Who killed the private media?

Who’s the hangman?

The World Press Freedom report is out. Bhutan’s position has improved significantly to 80 from 94 from last year. Bhutan’s overall position has also improved during my tenure in government, from 92 to 80.

So I’m happy.

But I’m not happy about the state of our private media. In the two years leading up to the start of parliamentary democracy, private media thrived and continued to grow for a few more years. At one time, we had 11 private newspapers!

Then, gradually, private newspapers started shutting down. Bhutan Observer was the first to fold. They were followed by Druk Neytshuel, Bhutan Youth, Druk Melong and Druk Yoedzer in quick order.

So today we have only six private newspapers: Bhutan Times, Bhutan Today, Business Bhutan, The Journalist, Gyalchi Sarshog and The Bhutanese. Of these, Bhutan Times, a mighty paper during its heyday a decade ago, has been reduced to a sorry shadow of its former self. And The Journalist, Gaychi Sarshog and Bhutan Today are doing even worse – they are barely surviving.

So who killed the private media? The culprit is Kuensel.

Kuensel, a state-owned enterprise, has used its deep pockets, endless resources and strong connections to the government to drive private newspapers out of business. And they are continuing to do so.

The irony is that Kuensel recently ran an editorial, pointing out that the problem with state enterprises is that, they benefit from “favorable treatment” in the form of “subsidies preferential regulatory treatment and even state-backed guarantees”. The editorial went on to suggest that government should not engage in businesses that the private sector is capable of providing.

I agree with Kuensel, notwithstanding the SOEs I defended in my previous post.

But I wonder if Kuensel would be ready to practice what they preach. I wonder if they would be willing to let go of the unfair advantages and privileges that they themselves enjoy as a state enterprise. I wonder if they would be willing to heed their own advice to provide a level playing ground for their private counterparts.

If they are, then good, let’s get cracking – there’s a lot of work to do. If they are not, then they would reek of hypocrisy, a hypocrisy of the highest order that emanates from outright arrogance.

Kuensel profits immensely as a state enterprise. This gives them an insurmountable advantage over private newspapers … and over printing presses, photo studios, publishing houses, Dzongkha translators, stationery shops and IT vendors.

Here’s how Kuensel profits as a state enterprise (most of the information is from the Royal Securities Exchange website):

  • 51% of the company is owned by the government. And that is not counting other government agencies, like the NPPF, that also own chunks of the company.
  • The land they sit on belongs to the government. Kuensel is the only newspaper enjoying government land on lease.
  • Their branch in Kanglung was established with subsidies from the government, including for, but not limited to, land, building and expensive printing equipment.
  • Their vehicles are subsidized by the government, and carry government license plates giving them undue advantages during travel and when seeking access.
  • Their printing department is their biggest source of revenue earning them a whopping Nu 83 million in 2017. Their main printing press, a Heidelberg offset printing machine, was purchased by the government. Private printing presses cannot compete as they need to buy their own machines, and are subject to government procurement procedures which Kuensel can bypass.
  • Advertisements is their second biggest earner, bringing in revenue of Nu 77 million in 2017. Most of this is government advertisements. And the amount of advertisements that they get is not funny – open any of their papers, including yesterday’s, and you’ll see more announcements and advertisements than news stories!
  • Stationery is their third biggest earner, making Nu 34 million in 2017. Again, most of their customers are government offices who place direct orders.
  • Additionally, they made Nu 7.3 million in 2017 by providing services related to photos, dzongkha translation, book publication, retail sales and IT. All these services are in direct competition with private businesses.
  • Kuensel’s total income for 2017 was Nu 214 million, of which Nu 77 million was paid as remuneration and benefits for their employees. Even so, at the end of the year they had Nu 47 million in their bank and had receivables totaling Nu 116 million.

This is gigantic, considering that their competition in the private sector are living from hand to mouth at best. In reality, most of them are in the deep red. And left unchecked, Kuensel will drive more private newspapers out of business.

So how to bell this cat?

First BICMA must ensure a level playing field. They must make sure that Kuensel does not continue to enjoy undue support and privileges from the government that undermine the growth of the private media.

Next, a special audit must be carried out, not by outside firms as has been the practice, but by the Royal Audit Authority. The special audit must go beyond the financials to cover the performance of the company and its effect on the private sector.

After the audit, the government must give serious thought to pulling out of Kuensel. At the very least, they must ensure that Kuensel stops competing with private businesses by providing services in the areas of printing, stationery, photography, translation, retail and IT. Instead, they should be required to stick to their core mandate of reporting news. More importantly, the government should distribute their advertisements among all newspapers, and more equitably, to address their own concerns regarding state-owned enterprises, if for nothing else.

