Truly shocking!

Bhutan Today’s headline this morning was shocking. “People living in miserable conditions: OL” it screamed.

Shocking! But not quite true.

The recent earthquake destroyed many houses. According to government reports more than 4000 houses have been damaged. So many people are unhappy. And they are frightened. And they are impatient. They want the authorities to finalize their insurance claims, so that they can start dismantling and rebuilding their homes before aftershocks inflict further damage to them.

In the meantime, people whose houses have been destroyed beyond repair or are no longer safe, are living in makeshift tents, in temporary huts, or in cowsheds. And many of them have moved in with their neighbours.

Naturally, their living conditions are difficult. But the indomitable spirit of our people, combined with their ability and willingness to come together in times of crises, have ensured that the earthquake victims do not have to live in “miserable conditions”. So to say that they are would be a gross exaggeration. And Bhutan Today should not sensationalize an already painful situation, especially when the OL cautioned them against doing just that.

That is what’s truly shocking!

Informing people

Thriving business

Today’s banner features 75-year old Jabari Dan Rai who hails from Dumtoe, a remote gewog in Samtse.

By seven every morning, this remarkably healthy septuagenarian arrives at the Lungtenampa bridge to distribute that day’s newspapers to pedestrians making their ways to school and work.

Bhutan’s media has come a long way. From very humble beginnings in 1967 when Kuensel was started as a government gazette, we now have at least 9 newspapers, 7 radio stations, a TV broadcaster and a growing number of new media sites.

Today’s banner is a simple way of expressing my gratitude to our media, especially our journalists, for working to make sure that the people shall be informed.

Happy World Press Freedom Day!

National speaker?

for broadcasting

Yesterday, members of the National Assembly met to discuss the preliminary agenda for the Assembly’s next session.

During the discussions, the members also considered if the entire proceedings of the National Assembly should once again be broadcast on live TV. After exchanging the same old arguments – from the need to promote transparency by those favoring live TV, to the importance of preventing the public from influencing legislative debate by those against live TV – the members passed the buck to their speaker.

The Constitution and the National Assembly Act both empower the Speaker to prevent the media from attending all or part of the Assembly’s proceedings. So the MPs reasoned that the Speaker alone must decide if the partial ban on live TV broadcast should be lifted.

They are correct. Article 10 Section 15 of the Constitution states that:

The proceedings of Parliament shall be conducted in public. However, the Speaker of the Chairperson may exclude the press and the public from all or any part of the proceedings if there is a compelling need to do so in the interests of public order, national security or any other situation, where publicity would seriously prejudice public interest.

I am hopeful that the Speaker will decide that live TV broadcast does not compromise public order or national security; that it does not prejudice the public interest; and that, in fact, it enhances transparency, accountability and the democratic process.

I am hopeful that the Speaker will allow the resumption live TV broadcast.

Playing the game

My post entitled “Playing the media” drew many responses. Two of them were from Tenzing Lamsang.

In his first response, Tenzing argues that “sources” play an important role in revealing crucial information, often by taking great risks. He writes that:

Investigative Journalism internationally has to rely on confidential sources and so is the case in Bhutan. In fact a good journalists job is to cultivate the right sources in the right places.

We should salute these brave sources whose courage and conscience have helped to clean up society to some extent and also spread transparency.

The very lack of a RTI Act, Whistleblowers Protection Act, in-transparent system, cultural shyness to the media and other factors make even mundane information be released as leaks.

I agree with Tenzing Lamsang. I agree with him one hundred per cent.

But there seems to be a slight confusion. My post did not question the use of sources. In fact, like Tenzing, I too applaud whistleblowers who expose wrongdoings, especially by those in positions of authority. And, like him, I too believe that it’s about time we enacted legislation to enable the right to information.

Three days later, Tenzing Lamsang left a second response, one that appears angry and in which he threatens to take me to court. Here’s the second response in its entirety:

First the Opposition leader should stop spinning facts his way. This is not the political arena where you can throw wild accusations at the government but here you are dealing with the reputation of a media professional and an individual and what you have posted again borders on defamation.

When you made the original post on the pay hike I had no problem expect with the fact that you questioned whether the information had been ‘stolen’. I was unhappy and called you in 2008 to ask you by what you meant by the particular phrase ‘Or are they being stolen’. You very clearly told me that you meant that weather it was stolen by some official and then given to me implying that an official had stolen it which anyhow was an incorrect assessment. As you now claim I did not make any justifications to you as in the first place I did nothing illegal and secondly I owe no explanation to you.

