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.


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  1. Tashi Gyeltshen says

    Why is it that we always bring in the wrong experts? And enamoured with foreigners? Almost everybody knows Singapore’s arm-twisting record with media and still we have “experts” from there telling us what to do, how to run our media? Is it possible for a caged bird to teach the art of flying. How about looking seriously at our own media assessment impact study being done by our lesser “experts” and take the recommendations seriously. After all the study is from the findings based on the survey on our own people. Policies are framed for the benefit of the people. People is the life of a nation. The government cannot bulldoze through their way. There must be an area of convergence (eg. the advertisement policy). People and stake holders must be involved. Otherwise who will police the police?

  2. Next time they should invite some veteran scholars from North Korea, China, Myanmar, and Iran!!

  3. To be frank Bhutan is one of the countries who always go after the consultants. Though these experts has nothing more to share than what our own people do, yet we give more appreciation to them.

    On the other hand our leaders too appreciate the recommendations made by the experts forgetting the ground realities tested by our own people there. This could be one area where we can save millions of dollar.

  4. Well, For me there are three ground rules for hiring or not hiring outside expertise.

    Rule 1: Outside expertise is absolutely required for ideas, technologies, development of novel methods such as designing medical or engineering curriculum, without which social-techno-economic development in Bhutan will suffer. Under this rule we must support Government even if it cost huge amount.

    Rule 2: Some expertise especially from Universities of advanced countries simply would like to share ideas, technologies etc. without cost to the recipient country. They simply want to learn and also teach, which to me is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Under this rule, we just encourage it, promote it and look for more such opportunities.

    Rule 3: The third categories of expertise–I simply call it junk or totally unnecessary. Example could be like someone who came as Yak expert but have never seen Yak before; Or someone who come, make our people work, and at the end compile our own ideas and present as if it is theirs. For this category of expertise I request the Government–forget it.


  5. Numerous of developmental activities in Bhutan are pioneered by absolutely inappropriate consultants and experts and it the trend continues despite the results we’ve reaped.

    Personally our own pool of experts, be it in any field, are given little or no opportunities whatsoever to further their skills. The attitude of higher rug of people who are power have this problem of believing in others more than to our own people (experts, educated, experienced whatever) and that scores of fund are wasted in hiring outsiders and foreigner to do something which our own people could have easily executed it.

  6. bhutan today seems to have swallowed everything the singapore consultants said.

  7. Sameer Jain says

    Very interesting and important issue. I have some strong opinion about this- shared below.

    I know that Singapore for many years is facing a dilemma with regards its avowed adherence to ‘western principles of freedom of the press’ and their prevailing policy environment of ‘constructive’ media role. I suspect something similar may be afoot in Bhutan too. In India we have this conversation too from time to time- but less. How a country’s medai policy reconciles conflicting claims from these realities will be a product of state constraints, constraints imposed by media’s ownership, and market constraints ( Yet media companies are after all, primarily a business. They have to think about the bottom-line figure in its balance sheets and operating statements).

    In Singapore, a free-speech corner has been provided by government. And yet it remains largely unused. For one thing, there is a ban on the use of microphones and music; and secondly, speakers have to have their topics officially approved first. The freedom of speech and expression, taken for granted in the West as a basic civil and political rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are subject to restrictions in this nation-state because, as Government officials point out, there are peculiar sensitivities due to Singapore’s history and heritage and there is need ‘to protect certain key values’ such as survival and progress. This differing view on the right to speech carries over to the matter of the freedom of the press and of broader media.

    Government conception of media’s role in society is seen as being ‘constructive’ rather than ‘adversarial’ in nature. Local media is seen as having a unique nation-building role’ in the multi-racial and multi-religious nation-state and that there was ‘need to have a deep sense of responsibility and commitment’. And by communicating government message across to people, it is claimed, support has been mustered for policies that brought progress and prosperity since its independence.

    That Singapore’s’ architects of an engineered society recognized the importance of media early on as a major social institution and used it without compunction to set in motion a different idea of how society works, are exactly the same reasons why, today, this emasculated institution does not have the sustained capacity to contribute and respond.

    Upon examination, the related freedoms here are of two parts: the first part being the right to impart information, to hold and express opinions without interference; the second part to seek, and receive information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. An instrumental justification of the freedom of speech focuses on the interests of the audience receiving the messages. And it is contention that this is to society’s benefit in the longer term because people, made aware of all possible arguments, will fully value the truth — which will tend to emerge from contending outlooks on an issue.

    But more importantly, in terms of governance, this will result in an informed citizenry, encourage debate and participation and enrich the quality of democracy. For these reasons, one would most probably be in favor of a press divided along partisan political lines. By giving voice to a democratically elected opposition party, a more open Press will help in discovering and shaping alternatives and keep the government on its toes. It does not follow that an adversarial process should end in total discord and disarray. Truth, or conformity with fact and reality, imbues stronger mandate to building consensus than half-truths and propaganda. But in allowing for this process, we need to see things in the political context of a country and recognize the historical fragile nature of some such as Bhutan’s or Vatican or Singapore’s etc.

    Now that it is a stable prosperous country, going forward, Singaporean society will benefit from a moderately adversarial press in the future. The reason why I say ‘moderately adversarial’ is that granted that the current Singaporean government is not wholly totalitarian (the Internal Security Act was used for the last 20 to 30 years against the ruling party’s opponents elected to the Parliament and to crack down on democratic activists who wanted to see more freedom and human rights take place in Singapore) there is always a danger of a future regime, which may act differently. The press would have an important role in countering totalitarianism.

