Bhutanese me­dia

From there to here to where?

Business Bhutan - - Opinion - DORJI WANGCHUK The writer is an ar­dent blog­ger and blogs at

May 3 is the World Press Free­dom Day, what­ever that means. As a for­mer jour­nal­ist-broad­caster I as­sume it is a day of cel­e­bra­tion of the mod­ern mass me­dia. So, let me share some quick pass­ing thoughts on this in­dus­try that has hosted me for over three decades.

Me­dia then

The Bhutanese mass me­dia in the pre-2008 era served a dif­fer­ent pur­pose and thus, any com­par­i­son with to­day’s me­dia is not even re­motely pos­si­ble. Al­though there was the move to­wards an au­ton­o­mous me­dia, which gained mo­men­tum af­ter 1998, the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion model still pre­vailed. The other com­par­i­son of­ten made used to be be­tween Kuensel and BBS that served dif­fer­ent au­di­ences with dif­fer­ent lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion and ex­po­sure.

What I can share, nev­er­the­less, is what was it like to be a me­dia per­son. Let me say that it was any­thing but glam­orous. No one knew what the pur­pose of BBS was – other than to play songs and weather re­port of the day that was al­ready gone. We also worked un­der a dif­fer­ent kind of pres­sure from ev­ery cor­ner of the of­fi­cial­dom – be­ing a part of the gov­ern­ment ma­chin­ery. It was as if ev­ery­one had the li­cense to scold us. To our cred­its, though, we did our jobs well and since peo­ple had to find faults any­way, even triv­ial mis­takes like not get­ting ti­tles or des­ig­na­tions right were ob­jects of ridicules and re­bukes. I was even crit­i­cized of­fi­cially for not wear­ing wo­ven gho on TV (My pas­sion for navy gho goes so far back in time).

While de­vel­op­ment jour­nal­ism was the model we adopted in BBS, it was still jour­nal­ism nev­er­the­less and slowly we crawled into the area of truth-seek­ing and high­light­ing de­vel­op­men­tal is­sues. We worked hard, had fun, stood our ground when we were right and apol­o­gised when we made mis­takes. And grad­u­ally we won the con­fi­dence of the gov­ern­ment as peo­ple around the coun­try started talk­ing about same topics or singing the same song. Still, get­ting peo­ple to come on shows was more dif­fi­cult than mak­ing your child take an­tibi­otics. So the talk-show for­mat, which is com­mon th­ese days, failed twice be­fore it fi­nally suc­ceeded when we made a third at­tempt with Q&A with Dor­jiWangchuk. The se­ries ran for 112 episodes from 2003 to 2005.

Some­times we went hun­gry when we mis­cal­cu­lated our food stock on long pro­duc­tion trips in ru­ral ar­eas. No mo­bile phones, no ATMs. Some­times we walked out of of­fice un­der the scorch­ing Sun or a pour­ing rain to get a 30-sec­ond recorded state­ment and rushed back to the stu­dio to meet the dead­line. No enough cars, no com­plaints – only some child­ish sense of de­lights to hear your­self on the ra­dio or bully your friends and fam­ily to watch you on TV.

In the greater scheme of things, though, we played our part. The TV talk shows planted the seeds for po­lit­i­cal de­bates while Kuensel’s edi­to­ri­als and re­portages set the cul­ture of pub­lic dis­course and scru­tiny of pub­lic poli­cies. The ef­forts of both the BBS and Kuensel – joined by new voices such as Bhutan Times and Bhutan Ob­server in 2006 laid the im­por­tant demo­cratic fun­da­ments as we headed to the polls for the first time in 2008. Fur­ther­more, ra­dio, con­tin­ued to bring the coun­try to­gether ev­ery evening for a round of news, pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ments and pro­grams rang­ing from new farm­ing tech­niques to mu­sic re­quest shows. In fact the slo­gan, which my friends and I coined for BBS back then, was Bring­ing the Na­tion To­gether. They changed it later to a less mean­ing­ful, The Bhutanese Ex­pres­sion. In the pre-cell­phone era, ra­dio re­quests went some­thing like, “This re­quest goes from Dorji in Thim­phu to his par­ents in Min­jayKur­toe that he is com­ing by bus on 3 April and to send horses to pick him from the road head.” We did bring the coun­try to­gether.

Na­tion-build­ing is a process whereby a so­ci­ety with di­verse cul­tures, tra­di­tions, lan­guages, eth­nic­i­ties and re­li­gions come to­gether to­wards a shared com­mon goal and as­pi­ra­tion. Mass me­dia, I al­ways be­lieved, is the best tool to help achieve it. In cre­at­ing a shared ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to the same news, same songs and speak­ing the same lan­guage, we kept the na­tion glued to­gether from Ten­druk to Tashigang. Un­til then, I as­sume, ev­ery­one re­turned home when the Sun went down to their own lives, is­sues or ara bot­tles. And those who had a ra­dio, lis­tened to for­eign broad­casts. In fact, as late as 1985, my last school­ing year, we were lis­ten­ing to All In­dia Ra­dio and Ra­dio Nepal and singing Bol­ly­wood songs – and had ab­so­lutely no idea of what was hap­pen­ing in Thim­phu or else­where in the coun­try. Look­ing back I feel proud to have been part of the team that turned that huge tide around – and thus help­ing to cre­ate a sense of na­tion­hood and na­tional iden­tity. While BBS and Kuensel tar­geted dif­fer­ent au­di­ences, the key mes­sage was the same: we are a Bhutanese na­tion. In my opin­ion, no other agency has done more than BBS to prop­a­gate Dzongkha, the na­tional lan­guage, which is, as British scholar An­der­son says, one of the most im­por­tant mark­ers of a na­tion.

