Towards More Freedom
Media in Bhutan needs to chart a more cohesive course.
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.