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.

Headline news!

The latest comment on my post about the prime minister’s office influencing Bhutan Today was by “mediawatch” who challenged:

Mr OL You got to do some explaining here! We are not convinced. TR has given his explanation and made his stand clear. Now Mr OL you need to put a brave face and give your reasons. otherwise we are going to take this as one of your several political gimmicks!

And the comment before that was by “Guest” who pleaded:

I am still pleading with the OL to explain to me how he sees that issue which escapes me totally. My request is genuine.

If Bhutan Today wishes to publish the cabinet’s press releases as their own stories, so be it. I may not agree with them. But I wouldn’t be overly concerned either. After all, we must remember that Bhutan Today was established barely 14 months ago, and that they were the first daily newspaper. So if, in order to meet their daily deadlines, they cut a few corners, I am not about to complain.

I would, however, be concerned if the prime minister’s press officer started influencing Bhutan Today. And very concerned if the PM’s press officer was associated with Bhutan Today when they published the cabinet’s press releases as their own stories. That, unfortunately, is what seems to have happened.

Tenzin Rigden, the PM’s press officer, has admitted in a letter that he “helped” Bhutan Today. And that he had helped “…with story headlines, captions and the design as well”.

Story headlines! The PM’s press officer says he helped Bhutan Today with their story headlines!

It’s no wonder that two journalists – one from Bhutan Observer, the other from Business Bhutan – asked me, on separate occasions, what I thought about Tenzin Rigden editing stories in Bhutan Today.

But for some odd reason, both the papers have decided not to publish what they told me was headline news.

Controlling influence

There’s something strange going on.

I have already expressed my concerns that the prime minister’s office may be influencing the media. But what has recently been happening is worse: one newspaper, Bhutan Today, has started carrying every press release that comes out of the prime minister’s office as their own story, word for word, but with their own byline.

Compare the following stories:

My concern is no longer that the prime minister’s office may be influencing a newspaper. I’m now concerned that they could be controlling Bhutan Today.

There’s something dangerous going on. And I’m writing to BICMA about it.

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!