To­wards More Free­dom

Me­dia in Bhutan needs to chart a more co­he­sive course.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Ac­cord­ing to the World Press Free­dom In­dex ( 2015), Bhutan ranks at 92 out of a to­tal of 104 coun­tries, in­di­cat­ing that things are not as cosy in that coun­try as they may seem. The In­dex points to the fact that the me­dia is prob­a­bly strug­gling and work­ing un­der ex­tremely dif­fi­cult work­ing con­di­tions kin Bhutan, but man­ag­ing to keep afloat mainly be­cause jour­nal­ism is still too young and is still de­vel­op­ing and ma­tur­ing.

On the one hand, Bhutan is for­tu­nate it has not lost any jour­nal­ists de­spite the in­crease in ag­gres­sion against the fra­ter­nity all over the world, in­clud­ing the South Asian re­gion. But there is still a lot to de­sire for the free­dom of the

me­dia in Bhutan.

There is con­sid­er­able op­ti­mism in Bhutan af­ter it first gained democ­racy seven years ago in 2008. Many lib­eral me­dia poli­cies have been made. The coun­try has seen many changes over the years, which ex­perts be­lieve will bring progress and ex­pan­sion in all sec­tors, in­clud­ing me­dia.

How­ever, jour­nal­ists are prob­a­bly one of the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in the world. Armed with noth­ing more than a pen and pad, a mike or a cam­era, they work in the most danger­ous con­di­tions, at times with­out protective gear. They are killed in ac­tion by be­ing in war zones along­side sol­diers. In re­cent years, how­ever, there have been at­tacks on jour­nal­ists work­ing in non-com­bat ar­eas. This shows how danger­ous it has be­come for jour­nal­ists to work and the con­di­tions they work in.

In the first four months of 2015, 22 jour­nal­ists have been killed. More may fall vic­tim as the year pro­gresses.

The worst thing than be­ing killed in a war zone is be­ing mur­dered for do­ing one’s duty. A large num­ber of jour­nal­ists are get­ting mur­dered in the line duty in a non-com­bat sit­u­a­tion. This in­di­cates that the jour­nal­ist has made an im­pres­sion on some­one lead­ing to his/her death.

How­ever, it has been noted that ev­ery time a jour­nal­ist is mur­dered, in­stead of scar­ing peo­ple into si­lence, the sit­u­a­tion is only ag­gra­vated and the spill over be­comes un­con­trol­lable.

This is why al­ter­nate meth­ods are used to si­lence jour­nal­ists and mould opin­ions through gov­ern­ment poli­cies though gag­ging the me­dia causes more harm.

Many coun­tries claim they have given their me­dia free­dom, but in re­al­ity the ‘free­dom’ comes with strings at­tached.

A num­ber of jour­nal­ists be­come favourites as they agree to work within the pa­ram­e­ters set by the au­thor­i­ties. Those who refuse to fol­low the ‘rules’ not only face prob­lems but are the main fo­cus of covert cen­sor­ship.

An­other method to con­trol jour­nal­ists is through their in­tel­lec­tual marginal­i­sa­tion.

Bhutan’s me­dia are some­times sub­tly ma­nip­u­lated and gagged to suit those in power. Whereas Bhutanese jour­nal­ists be­lieve them­selves to be free, they only have ‘par­tial’ free­dom. There is a short­age of trained jour­nal­ists in the coun­try. With democ­racy, which came in 2008, the at­ten­dant free­dom is still un­ex­plored.

Bhutan’s jour­nal­ists be­lieve they have made progress in get­ting free­dom of speech, and that the real prob­lem is the short­age of trained jour­nal­ists. They see the me­dia as vi­brant and young with a lot of po­ten­tial in the fu­ture and the si­mul­ta­ne­ous strength­en­ing of the IT sec­tor is also con­tribut­ing to a solid base. Jour­nal­ists also need to study their rights be­cause stand­ing at 92nd po­si­tion in the me­dia free­dom in­di­cates that there is so much that needs to be done.

There should be a net­work of jour­nal­ist unions in Bhutan to reg­u­late and im­prove their prospects. Codes of ethics and con­duct ex­ist for Bhutanese jour­nal­ists, but there is no reg­is­tered in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ists’ as­so­ci­a­tion to back them. As a first step to im­prove me­dia free­dom, it is im­per­a­tive that peo­ple from within the fra­ter­nity should be in­cluded in this process. Only jour­nal­ists would know the prob­lems they face.The most im­por­tant thing is breath­ing space, which is es­pe­cially vi­tal for jour­nal­ists in Bhutan. Jour­nal­ism also needs to be sup­ported by the demo­cratic gov­ern­ment.

In Bhutan, 80% of the ad­ver­tise­ments given to the me­dia come from the gov­ern­ment. This could lead the me­dia to be­come bound by ‘soft’ con­straints and al­low it to be ma­nip­u­lated to some ex­tent. A young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced me­dia sec­tor may not even be aware that it is be­ing con­trolled. The gov­ern­ment will get a grip on the me­dia and in­di­rectly on the public and this will lead to stunt­ing the sec­tor.

The gov­ern­ment’s in­creas­ing role in the me­dia will lead to too many checks and con­trol fall­ing into one area. This will cre­ate lack of trans­parency in re­port­ing and only one point of view will be given – the gov­ern­ment’s. In such a sit­u­a­tion, the me­dia in Bhutan will be un­able to work at it is op­ti­mum and will re­sort to self-cen­sor­ship - which is the first step to­wards dis­as­ter. If the me­dia can’t play its role as a watch­dog and ends up be­com­ing a mouth­piece – even par­tially – it needs to change track.

Bhutan’s young me­dia must train jour­nal­ists to do their job as re­porters and crit­ics across the board – in­clud­ing the gov­ern­ment. They should also be al­lowed to make poli­cies for them­selves. They should also be sub­jected to checks and bal­ances oth­er­wise own­ers of me­dia houses would do as they please such as pay­ing lower wages, cre­at­ing job in­se­cu­rity and pro­mot­ing bad work­ing con­di­tions.

To pro­tect their rights, Bhutan’s jour­nal­ists must set up an in­de­pen­dent or­ga­ni­za­tion com­pris­ing se­nior jour­nal­ists that should for­mu­late rules and reg­u­la­tions for the ben­e­fit of the me­dia sec­tor. Only jour­nal­ists can help im­prove their own work­ing con­di­tions. This could lead to the for­ma­tion of a cen­tral union which could in­clude jour­nal­ists from across the coun­try. The or­ga­ni­za­tion would give jour­nal­ists rep­re­sen­ta­tion and fight for bet­ter wages, bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions and other fa­cil­i­ties. Units could be made to deal with prob­lems of lo­cal jour­nal­ists at both city and prov­ince level. The smaller unions could be af­fil­i­ated to the main union but would work in­de­pen­dently on a lo­cal level to help re­solve the is­sues of mem­bers. The main func­tion of such a net­work would be to en­able jour­nal­ists to work in a bet­ter and safer en­vi­ron­ment. Mat­ters con­cern­ing wages, med­i­cal back-up and job se­cu­rity would also be dealt with the units.

The setup would also help to fo­cus on is­sues of jour­nal­ists at a mi­cro level. This is the right time for jour­nal­ists in Bhutan to begin work­ing to­wards get­ting their rights and im­prov­ing the work­ing en­vi­ron­ment – and move to­wards be­com­ing a gen­uinely free me­dia.

The writer is a se­nior jour­nal­ist based in Karachi.

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