Popular online forum bids farewell

Published on Oct 21 2011 // Media Monitor
By Gyalsten K Dorji

Technical glitches is the reason given for calling it a day

Bhutan Times website One of the country’s most popular and, at times, controversial online forum, the Bhutan Times (no relation to Bhutan Times weekly newspaper) is closing shop, according to a message on its website.

Instead of the usual listing of discussions and aggregated news, readers and contributors are currently being greeted by a farewell message upon visiting the forum website.

“Goodbye from The Bhutan Times,” begins the greeting message on the forum website. It attributes the closing to “technical difficulties, which it has been experiencing for nearly a month, and the absence of expertise to fix such issues”.

The message provides a rare and, perhaps, the only glimpse users will have of the team behind the website. Sticking to its culture of anonymity to the end, the message does not reveal any identities, but points out that there were four people behind the Bhutan Times team. The message adds that the departure of their most technically skilled member for Silicon Valley has caused the other three to call it quits, after more than seven years of operation.

The Bhutan Times online forum was established in 2004 to counter anti-Bhutan propaganda and information, particularly a website called Bhutan News Online, according to some early readers of the site. Bhutan Times offered contributors an opportunity to not only counter misinformation on Bhutan, but also to discuss and debate local issues. The website also had a lighter side to it by publishing local and “inside” jokes, according to some readers.

But ever since its creation, observers have been divided on the forum website’s purpose and impact.

Some have pointed out that its intention was merely a smear campaign against the country, by allowing malicious information to be posted online. Many Bhutanese have been subjected to personal attacks by anonymous users of the online forum. The forum website was even banned for a certain period in 2007 by government media watchdog, BICMA. But this ban was largely ineffective, with users bypassing the block by using proxy servers.

While almost any topic on Bhutan was allowed on the forum, moderators have been involved in removing posts and information that are culturally and politically insensitive to Bhutanese in general.

On the other side of the argument, observers say, the forum has aided in promoting freedom of expression, even if the information is not always true or cannot be verified.

The opposition leader, during a literary conference held earlier this year, even credited the PDP’s landslide defeat in the 2008 general elections to an anonymous user of the forum. The user conducted a sustained online attack campaign against PDP prior to elections.

In their farewell message, the anonymous persons behind the forum claimed a positive impact: “During that time we have helped to push the boundaries of social discussion in Bhutan, helped to create awareness of the issues that affect all of us, and in many more useful ways than we realize, allowed for the meeting of minds and the building of a shared consciousness at a national level.”

They add: “It’s a small contribution by the four of us, who share in common our good wishes and disposition to the Kingdom of Bhutan.”

From Kuensel