As for me, I know that I should have done a lot more to improve the media landscape, especially in the private sector, during my tenure in the government. I regret that I could not and did not. That said, I will continue to support a free and fair media.

So I offer my services to the private media if they feel that they are unfairly constrained by Kuensel. I will take their case up with BICMA, the government, lawmakers, and, if needed, with the judiciary.

Similarly, I offer my services to private businesses if they feel that Kuensel is receiving and taking undue advantage. I will take up their case with the government and, if needed, the judiciary.

And I offer my services to Kuensel employees if they feel that there are corrupt practices in their organization. I will protect their identity, but will take up their cases with the Anticorruption Commission.

In 2010 I posed a question. It turns out that several readers guessed the identity of the hooded hangman. But the same scenario continues to unfold today, with Kuensel as both the unknown hangman and the one applauding the death of private newspapers.

We need to join hands to rein in Kuensel. Otherwise, the killing spree of private newspapers will continue.



“We have emerged stronger”

Kuensel recently interviewed me. Their piece is reproduced below:

 How have you grown since the time you became the country’s first opposition leader and today as you exit your first five-year term?

It’s not for me to say whether I’ve grown or not in the past five years. I certainly hope I’ve grown. But that’s for my family and, more importantly, the people to judge. What I can say is that I have learnt a lot in the past five years. I have had the opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life – the poor and the rich, the young and old, farmers and businessmen, monks and students, soldiers, teachers and countless other public servants. I have been able to listen to them and to learn of their deepest hopes and aspirations. And that has been an extremely enriching experience. On democracy, I have learnt that it is hard work, that it is not free, and that the most difficult part of democracy is the exercise of checks and balances. In this context, PDP has had the difficult yet distinguished responsibility of serving as the Kingdom’s first opposition party.

You have been very critical of the government’s performance in a number of areas. Any area you feel the government did do well and deserves credit?

The transition to democracy has largely been stable and peaceful. For this, the government must be given due credit. However, this transition would never have been possible without the complete support and constant guidance of His Majesty the King. Furthermore, the government could have done a better job in strengthening democratic institutions and in minimizing the anxiety levels that our people have sometimes been subjected to.

One area in which the government failed badly?

The government has failed to inculcate a healthy respect for the rule of law. Some times, the government threatened to amend laws, including the Constitution, to suit their narrow, immediate purposes. At other times, they themselves blatantly violated the rule of law, like when they imposed taxes unconstitutionally. That led to the first constitutional case which they eventually lost. What followed was unprecedented – the government was made to return the taxes that they had collected unlawfully.

Another important area where the government failed is the economy. The economy has become extremely vulnerable with debts rising and short-term Rupee borrowings spiralling out of control. At this rate, we are heading towards an economic crisis, a crisis that will undo the benefits of decades of hardwork and subject the country and people to unimaginable hardship.

Some political pundits indicated 2013 election is more about who will become the opposition…

I hope the political pundits are wrong. If the pundits are right, and if the 2013 elections is only about who will become the opposition, it would mean that DPT is invincible and will form the government again. Such a foregone conclusion would also mean that democratic choice would be undermined. Therefore, it becomes crucial for all of us, including the political pundits themselves, to support the other parties so that they can offer credible alternatives and healthy competition.

Some former PDP candidates and members said they were hardly consulted while opposition played its role and that the party should have been regrouped years ago than now. What happened?

The opposition party has just two members in the Parliament. As such, we have had to work extremely hard during the past five years, especially since the very idea of an opposition was nonexistent until then. It is hard to imagine that anyone associated with PDP, including our former candidates, would be upset if the opposition were able to play its role successfully. As far as the two opposition party members are concerned, we have actively sought to consult any and everyone available, both inside and outside the party.

All of us agree that PDP should have regrouped years ago. But that is easier said than done. Our party was in shambles. The president had resigned taking moral responsibility for the 2008 loss, and the party was burdened with huge financial debts. Added to that, many candidates resigned, some for professional reasons, some to form a new political party. It was testing time for the party, but we have not just overcome our difficulties, we have emerged stronger and are now well-positioned for the coming elections.

You made many remarks on the Rupee issue the country continues to reel under. Had your role reversed to play the government, how would you address the issue?

