Media wars

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.

Remote control

So, BBS has not been permitted to broadcast live coverage of most of the proceedings of the fourth session of the National Assembly. Only the opening and closing ceremonies, and the discussions on the Anticorruption Commission’s annual report will be broadcast live. This is how it was in the National Assembly’s third session. And, like then, I am still concerned that the independence and freedom of the nation’s only TV station is being compromised.

But what I recently read in the Kuensel got me even more concerned. BBS’s general manager was quoted as saying: “MoIC wants us to submit a proposal for NA coverage and we did it.” The article goes on to state that the BBS “…are yet to hear from the ministry.”

BBS should be regulated by BICMA, not MOIC. And, BBS should be managed by its Board of Directors, not by MOIC.

Year old paper

A year ago, on 30th October 2008, the media industry in Bhutan raised their standards considerably. On that day, the print media gave us our first daily newspaper. What’s surprising is that that newspaper was Bhutan Today, then the newest paper in town.

What’s amazing is that Bhutan Today has pulled it off. Since launching their first issue on the 30th of October, they have managed to produce a newspaper every day, without fail, throughout the last year. The paper is still simple, but the fact is that they come out every single day.

The fact is also that Bhutan Today probably forced Kuensel, Bhutan’s oldest paper, to go daily as well. Kuensel, which was founded on 1967, was a bi-weekly when Bhutan Today first hit the newsstands. Kuensel, incidentally, does not produce a paper on Sunday, so – technically speaking – they are still not a true daily.

I congratulate the Bhutan Today team for a job well done, and wish them more success in their next year. Tashi delek!

Good news

Shortly after the editor and six reporters had collectively and suddenly resigned from Bhutan Times, Wangcha Sangey, the Chairman and CEO of the newspaper, promised that he would not disappoint his readers.  And, true to his word, he has not disappointed. In the barely two days since the mass resignations, he, with help from K4 Media, has turned out a 32-page newspaper that is actually better than some of its previous issues.

Troubled Times

Weak week

Weak week

On 30th April 2006, Volume I, Issue 1 of the Bhutan Times hit the newsstands. If you have that first issue, treasure it. Bhutan Times was, at that time, only the second newspaper in our country. It was started by Tenzin Rigden and Tashi P. Wangdi as Bhutan’s first privately owned newspaper. So that first issue will always represent the emergence of a vibrant private media in our country.

Yesterday, journalists at the Bhutan Times resigned en masse protesting editorial interference by management. The collective resignation should seriously affect the newspaper’s credibility. And, its ability to publish its next issue, due this Sunday.  Except that other journalists – yes, fellow journalists – have decided to rescue the newspaper. Apparently, Tashi P. Wangdi , who co-founded Bhutan Times, and his team at K4 Media have agreed to produce editorial content for the newspaper.

Volume III, Issue 50 of the Bhutan Times could hit the newsstands on 25 October 2009. If it does, treasure it. That issue could mean that private media is much more vibrant than we realize. And that fact is worth celebrating, regardless of who is right – journalists or management.

Dealing with business

Serious business

Serious business

Two months ago, on the 6th of August, I was invited to hold an interesting press conference. About a dozen journalists, all belonging to one newspaper, grilled me for a good two hours. After my brief statement on the opposition party, they fired away rapid questions ranging from politics and business to media, my blog and my nickname, Massive. Our discussions that day were never published – the press conference was, in fact, a practice session. I suppose that was why we had so much fun.

But by last week, those very same journalists were no longer practicing. And on the 26th of September, they launched Business Bhutan, our country’s fifth newspaper.

Business Bhutan, a weekly, is Bhutan’s first financial paper. With two daily newspapers (Bhutan Today and Kuensel) and two weeklies (Bhutan Observer and Bhutan Times) already dominating the newsstands, I was afraid for Business Bhutan and their young journalists. No longer. Their first two issues tell me that they may already have the ability to deal successfully in a crowded news market. Business Bhutan’s initial successes also reconfirm my belief and confidence in our media.

Well done. Good luck. And tashi delek!

The photograph, by Lucky Wangmo, features the BB editorial team with an exhausted opposition leader after the August 6th practice session.

Stop press!

Good job

Press release

On 30th July, the media received a much-needed shot in the arm when, at the concluding ceremony of the third session of the Parliament, His Majesty the King underscored the importance of the media and commanded: “I appreciate that while some of the media agencies are young and lack adequate resources they have strived to perform their duties with complete commitment. Hereafter, media will be vital in keeping people well informed and in encouraging debate and participation – key to a vibrant democracy. Therefore, I have decided that through the exercise of my Royal Prerogative of Kidu, to strengthen media agencies so that they may carry out their duties, without fear or favour, in the interest of democracy.”

Yesterday, the media got another shot-in-the-arm. This time, it was self-help – the support came from the journalists themselves. And, what they did was launch the Thimphu Press Club.

