Media wars…

Published on Jan 08 2010 // Media Monitor
By Tshering Tobgay

Mass media in Bhutan has enjoyed exceptional growth recently. During the last four years, five new newspapers – all privately owned – started operations in quick succession.  Bhutan Times, Bhutan Observer, Bhutan Today, Business Bhutan and The Journalist hit the newsstands on 30 April 2006, 2 June 2006, 30 October 2008, 26 September 2009 and 20 December 2009 respectively. Till then Kuensel, which started as a government bulletin in 1967, was our country’s only newspaper.

Our airwaves have also seen rapid growth. Beginning with Kuzoo FM, which started operations in September 2006, three other private radio stations (Radio Valley, Centennial Radio and Sherubtse FM) have joined BBS Radio, which enjoyed a monopoly since its inception in 1973.

Similarly, there’s been an unprecedented growth in other media forms. Books, magazines, websites, blogs, cinema, music, cable TV, and overall connectivity have all expanded tremendously offering consumers of information a wide array of choices.

So I’m happy to hear about the Government’s plans to hire professionals to audit the circulation figures and reach of the media. Such an exercise could produce valuable information of our news industry, and benefit every one – producers, advertisers, consumers and regulators of the media. And, that information could be used to strengthen our media.

However, I’m concerned that the “circulation audit” will be used to formulate an “advertisement policy” that would excessively favour government advertisements for media agencies having a bigger reach. Under normal circumstances that would be okay. In fact, under normal circumstances, that would have been required, as articulated by the Secretary of MOIC:

He said that the government had limited budget for advertising and could not afford to give the same advertisement in all the media. “Government organisations must plan advertisements and announcements through the year. We have six newspapers and the government can’t afford to give the same advertisement to all papers,” he said, adding that government organisations must behave like professional advertisers, to ensure that the message reaches the audience.

But, both Kuensel and BBS, the nation’s two biggest media firms, had a head start, and both of them benefited immensely from huge subsidies from the Government and donor agencies. In fact, BBS continues to be heavily subsidized by the Government. So, both Kuensel and BBS are way ahead of their respective competition.

The Government should indeed consider the circulation and reach of the media when formulating their “advertisement policy”. But, it should also consider the amount of subsidies that have already been given to Kuensel and BBS.

Otherwise we risk undoing all the good work of the last four years.

From the writer’s blog