Me­dia now

Me­dia to­day plays the dual role of na­tion-build­ing and cre­at­ing a pub­lic space for mean­ing­ful de­bates and dis­cus­sions within the over­all process of democ­racy. The tra­di­tional Bhutanese me­dia – ra­dio, TV and news­pa­pers, how­ever, face a new set of chal­lenges brought about by the chang­ing time, con­texts and cir­cum­stances. New emerg­ing power cen­ters may be ex­ert­ing new kinds of pres­sure, while the ex­ist­ing pow­er­ful bu­reau­cracy and its closed mind­set has pri­mar­ily re­mained un­al­tered. Then there is the dis­cern­ing and more de­mand­ing pub­lic that has set an un­re­al­is­tic bench­mark by watch­ing CNN or NDTV.

The in­creased de­mand is fur­ther ag­gra­vated by the frag­men­ta­tion of the au­di­ence by the so­cial me­dia and mo­bile phones – mak­ing the tra­di­tional me­dia look slow, ir­rel­e­vant and out­dated. How­ever, what the pub­lic and the gov­ern­ment need to un­der­stand is that there is a huge dif­fer­ence be­tween noise and in­for­ma­tion, and be­tween in­for­ma­tion and mes­sage. There is so much noise on the so­cial me­dia that it is dif­fi­cult even for some­one trained to get some in­for­ma­tion out there – let alone the mes­sage. For ex­am­ple, what is the mes­sage from all the Face­book up­dates and out­pour of love and grat­i­tude to teach­ers? What re­mains of the big cel­e­bra­tion that we had yes­ter­day in Changlingmithang, which through the mar­vel of tech­nol­ogy, I could watch the live­cast – some thou­sands of miles away, here in Ma­cau. This is where the good old tra­di­tional me­dia comes in. They pro­vide the mes­sage be­cause they can see the ob­jec­tive essence. One should not live un­der the il­lu­sion that Tweeter feeds, Face­book up­dates and Snapchat flashes suf­fice as in­for­ma­tion – lesser still as the mes­sage.

Fi­nally, the au­di­ence should be care­ful with the ba­sic dif­fer­ence be­tween ac­tivism and jour­nal­ism and be­tween hate speech and free speech. Th­ese un­to­ward be­hav­iours have found a fer­tile ground in the so­cial me­dia. And un­der no cir­cum­stances the tra­di­tional me­dia should dance to th­ese tunes.

The way for­ward

Good jour­nal­ism re­mains a ne­ces­sity to cre­ate a vi­brant mass me­dia, which in turn, as a cliché goes, is an im­por­tant el­e­ment of a strong democ­racy. This is vi­tal in this era of noisy so­cial me­dia and fake news that can sway any lo­cal pop­u­la­tion by hos­tile for­eign pow­ers. Of all the coun­tries, the US has learnt it the hard way in re­cent time. Af­ter a spell of eu­pho­ria of the new me­dia and death-of-news­pa­per nar­ra­tive, agen­cies like New York Times and Washington Post have reg­is­tered a mil­lion plus new sub­scribers in the first year of the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion.

So much is be­ing done in our coun­try to build the nec­es­sary demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions so that our ex­per­i­ment with this new sys­tem of gov­er­nance suc­ceed. Dare I say that I see no way that it would, if mass me­dia is ne­glected – and left to its own de­vice. I hope it won’t, but there will come a time when the gov­ern­ment and peo­ple will stand on po­lar op­po­sites and a need for a strong third ar­bi­trat­ing voice will be felt to bring them to the mid­dle ground. Be­sides, as I pointed ear­lier, in the era of post-truth and fake news tra­di­tional mass me­dia as a cred­i­ble source of in­for­ma­tion should be de­vel­oped and cel­e­brated – and not scoffed or dis­dained. It is not na­tion-build­ing any­more. It is na­tional se­cu­rity.

An­other is­sue that will never go away will be press free­dom and cen­sor­ship. Here, me­dia per­sons in Bhutan should not as­sume that just be­cause the Con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees free­dom of press, that peo­ple will let them do their job. What is writ­ten on paper re­mains on, well, paper. One has to claim the space or keep as­sert­ing. It is like land records. Hav­ing the thram is only a nec­es­sary con­di­tion but not a suf­fi­cient one to own a land. If you don’t oc­cupy your land, you will lose it – be­cause some­one will en­croach in it.

Fi­nally, me­dia and democ­racy are a process. It is con­tin­u­ous jour­ney and dy­namic un­der­tak­ing of con­tes­ta­tion, ne­go­ti­a­tion and com­pro­mise. It will be in the hands of the new gen­er­a­tion of me­dia per­sons to forge the new pur­pose as per new de­mands and cir­cum­stances. It will be a dif­fi­cult choice though – be­tween cred­i­bil­ity and vis­i­bil­ity, be­tween depth and triv­ial and be­tween so­cial and the sub­stance. Old hands, like me, can only ad­vice.

The Bhutanese mass me­dia has, all said and done, come a very long way and has done its fair share in the over­all process of na­tion-build­ing, democ­racy and de­vel­op­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion. In the age of DTH chan­nels, BBS TV con­tin­ues to gal­vanise the coun­try with pro­grams such as Nga­gayDren­dur and Druk Su­per­star. Mean­while Kuensel keeps play­ing the role of the na­tion’s con­science.

There is ev­ery rea­son to cel­e­brate this day.

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