Observing anticorruption day

Here’s how I observed International Anticorruption Day yesterday:

One, I went through Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index report for 2011. Bhutan is rated 5.7 (10 means perceived to be very clean; 0 means very corrupt) and is ranked a decent 38 out of the 182 countries and territories that were studied. Bhutan’s rating of 5.7 remains unchanged from the 2010 corruption perception levels. Not bad, but we can, and must, do better.

Two, I tuned in to see BBS’s live debate on the topic “Is Bhutan doing enough in fighting corruption?” The debate, which was organised jointly with IMS, had six panelists, all honourable members of the Parliament. The debate would have been a lot more meaningful if the panelists were chosen to defend two different sides of the motion – one team contending that Bhutan is doing enough to fight corruption; the other arguing that Bhutan is not doing enough.

Three, I closed my poll that asked “Is ACC taking too long to start investigating the Gyelpozhing land case?” The big majority – 300 of the 352 who took the poll – answered “yes” the ACC is taking too long.

Four, I drafted a letter to the ACC encouraging them to investigate and resolve the Gyelpozhing land case as soon as possible. The case is significant as it raises serious questions on the conduct of our senior-most public officials, many of whom hold powerful offices. Did they, for example, violate laws in the way that land was acquired and distributed? And was conflict of interest standards compromised by senior officials who applied for and received land?

Five, I drafted a letter to the Royal Audit Authority requesting them for a copy of their report on the special investigations that they carried out on the lottery operations. I had asked for the report in June this year, but was denied it. I’m hopeful that, for the sake of transparency and accountability, the RAA is now prepared to make the report public.

Lottery issues

Last year, on 29th September, I wrote that media reports about Bhutan’s role in the Indian lottery scam screamed for answers.

On 11th October 2010, I wrote that the government needed to answer certain pressing questions regarding its dealings with Bhutan’s lottery agent in India.

On 14th November 2010, I suggested that, instead of pulling out of the lottery business, the government should use lottery proceeds to fund public service broadcasting.

On 30th November 2010, during the National Assembly’s question hour, I asked the Finance Minister to explain what the government had done to investigate the alleged violations in the appointment of Bhutan’s lottery agent in India, and the alleged violations by that agent.

On 22nd June 2011, I observed that the government’s decision to close lottery operations in India and, thereby, forgo revenue estimated at Nu 200 million per year was not a good idea.

Sometime in June 2011, the Royal Audit Authority issued a special report on the lottery operations. I requested the RAA for a copy of that report, but was denied one, as the RAA was still waiting for the government’s responses to their observations.

Also in June 2011, a month after the government cancelled the contract with their lottery agent in India, the Directorate of Lottery approached that agent to sponsor a local golf tournament.

And on 23rd August 2011, the cabinet issued a press release announcing it decision that “moral responsibility and accountability must be fixed”, and that “… it will finally do away with the Lottery operations altogether.”

I welcome the government’s decision to fix moral responsibility and accountability. It means that the government has accepted that violations did take place in the way Bhutan’s lottery operations were handled.

But who will accept moral responsibility? And who will be held accountable for the alleged violations in the lottery business?

The lottery director has resigned. But not because he admitted doing any wrong. It appears he resigned because the government had announced that “… it is washing its hands off from the lottery business.”

The government has shut down the Directorate of Lottery. But it has done so because of its decision to halt lottery operations. That’s why the government has announced that the staff will be transferred to other agencies.

So as of now, no one has accepted moral responsibility for violations that seem to have taken place in the lottery business. And no one has been held accountable, in spite of the fact that the government apparently lost billions of Ngultrums in the way the lottery operations were handled. And in spite of the fact that, even after the contract with the government’s lottery agent in India was terminated, that agent was asked to sponsor a golf tournament in Bhutan.

To make matters worse, the government has decided to terminate all lottery operations because it now views the business as “no less than gambling”.

