Public resources control media?

About four months ago, on 28 April, The Bhutanese complained in their editorial that the government was increasingly “using their advertisement revenue to ‘fix’ critical papers …”

Last Saturday, Business Bhutan published a copy of a circular, marked “confidential”, directing all departments within the Ministry of Information and Communication “not to provide any advertisement, announcement, notification, circular, etc” to The Bhutanese. The letter, dated 2 April, was issued at the instruction of the Minister.

Lyonpo Nandalal Rai, the minister of information and communications, has clarified that the circular was a result of miscommunication; that he had meant “Bhutanese media”, not “The Bhutanese”; and that he had withdrawn the circular as soon as he had seen the error.

Lyonpo Nandalal Rai’s clarification is welcome. But it seems unlikely. And, anyway, it is not sufficient. He should answer why he would have wanted to issue a blanket ban on all advertisements, announcements, notifications and circulars in all the media houses – print, radio and television – in the first place.

He should produce the office order withdrawing the circular in question.

And he should explain why government advertisements, announcements, notifications and circulars in The Bhutanese have fallen, and fallen drastically, since April.

The latest issue of The Bhutanese, for example, printed on Saturday, 11 August, carried just three notifications (two by Bank of Bhutan; one by Bhutan Power Corporation) and one message (by DHI). There was nothing – no advertisement, no announcement, no notification, no circular – by any of the government agencies.

Compare that with the Saturday, 11 August issue of Kuensel which carried more than 10 notifications (by National Assembly, ECB, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, RBP, Ministry of Agriculture, Tsirang Dzongkhang Administration, Wangduephodrang Dzongkhag Administration, Samdrupjongkhar Thromde and STCB) and more than 10 announcements (by Druk Air, RAA, BNB, DGPC, NPPF, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Mangdechhu Hydropower Project and RBP). Most of these notifications and announcements were made by government agencies.

In terms of content, The Bhutanese wrote 15 articles and, for comparison, Kuensel wrote 17 articles in their 11 August issues.

But Kuensel enjoys a wider and bigger reader base – yes. Plus Kuensel is older, more established and would have a better marketing division – yes, yes and yes. Yet, the huge difference in advertisements between the two newspapers is too big to be explained just by these factors, especially since The Bhutanese also enjoyed much bigger government advertisements only a few months ago.

Is the government misusing public resources to control the media? It certainly looks like it. And if that is the case, we cannot allow it. But what can we do? To start with, we can take a closer look at the newspapers. We can study the contents of the newspapers, and scrutinize all government advertisements, announcements, notifications and circulars.

That way, the government will know that we know if and when they misuse public resources to control the media.

Here’s a copy of the MOIC circular that appeared in Business Bhutan: