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circular was a result of miscommunication; that he had meant “Bhutanese media”, not “The Bhutanese”; and that he had withdrawn the circular as soon as he had seen the error.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:

Monkey business

Last Sunday’s cover page of The Journalist features a troup of loud monkeys goading a horse and a couple of cranes to continue pushing for state funding.

The dejected animals encircled by the rascals appear to complain:

“…. And No Matter What We Do Or How We Spin It, They Are Still Gonna See State Funding As Monkey Business”

The Journalist is right: no matter how you look at it, state funding for political parties is indeed monkey business.

But The Journalist is also wrong: the horse wants no part of the monkey business, so it should not be there.

The Constitution does not permit state funding for political parties – plain and simple. So there’s no point in arguing about the need for state funding. If state funding is needed – and needed critically – then first amend the laws. Otherwise, no matter how state funding is justified, it must ultimately be subjected to the laws of the land.

Now join the fun in jungles of our democracy…


BBS and the government

Enough protection?

Last week, Parliament authorized the government to review the mandate of BBS. I’m against the government meddling in BBS’s affairs. But our lawmakers feel that the country’s only TV station is underperforming. And that the government should intervene to give BBS vision and the means to achieve that vision.

So what’s the first move that the government makes? It directs BBS to go 24/7. And it does so without consulting anyone in BBS. Our national broadcaster struggles to generate sufficient content for the five hours it goes on air each day, and the government, unilaterally, directs BBS to broadcast round the clock. This directive does not augur well for television in Bhutan.

BBS is essentially a non-commercial public service broadcaster. So the state should subsidize its operations. How much? That, the government should decide.

But the government should not interfere in how BBS is run. That is the job of the Managing Director and the Board of Directors – ultimately they are the ones responsible for ensuring that BBS is able to inform, educate and entertain our people, and for protecting its editorial independence.

And that, precisely, was the reason why BBS was delinked from the government in the first place. The Royal Kasho establishing BBS as an autonomous corporation was issued way back on 18 September 1992. But its message is timeless. In fact, it’s even more relevant today. So, to remind ourselves, I’m reproducing the translation of that Royal Kasho: [Continue Reading…]

Digging deeper

Business Bhutan, in their last editorial:

“A country like Bhutan would be happy to be adopted by Tata,” a press release from the government’s media cell quoted the prime minister as saying. Writing about that in his blog and opening up another debate the opposition leader took a dig at the media too.

“And to make certain that Ratan Tata did not miss the Government’s invitation for adoption, all our major newspapers – Kuensel and Bhutan Today and Bhutan Observer and Bhutan Times and Business Bhutan – carried the PM’s tempting offer, word for word,” he wrote.

I did, indeed, take a dig. But, it was not aimed at the media. Instead, it was directed at the prime minister’s office, and, in particular, the ability of an influential press officer to control the media.

Precious gifts

His Majesty’s birthday gifts to the people of Bhutan: a vibrant media and a strong judiciary for a successful democracy.

Third session

National assembly-2The third session of the first Parliament of Bhutan begins tomorrow. His Majesty the King will grace the inaugural ceremony of the third session. And the prime minister will submit his annual report on the state of our Nation to the Druk Gyalpo and the parliament.

The proceedings tomorrow will be broadcast live by BBS. As will the entire proceedings of the National Council. But the National Assembly, as of now, has not changed its decision to prevent the BBS from broadcasting most of its proceedings.

I’m still working on some talking points for tomorrow. But I’m finding it very difficult. What does one report to His Majesty the King, in the joint sitting of the parliament, when one is so disappointed and frustrated with our performance so far?

The importance of being heard

being earnest

being earnest

I’ve just learned that our oldest newpaper, Kuensel, declined to publish a letter concerning the recent media awards. The letter was from Tashi P. Wangdi, popularly called “Tosh”, a former editor-in-chief of Bhutan Observer and one of the senior-most journalists in our country. I’ve also learned that the letter was posted on Kuensel’s online discussion forum, but all twelve comments to the post were removed the next day.

I am, therefore, happy to reproduce Tashi P. Wangdi’s letter here.