    The press means many different things to me. It is not one holistic category. There is the responsible press, the yellow journalists, the paparazzi et al. They all have a part to play whether utilitarian or not. Indeed they exist when they have an audience else the free market system would not allow them to. And where does one draw the line again- in Dr. Zhivago, the movie, poetry was typified as a bourgeois indulgence and frowned upon for instance. For those espousing communist values it seemed to be a perfectly legitimate reaction. Not all people in Singapore similarly share the govt.’s perception or the majority values. Surely they deserve their say too. A free press allows their views to find voice and contribute to the development of quality public debate. Else with stifling of the minority voice Singapore would be so much the poorer.

    Media may be gossipy, sensationalist and may purvey nonsense but it is a personal right to decide for one what opinions to convey to and receive from others. The dangers of govt. influencing public opinion through sanctioning the press are too great. Influence and authority are very different things.

    Singaporean government is of the view that the press (and other media) shapes perceptions in society and because of the nation-building project, it makes it legitimate for them to seek to influence how the press, media and the performing arts do (or not do) this. To date publishing permits have to be renewed annually. Sexual content and scenes showing drug use are routinely removed from films shown in Singapore. But these tight controls have somehow boomeranged. The order of the global challenge is to find a new balance that ‘does not stifle creativity’.

    Yet this lighter stance towards media is less of a response to the clamor for more freedom of expression as a civil-political right than to economic imperatives. Singapore is looking to increasing information/media contribution to GDP but its reputation for a tightly controlled media has prevented the ICT industries from developing as rapidly as they should and has been discouraging content creators to base operations in Singapore.

    Government is not something faceless and abstract. It is made up of politicians and bureaucrats who are as mortal, who harbor opinions and prejudices as anyone else. It is for the press to explore, probe and agree or disagree in its editorial page with policy. This will allow people to form their own opinions. It is for government to influence those opinions but it is not for government to tell people what their opinions ‘ought’ to be in the first place.

    Both the readers of papers as well as the government have the right to express their opinion in a civilized democratic manner. Issues are played out in the Parliament and in society. I feel that democratically elected politicians do not have exclusive preserve on what people should want and neither does the press. In any vibrant democracy the press and the government and public opinion should be formed dynamically. However, the dangers of government influencing public opinion through sanctioning the press and other forms of media are too great. Influence and control are very different things.

    I can empathize with politicians in some measure for in most things in life there are natural boundaries and limits. We can only agree with him in that the press should not harm innocent people, undermine the moral authority of leaders, or damage regard for institutions. And in this context where is the frontier? Absolute rights of expression, while at the heart of freedom do not contribute to making the task of running a nation state easier. The government needs to strike the right balance to do justice to very different constituencies. And its stance on an issue will always be suboptimal from a certain vantage point.

    How free a press should be ought also in part to be a function of the state of literacy in a country. Press should be held accountable for misstating facts. There is little to be said for accountability of opinion. Indeed one should not be held ‘accountable’ for opinion. I would opine that a society that is highly literate would be able to tolerate greater levels of dissent in opinion and contradictory view points. Perhaps that is why the Western press is more open and free without any obvious bad consequences – until we see the WikiLeaks episode . There is considerable merit in Singaporean govt. appeal to the press to help shape consensus politics given Confucius values in Singapore. Having said this there is also a danger. Even Confucian moral authority can never be forever sacred. People and institutions who exercise authority can run amuck. It is in those times that the press serves as vox populi.

  8. it’s a pity none of the newspapers are raising this concern, or writing about it, least of all kuensel, so-called bhutan’s leading newspaper, it’s such a shame! they’ll not raise noise even when their very tongues are about to be cut off, severed, right under their noses. i guess you need heart to do that kind of thing. in fact kuensel don’t ever raise any issues these days. all lame duck editorials and stories. singaporean form of journalism is the last thing bhutanese reporters would wish, it’s the last nail in their coffin, they don’t know it yet. and moic secretary, it’s sad to know, is wasting no time at all to make sure that bhutanese media becomes nothing more than a government fiddle/instrument. such a sad sad turn of events. god help the bhutanese media!

  9. mediawatch says

    In a very impressive and detail article (above) Sameer Jain has written copiously of the Singaporean example and the idealistic media situation that must ultimately thrive.

    Media’s growth and development in Bhutan is new. It has all the good and bad examples to learn from – the control imposed on freedom of speech and press north of its border in China and a proliferation of a breed of bold, sensational, and commercial media south of the border in India. And then of course, we have the western colonization of ideas on what media is or should be.

    Amidst the bombardment of conflicting situations, Bhutanese media must find its own narrative. What is a Bhutanese media? What are the characteristics of a Bhutanese media? How do we know Bhutanese media is not like any other media in the region or in the world? Do we need a unique Bhutanese media? And who will define what a Bhutanese must be?

    Media in Bhutan need to honestly engage in soul searching. The young media industry is run by a young pool of professionals, most of them are not even trained and are learning on the job. The media institutions mostly complain of lack of resources – both financial and infrastructure – and also hint that government must come to its rescue.

    How can the government help to create a vibrant media and an enabling environment for the media to thrive? That is without any extra baggage of control, influence, or unnecessary interference.

    Independence of media must be sacrosanct. But there must be mechanisms to ensure that independence and freedom is practiced with a sense of responsibility. Can the media become ‘mad dogs’ ‘lap dogs’ or ‘poodles’?

    Media politics too is increasingly becoming apparent by the day. There is a danger in it. When a nexus will be formed between the powerful and the media, this would be the end of the freedom of press in Bhutan. And given the situation most private media are in today, perhaps, this may not take long!

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