Reporters without Borders recorded Bhutan climbing 10 places this year compared to 2016 in the World Press Freedom Index, ranking 84th among 180 countries.
Does this mean that press freedom in Bhutan has actually made the proverbial jump? In the recent Journalists’ Awards, the Prime Minister said there were many critiques on the issue in social media, with even members of the media fraternity denouncing that such progress has occurred. However, he said it is not the state of media or the media landscape that has been ranked but the “freedom” aspect of journalists.
Media landscape, he said, includes sustainability issues, low readership, lack of revenue generation and so on. But are not these the very factors that affect a journalist’s freedom? This means that the media landscape directly or indirectly shapes press freedom, and if the media landscape improves, so does press freedom, and conversely, if the media landscape deteriorates, press freedom would gradually cease to exist.
Of course, press freedom would also include a journalist’s right to report on issues, which if facilitated by easier access to information and less bureaucratic hassles while obtaining it, plus safety of the journalist, would make for a more vibrant and healthy media.
Compared to some parts of the world like Afghanistan, Egypt, China, Vietnam, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and North Korea, we are doing great. But why compare ourselves to the worst when we can constantly do better, set the benchmark higher, by comparing ourselves to the best like Norway and Sweden? Because for that matter, there are two ways to look at it: either press freedom in the country has improved or that in the rest of the countries has deteriorated.
Whatever one may say, it is a fact that Bhutanese media houses are in dismal shape: experienced journalists are leaving for greener pastures, salaries are not paid on time if at all, and younger journalists do not have mentors or role models to look up to. Overall, media morale is in doldrums.
And just because a report gives us a better ranking than the previous year does not mean ground realities have or will suddenly change. There has to be constant support, effort and incentives from authorities such as the government and management of media houses.
A lot of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, passion and sometimes ignominy go into making some of the finest journalists. If the veterans are leaving, younger journalists must fill up their place but ideally they should be better than the previous lot.
And for this, not only do we need journalists who will be happy to do their average bit and take home a pay check but who will prove that journalism is indeed a calling, a noble profession.
At the media awards, the most promising journalist award of the year went to a young man who rode his “rickety” bicycle to work and reporting every day. Despite tough circumstances, here was a journalist who worked hard and had the tenacity to prove that your circumstances do not make you, your attitude does.
Bhutan has improved in press freedom ranking but this is not enough. We definitely need to do more. For the journalists who are driven by passion for their vocation, for the journalists who continue to hold on despite the pain and hurdles. And for those who are in sheer love with their profession.
The best journalists have often worked in the most adverse circumstances, yet they persevered and came out of their experience glowing and glorious. Journalists need to be motivated intrinsically more than by the externals.
This said, we can never underestimate the power of a conducive working environment, access to information, better pay, and validation.
Let us hope that media in the country while carrying out its duties and responsibilities will do so not only driven by great passion and ambition, but that the authorities and society will also support it in fulfilling its mandates.
This is because a wholesome, vibrant, functional media is a reflection of the society and vice versa. And we need both.