The right honorable prime minister underscored the importance of principle and moral high ground when it came to media during the media awards. It is ironic that such expectations were raised during a ceremony that was clearly a travesty of morals and principles. To the discerning, if there are any left now, it was evident that the award ceremony was a mockery of ethical media. It was a reflection of the pathetic state of media in Bhutan where a few people engage in cheap tricks to further their ulterior motives. For instance, we were asked to submit our choice of articles/editorials to which we complied. In
the end, our submissions were left out. The reason being that we are not in a newspaper anymore. How is it that a contributor can not only get an award but also be on the jury itself? That is the state of affairs with media in Bhutan. It should justly have been called the media mediocrity awards. That media people can shamelessly receive awards when they know that they are incapable of writing a straight sentence even if their lives depended on it says it all. The modus operandi was to first take out the real heavy weights so that the pseudo writers could have the night to themselves. Well so be it. Keep on playing dirty, as long as the government is there to fund it. And by the way, there was no announcement or quotation call for organizing the event. It had to be the usual suspects. So much for transparency. If it is not there in the media, don’t expect it from other quarters.

Cribbing right

Responding to “Government awards media awards” kikisoso called me a cribber. This is what kikisoso wrote:

The easiest job in the world is to crib. The task at hand is to provide beter and viable alternatives.
OL, let us hear your alternative plans that are more well thought out than just wishful thinking. media people judging themselves will be a bloody melee ….
I think we should learn the lessons of this award and make it more credible next time around – you know, no jury winners (what a balony), better and more broadbased jury selection, awards for ‘body of works’ and not one report …. and what not, By teh way, what was the Dashos at the helm of MOIC doing, eating peanuts … how could they let such grave inadequacies slip by? Too busy arranging te folds of their ghos and colourful kabneys???
Until then , let us refrain from cribbing – the easiest job in the world.

The reason I raise an issue is to draw attention to it. I do so my sharing my opinions on the issue, fully aware that they are just that: an individual’s opinion.

I try not to present solutions. Doing so would take the focus away from the issue. And it would be arrogant. Anyway, I do not have solutions to every problem. And even when I think I have one, that solution may not be the best one.

So the idea is to share my opinion on an issue, even if I’m seen to be “cribbing”. I believe that this allows our readers, including kikisoso, to express their considered opinions on the issue. And to discuss how they would address the issue; how they would solve the problem.

And this is exactly what kikisoso has done. Kikisoso has expressed critical views on an issue (i.e, cribbed) and called for the awards to be made more credible in the future. I find kikisoso’s views useful. And I hope that the media and the government pay attention to them.

As for the “better and viable alternatives” that kikisoso calls for, we fist need to understand the issue. For me the issue is not the credibility of the awards. I’m not cribbing about how the selections were conducted. Or that they may not have been fair.

For me the real issue is preventing government involvement and control in the media, no matter how small the risks may appear to be. So when our government organizes the media awards, and must decide who wins and who doesn’t, I’m naturally concerned. I’m worried that our government could, knowingly or otherwise, influence our otherwise promising media.

Now for a possible “alternative plan” to minimize the risk of government interference in the media. Many countries have press clubs. And I understand that our media are trying to form a journalists association. Such an association would be the most qualified to decide how to conduct future media awards without unhealthy outside influences.

Will that rule out controversy at future awards? No! You can bet that there will be controversy. But remember the issue: government interference in the media. That issue, I can say confidently, would have been addressed.

Featured photos

druk-wangyal-chortens1This website now offers a panel, located immediately above my latest entry, that will feature one photograph every week. I encourage readers to share your photographs, particularly those that tell a story which may be relevant to a particular week.

This week’s picture, of the Druk Wangyal Chortens in Dochu-la, was taken by Lhendup, a photographer with Bhutan Observer. The 108 chortens were commissioned by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck to commemorate His Majesty the Fouth Druk Gyalpo’s service to the people of Bhutan.

In the background, is the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Range.

Investigating rewards?

The First Annual Media Award’s prize for Investigative Report of the Year, the award’s most prestigious category, went to Kuensel’s Phuntsho Choden. This came as no surprise. Phuntsho is good. Well done.

But what did come as a surprise was Tenzing Lamsang. I dare say that Tenzing has contributed significantly to the development of a free media in our country since returning to Bhutan after a stint with the Indian Express, one of India’s biggest and most respected newspapers. From politics and government to the civil service and business, he’s covered a lot of ground. And he’s done his share of investigating. He works hard: I’ve seen him in action. And he’s brave: I’ve read his stories. So, by our standards, his work is indeed very good.

Now what surprised me yesterday was not that he didn’t win. But that he wasn’t even nominated for the investigative report category. In fact, Tenzing Lamsang was not nominated in any of the four categories that he had participated in – his name was not mentioned at all yesterday.

I’m shocked. And I’m disappointed.