The lottery scam screamed for answers. But the government’s decision to terminate Bhutan’s lottery operations is the worst possible outcome – it provides no answers, while depriving the exchequer of much needed revenue.

While no answers have yet been provided, while no one has yet been implicated, and while no one has yet taken moral responsibility, the government has already terminated the lottery business, and in doing so, forfeited potentially billions of Ngultrums of national revenue, money which could have been used to finance kidu and relief, public service broadcasting, sports or the activities of NGOs.

So the government must reverse its decision to terminate lottery operations. Otherwise it will be held responsible for squandering millions – perhaps even billions – of Ngultrums that belong to the people of Bhutan.

And the government must, without further delay, fulfill its promise to fix moral responsibility and accountability on those involved in the lottery scam.

Lottery questions

During Question Hour yesterday, I asked the finance minister two straightforward questions:

“What action has the Royal Government taken to investigate alleged violations by Bhutan’s lottery agent in India?”

“What action has the Royal Government taken to investigate alleged violations in the manner the lottery agent was appointed and reappointed?”

The finance minister’s reply was a long-winded narrative about the history of Bhutan lottery. And an elaborate recount of how the government selected their lottery agent, and how, later, reduced that agent’s contractual obligations.

But the finance minister did not answer the question: has the government investigated the alleged violations? That would mean that they haven’t. If so, I am surprised.

I’m surprised because the scale of the allegations is huge, even by Indian standards. By now, the government should have summoned their lottery agent and demanded explanations. And they should have conducted a thorough audit of the government’s lottery offices, at home and in India.

I’m also surprised because, left unchecked, the allegations can seriously undermine the government’s policy of “zero tolerance to corruption.”

It’s time to take the matter up with the Anti-Corruption Commission.

Funding BBS

BBS News

The Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy and the BBS recently got together last week to organize a seminar on the nature and role of public service broadcasting in Bhutan.

The two-day seminar, which was meant to discuss public service media and broadcasting in general, generated a good deal of attention on the way BBS is organized and run. Such scrutiny is good for BBS’s health. In fact, it is vital, especially if the Kingdom’s oldest and main broadcaster is to achieve its vision of becoming “A trusted public service broadcaster of international standing …”

The BBS was delinked from the government and established as an autonomous corporation by royal decree on 1st October 1992. But after the introduction of parliamentary democracy, it’s role, vis-à-vis the government, has come under question.

So the seminar was timely. And its main recommendation – to include public service broadcasting in the BICMA Act, or to even develop separate legislation for it – should be taken seriously.

But what’s more important is to clarify where BBS stands. Is it a public service broadcaster? Or is it a government broadcaster?

The government has openly criticized the BBS’s coverage of its activities. The National Assembly has discussed the BBS’s mandate and powers on several occasions. And the speaker of the National Assembly has asserted that BBS must obey the government as they are owned and financed by it.

We should not be surprised. BBS is financed by the government. So the government and the ruling party may feel that they must question how the organization is run. The incentive to do so will come from BBS’s considerable influence – a media impact study has determined that BBS radio has the biggest reach, followed by BBS TV.

The BBS can never be independent as long as it has to depend on the government for funds each and every year. And its vision to become a “trusted public service broadcaster” will remain just that – a vision.

If BBS is to become a true public service broadcaster, it must be able to function with editorial and organizational independence, free from political and commercial interference. To achieve that, the first and most important step, is to create an adequate and sustainable source of financing, one that does not depend on the mood of politicians or businesses.

What BBS needs is an independent fund for public service broadcasting. And the government can easily establish one. The prime minister has recently said that the lottery business is “unethical and not in conformity with the GNH values” and that members of the cabinet “aren’t in support of this government or Bhutan being involved in the business of lottery.”

The government should not stop its lottery business. Instead, it should clean it up. And, use the proceeds from the business for an important cause: to make BBS “A trusted public service broadcaster of international standing …”