I was simply trying to handle in a civil way what others would consider defamation. I accept that you have not accused me of stealing documents but by even hinting that the information was stolen without any evidence it is irresponsible and dangerous especially coming from the opposition leader of the country.

However the damage of your post in 2008 was done and since then some of my detractors have assumed your post to be a fact and used it to spread this fiction of stolen documents.

Perhaps the right way to handle it would have been to resolve the issue in court at that time like you recently did with the government.

Stealing is what a common thief or criminal does and it is the basest and most vile act for which there are adequate provisions in the penal code.

You have once again raised questions over my entire body of work for whatever reasons by hinting that the pay hike information was stolen. Lazy armchair journalism is something I do not do. I make it a point to meet everyone and get information and follow the basic rules of ethical journalism combined with backbreaking hard work.

A whimsical and defamatory comment like yours backed without any truth or evidence will not do the credibility of the opposition leader any good.

Truth does not spread easily but whisper a lie and it spreads like wildfire doing its damage. Based on this lie a paper has done a cartoon which is in poor taste, devoid of reality, petty and foolish. In Bhutan as I have said before the biggest challenge at times is not the government but people including those in my own fraternity who use the pen at times like a butcher’s knife.

Next time around I will not take kindly to such accusations and logical steps will be taken accordingly.

I don’t know why he got so upset. All I can say is that “Playing the media” was not intended to be an attack on him. Nor was it an attack on his sources. What I found questionable – even unethical – was that the government was purposely leaking information with the intention of gauging public opinion.

The post was titled Playing the media for a good reason. “Playing” the media – get it? Here’s the excerpt from Tenzing Lamsang’s column that I quoted in that post:

Another similar incident occurred in early 2009 when another source shared information with me that the finance ministry was planning car taxes of up to 50%. The story was done. However, the ministry immediately issued a circular saying that there is no proposal for a car tax. The source later told me that there was in fact a proposal which MoF withdrew immediately at the time due to the negative reaction. The source confessed to me that the information was deliberately leaked to me so that public reaction could be gauged.

I reiterate: “Playing the media” was not about Tenzing Lamsang. I covered that quite clearly in “Investigating rewards?”

“Playing the media” was about certain questionable practices of the government. That’s why my post ends with:

The government should not play games with the media and, through it, with the public at large. Such games are silly at the best of times. But more often than naught, like the rumors of resignation that spread following the Supreme Court’s verdict, they can get dangerous.

Enough said. Let’s address the real issue. I’d like to hear from you: is it okay for the government to deliberately mislead the media by disguising and leaking proposals that are still under consideration as policies ready for implementation in order to gauge public reaction?

 

Social media and Bhutan

Social media was the subject of Bhutan’s attention on two occasions last month.

In one, the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy organized a conference to discuss “… the current social media scene in Bhutan and … how this can be used to benefit Bhutanese society.” The conference, which also provided “… a step by step guide to using Twitter and Facebook …”, took place on 29th and 30th March.

In the other, the government issued a circular pointing out that social media sites were “taking a toll on the productivity of the government machinery” and suggesting that social sites “… should be blocked in the office servers during the official working hours”. The circular, reproduced below, goes on to caution that “Measures adopted is to come into effect not later than 31st March, 2011.”


Playing the media

Back in 2008, Tenzing Lamsang, working with Kuensel at that time, wrote a series of stories about the impending pay hike for civil servants. His stories, based on information from unnamed “sources” in the government, added fuel to the wild rumors and speculation that were already rife throughout the country.

The government was obviously leaking information to the media. And that, I felt, was dangerous. So I felt compelled to write:

Kuensel’s Tenzing Lamsang is amazing. He’s done it again. He’s written yet another story almost entirely based on government “sources”. And he is thorough – his account is packed with names, dates, places, amounts and important quotes. He seems to know too many details about the confidential debate that the government has been having on the pay hike issue.

Our government is amazing. They’ve done it again. They’ve allowed classified government information to leak, including details of discussions in our highest decision making body, the Cabinet. Is classified information being leaked purposely? Or are they being stolen? If it’s the former, a dangerous game is being played. If it’s the latter, it’s dangerous, plain and simple.