I visited the club yesterday. It was late – almost nine o’clock – when I got there. And the official ceremonies to inaugurate the club, if there had been any, had, by then, evolved to a party. Journalists from the print media, TV and radio mingled freely with their well wishers – writers, artists, actors, musicians, and, naturally, politicians.

With overstuffed sofas in three separate lounges – each equipped with internet, TV and replicas of world famous paintings – it’s easy to see how the club will encourage our journalists to meet, discuss, debate, argue and fight over issues that they consider important. And to make sure that their members stay frequent, the club serves up a hearty, delicious fusion of Bhutanese and Indian food.

But, lest we forget the main purpose of the press club, i.e., to unwind after a hard day’s work, the centerpiece of the club is its bar. This is what will greet you as soon as you enter the ornate main door.

The press club is a first in terms of providing journalists the venue and the reason to meet regularly. This is good for our media. This also augurs well for the proposed association of journalists, work on which has already started.

The two unrelated events – His Majesty’s command and the opening of the press club – bode well for our media, the fourth estate. I’m happy. And to celebrate, I’m featuring journalists in our banner this week.

“…there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship (1891)

Double vision

The editorial in the Dzongkha edition of the Kuensel this morning confused me. The editorial denounced the National Council’s decision to legalize the sale of tobacco through high taxes. And, it called on the National Assembly to overturn the Council’s decision and endorse the Tobacco Control Bill.

Why was I confused? Because yesterday’s English edition of the Kuensel carried an editorial applauding the National Council’s decision to legalize the sale of tobacco products through high taxation policies.

Editorials represent a newspaper’s stand – their point of view – on important issues. So, obviously, a newspaper’s opinion on a particular issue, especially if conveyed in different languages, must be consistent. Otherwise, they risk confusing the reader. And, losing their credibility.

Turn on that switch!

The signal stops here

The signal stops here

It’s been one week since the National Assembly discontinued live TV coverage of its proceedings. And most of us have now resigned to the fact that the National Assembly’s discussions are not broadcast on live TV.

Not our villagers though. I still receive calls to appeal, on their behalf, for resumption of live coverage – on radio and TV – of the Assembly’s proceedings. Today, for instance, Tashi Gyeltshen telephoned me. Tashi is from remote Merak in Trashigang. And he’s a yak herder. He called to tell me that he wants to listen to the Assembly sessions on his radio. And, that he misses watching the sessions on live TV when he visits his gewog centre.

Incidentally, that TV set, complete with satellite dish and generator, was installed by the government to increase the public’s participation in the democratic process. In fact, every one of our 205 gewogs, including the remotest ones, were similarly equipped to allow our people to learn about and contribute to His Majesty the King’s vision of a vibrant democracy.

And then there are the BBS cameramen. Three of them are still stationed strategically, to cover every moment of the Assembly’s debates. They don’t sit. They can’t sit. They are on their feet, hours on end, operating their cameras that send live TV signals to the outdoor broadcasting van parked outside the Parliament. All that prevents the TV signals from going any further is the microwave transmitter switch in the OB Van.

Turn on that switch, and the TV signals would be instantaneously transmitted to the signal receiver tower in Sangaygang. From there, fibre optic cables would carry the signals to the BBS’s National TV Centre in Chubachu, where  the satelite earth station would beam them to INSAT4 A, an Indian satellite that BBS is allowed to use free of charge. That satellite would beam the signals right back to earth, and to Merak, where the live TV images would be received on their satellite dish. And, viewed by Tashi Gyeltshen the next time he visits his gewog centre.

On behalf of all the Tashi Gyeltshen’s in all our villages, I appeal to our honourable speaker and the members of parliament to allow the resumption of live TV and radio broadcast. And on behalf of the media I say: let BBS turn on that switch!

Wanted: live TV

The poll on the National Assembly’s decision to ban live TV coverage for most of its proceedings attracted considerable interest. But with 292 of the 315 participants (that’s 90% of them) disagreeing on the National Assembly’s recent decision, our readers’ views are clear. Only 23 voters (7%) supported the ban. And 10 people admitted that they really didn’t care.

The public outcry against the National Assembly’s decision is obvious. And I’m not just referring to our poll. BBS has shown many people, from various walks of life, all denouncing the restrictions imposed on BBS TV’s live broadcast. Yet, the National Assembly shows no sign of reconsidering its decision.

This is a very serious matter. And we cannot just ignore it. But what can be done? To begin with, write to your member of the National Assembly. Tell them that the ban is not good for democracy. And that you expect them to reconsider their decision.

The media also needs to do something. If they feel that the ban undermines free media, and that it is illegitimate, then they must demand that BBS be allowed to continue with the live telecast. And if their demands are not met, they should be ready to take the matter to the courts.

I’ll meet with the media to seek their views.

Our next poll is on the performance of our government. On the first day of the Parliament’s third session, our PM spoke extensively on the successes of the government. I wish to know what you think.