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circular was a result of miscommunication; that he had meant “Bhutanese media”, not “The Bhutanese”; and that he had withdrawn the circular as soon as he had seen the error.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

About fines

Bathpalathang

I’m impressed at the government’s readiness to abide by the law. Bhutan Today (whose website has been woefully inadequate) had recently reported that:

The prime minister has ordered the information and communication ministry to pay about Nu 2.3 million in penalty for not following the environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedures in the construction of the Bathpalathang airstrip in Bumthang.

But I’m not impressed at the prime minister’s cavalier disregard for the basic principles of accountability when he added that:

… the fine will have to be levied even if it means paying from one pocket to another.

I wonder what the Royal Audit Authority will have to say to that.

Incidentally, last week, in Bumthang, I visited the Bathpalathang airstrip site. The construction there seems to have already resumed. I am impressed.

Media wars

Mass media in Bhutan has enjoyed exceptional growth recently. During the last four years, five new newspapers – all privately owned – started operations in quick succession.  Bhutan Times, Bhutan Observer, Bhutan Today, Business Bhutan and The Journalist hit the newsstands on 30 April 2006, 2 June 2006, 30 October 2008, 26 September 2009 and 20 December 2009 respectively. Till then Kuensel, which started as a government bulletin in 1967, was our country’s only newspaper.

Our airwaves have also seen rapid growth. Beginning with Kuzoo FM, which started operations in September 2006, three other private radio stations (Radio Valley, Centennial Radio and Sherubtse FM) have joined BBS Radio, which enjoyed a monopoly since its inception in 1973.

Similarly, there’s been an unprecedented growth in other media forms. Books, magazines, websites, blogs, cinema, music, cable TV, and overall connectivity have all expanded tremendously offering consumers of information a wide array of choices.

So I’m happy to hear about the Government’s plans to hire professionals to audit the circulation figures and reach of the media. Such an exercise could produce valuable information of our news industry, and benefit every one – producers, advertisers, consumers and regulators of the media. And, that information could be used to strengthen our media.

However, I’m concerned that the “circulation audit” will be used to formulate an “advertisement policy” that would excessively favour government advertisements for media agencies having a bigger reach. Under normal circumstances that would be okay. In fact, under normal circumstances, that would have been required, as articulated by the Secretary of MOIC:

He said that the government had limited budget for advertising and could not afford to give the same advertisement in all the media. “Government organisations must plan advertisements and announcements through the year. We have six newspapers and the government can’t afford to give the same advertisement to all papers,” he said, adding that government organisations must behave like professional advertisers, to ensure that the message reaches the audience.

But, both Kuensel and BBS, the nation’s two biggest media firms, had a head start, and both of them benefited immensely from huge subsidies from the Government and donor agencies. In fact, BBS continues to be heavily subsidized by the Government. So, both Kuensel and BBS are way ahead of their respective competition.

The Government should indeed consider the circulation and reach of the media when formulating their “advertisement policy”. But, it should also consider the amount of subsidies that have already been given to Kuensel and BBS.

Otherwise we risk undoing all the good work of the last four years.