Tenzing Lamsang called me several times after reading my post. He protested that he had not been fed information by the government; that he had not stolen information; and that he had not paid for any information. That’s why I later added that disclaimer at the end of my story.

So imagine my surprise when, last Saturday, I read what Tenzing Lamsang, now with Business Bhutan, had to say about sources:

Another similar incident occurred in early 2009 when another source shared information with me that the finance ministry was planning car taxes of up to 50%. The story was done. However, the ministry immediately issued a circular saying that there is no proposal for a car tax. The source later told me that there was in fact a proposal which MoF withdrew immediately at the time due to the negative reaction. The source confessed to me that the information was deliberately leaked to me so that public reaction could be gauged.

The government should not play games with the media and, through it, with the public at large. Such games are silly at the best of times. But more often than naught, like the rumors of resignation that spread following the Supreme Court’s verdict, they can get dangerous.

Secret agents

Friend or foe?

WikiLeaks: 38 of you said that WikiLeaks promotes transparency and accountability in government; 24 think that it threatens international relations and global security; and 6 readers either had made up their minds or didn’t know about WikiLeaks.

Thank you for taking the poll.

It’s important to think about WikiLeaks. And what the whistle-blowing phenomenon means for Bhutan. Drukpa, a monthly newsmagazine, asked me for my views and published them in their latest issue. My commentary in Drukpa follows:

Opinion over WikiLeaks is sharply divided. The whistle-blowing website has angered many governments. They claim that the indiscriminate release of secret information threatens international relations and global security. And they warn that it endangers the lives of innocent people. So they have aggressively sought to discredit WikiLeaks and its upstart founder, Julian Assange.

But others including journalists, activists and technologists, claim that WikiLeaks makes governments and corporations more transparent and accountable. They herald the organization as a champion of democracy and good government. And anonymous supporters of WikiLeaks have retaliated by attacking the websites of several agencies who have appeared to suppress the organization. [Continue Reading…]

2 Letters

I sent two letters today. The first letter was to the Chief Election Commissioner informing him that the ECB’s recent decision to revise the criteria for candidates to local governments may violate provisions of the Constitution, Election Act and the Local Government Act.

The second letter was to the Director of BICMA complaining that The Journalist had quoted me in their article when they hadn’t even interviewed me. And that, in that article, they had inaccurately claimed that I had supported the ECB’s decision.

Beware of mad dogs

Reporters Without Borders is a nongovernmental organization that fights for freedom of the press. Each year, Reporters Without Borders publishes the Press Freedom Index, an assessment and ranking of press freedom around the world.

In 2003, Reporters Without Borders ranked Bhutan’s press freedom record at a miserable 157 of the 166 countries they studied.

But since then, Bhutan’s record has improved consistently. In 2006 Bhutan was ranked 98 out of 168 countries. And for 2010, Bhutan is ranked 64 of 178 countries.

64th in the Press Freedom Index is not bad. We must protect our good record. And naturally, we must try to improve it.

So I was happy to learn about the Bhutan Media Dialogue that was organized last week “… to take an in-depth look at the concept of the Fourth Estate and what it means for Bhutan.” However, I was concerned that one of the two “veteran Asian journalist-scholars” guiding the discussions was from Singapore.

Why? Because Singapore’s press freedom ranking for 2010 was a dismal 136.

So I wasn’t surprised to read the following article, by Bhutan Today, cautioning against the ills of an “aggressive media”:

There’s no doubt that we can learn a lot from Singapore – hard work, discipline, organization and entrepreneurship are a few examples. And we must learn from their success. But given their record, they couldn’t tell us how to develop a vibrant media.

Incidentally, the other “veteran Asian journalist-scholar” was from Thailand, a country that was ranked 153 in the 2010 Press Freedom Index.

Students’ Digest

Good to digest

Finally! A magazine just for students! And about time too. After all, one in every three Bhutanese is a student. The magazine, Students’ Digest, a quarterly, was launched last month, befittingly on Children’s Day, the 11th of November.

Students’ Digest is a rich compilation of educational material for students, and their teachers and parents. From news, views and interviews to scholarships, jobs and study tips the magazine offers knowledge, entertainment and counsel to its readers.

I wish the Students’ Digest team well. Their success will be our students’ success.