I raised the Rupee issue way back in 2009. Since then, the opposition party has consistently raised the issue in the Parliament. Today, even though we have a full-blown Rupee crisis, one that is holding our economy at ransom, the government still has not admitted that we have a problem. Any other government would have understood that our economy is small, that imports exceed exports, and that, as such, foreign currency, Especially the Rupee, must be managed very carefully. Past governments, in which many of the current ministers also served, were acutely aware of this and ensured that shortfall of Rupee never assumed critical proportions. So I, like many others, am extremely disappointed that the DPT government has failed to prevent this crisis.

What would we have done if we were in the government? We would have exercised caution right from the start. We would have monitored the economy carefully and ensured that trade imbalances did not spiral out of control. We would have reined in exessive government spending, while making sure that agriculture, services, manufacturing and small businesses thrived throughout the length and breadth of our country. In short, we would have made doing business in Bhutan easy and enjoyable. So a Rupee crisis would never have occurred under our watch. But if it did, we would have accepted the problem, studied it, and addressed it head on.

Five political parties this year. Where does PDP stand?

That is for the people to decide. On our part, we will work hard and work honestly; we will leave no stone unturned to provide a credible alternative; we will serve to fulfill the promise of democracy and the hopes and aspirations of our people.

Your priorities if PDP came to power…

If PDP comes to power, our first priority, like that of any other party that comes to power, would be to undo the damages done by DPT. Government expenditure has been excessive. Our economy is in a mess. Doing business is cumbersome. Youth unemployment is rife. Poverty is still very visible. Agricultural production is dismal. Education quality is an issue. Roads, especially farm roads, are in urgent need of repair and reconstruction. Corruption hasn’t been tackled boldly. Private media has been weakened.

Given the opportunity, PDP would strengthen democratic institutions, and devolve power and authority from the centre so people can enjoy the blessings of liberty, equality and prosperity. That’s what PDP’s ideology, Wangtse-Chhirphel, is all about. That’s why PDP promises Power to the People.

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:

Walk out

I’ve walked out of the National Assembly hall on many occasions. Mostly, they have been to visit the men’s room. And occasionally, to retrieve documents or to consult experts on issues being discussed in the hall.

But I’ve never walked out in protest.

So I was surprised when, six months ago, Kuensel took note when I left my seat:

The opposition leader left the hall before the end of the budget report discussions, which hurried to a close, once the chapter on the rationalisation of taxes was done with.

And I was surprised when, ten days ago, Kuensel again drew attention to my temporary departure from the hall:

After the debate, when the house geared to proceed with the bill amendment maintaining the previous clause, the opposition leader was seen to leave the house, followed by the opposition member Damchoe [sic] Dorji.

Yes, I did leave the hall on both occasions. But, no, they were not in protest – I was not being disrespectful or disobedient. And it was wrong for Kuensel to imply that I was.

I expect to walk out of the National Assembly hall on many more occasions. They’ll mostly be to visit the men’s room, to retrieve documents or to consult experts. But in the unlikely event that I ever walk out in protest, I’ll do so deliberately – I’ll make it obvious. That, after all, would be the whole idea.

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!

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.

Drawing from cartoons


"Boys, keep your earplugs secured"

I quite enjoyed Kuensel’s cartoon yesterday. Wangchuk, the artist, drew our eleven cabinet ministers huddled together, all of them smug and happy, and each clutching his Nu 2 million Constituency Development Grant.

The caricatures are so accurate that all eleven ministers are immediately recognizable, even at a first quick glance. And readers are already talking about which minister is most faithfully represented in the cartoon. In my opinion, almost all the ministers are drawn well. But five are simply outstanding. They are Lyonpo Nandalal, Lyonpo Minjur, Lyonpo Thakur Singh, and Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering. Yes, even Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering though only half his head is visible.

At the upper-right corner of the cartoon is a single man, clad in orange, and wearing a look that appears to be a cross between disgust and hopelessness. He, I think, is meant to be the NC Chairman.

And at the lower-right corner is a wild man yelling “Unfair! Unconstitutional!” to the ministers. But his raving and ranting is lost to the ministers, because all of them sport ear muffs. This crazy man is meant to be me. But most people I’ve spoken with say that, unlike the ministers, I’m not readily recognizable. Even I agree!

I’m surprised that Wangchuk didn’t come up with a funnier me. I thought that my oversized head, short hair, generous forehead, distinct cheekbones, chinky eyes, horn rimmed spectacles and massive jaws would make for easy caricature.

But, all in all, I really liked Wangchuk’s cartoon. He’s good. And here’s something I heard from his cousin today: Wangchuk was given only two hours to come up with the cartoon. Not bad.