries and government agencies made use of the restrictions on information flow: “Many of our ministries and government agencies are fortresses of information and laws unto themselves, keeping out anybody not in the circle of access. Many juniors are left wondering why they never hear from their seniors of trainings or foreign trips until it is too late. Many accountants are left wondering how an officer sitting in his office the whole week just made a travel claim of countless ngultrums. Honest businessmen scratch their heads when fronting companies do well and get away under the nose of authority. Common people shake their heads in disbelief when infrastructure projects turn into expensive and rundown white elephants to be repeated over and over again. Even some of the new private media, claiming to represent our times, are thinly veiled money-making and flexible ventures, more worried about advertisement revenue and revealing pictures..

In its passage to democracy, Bhutan faces numerous challenges. Enshrining the right to information and providing a relatively open and secure environment for the media, are key among these.

Read full report here.