Bhutanese press in soul-searching mood

Bhutan’s media are coming to grips with some home truths, but there may still be reason for cautious optimism.

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Weeks after their nation’s second general election, journalists in Bhutan are displaying a weary melancholy that is hardly in keeping with its image as Asia’s youngest democracy and the go-to place for happiness.

On the surface, things don’t look too bad. While those sweet nothings about the “happiest nation on earth” should always have been taken with a pinch of chili, most visitors would still come away from Bhutan feeling that many, many countries would love to exchange its problems for their own.

Of course, such big-picture comparisons rarely mean much on the ground. So, at the 2013 Bhutan Media Dialogue last month, I found my media friends there in a more sombre mood than on previous visits. Organised by the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, the three-day roundtable in the town of Paro sought to develop a network of thought leaders within the media fraternity. Their reflections were intense, frank and often self-critical. In the forum and on its sidelines, I heard three concerns raised repeatedly.

First, there was a sense of injustice and impotence over India’s conduct during the election, which stunningly propelled the leader of the two-member parliamentary opposition into the prime minister’s office. The Indian government, whose aid props up the Bhutanese economy, chose the election period to announce an end to subsidies on LPG and kerosene. Nobody believes this was mere coincidence. The previous government had been perceived as flirting with China, and India would have none of it. Here was India acting not as the world’s largest democracy but as the sub-continent’s indisputable power, teaching its dependent neighbour a lesson in realpolitik.

Even if India’s intent was clear, the impact of its move may be exaggerated. Such a dramatic swing against the ruling party could not have happened in such a short time. Indeed, when I visited with student journalists a year ago, they already detected signs that the government was, rightly or wrongly, perceived as too distant and unresponsive.

Regardless, the deeper truth is one the Bhutanese now know more acutely that they cannot run away from. For small developing countries, to paraphrase Marx, democracy makes the people lions for a day – and even then only within the confines of a rather constricted cage.

Second, Bhutan’s news media are still struggling to find any kind of firm financial footing. Till then, most journalists’ professional dedication is not being supported by an equal commitment from owners and the market. The effects on journalists are palpable, both operationally and at a personal level. Without the budget for bureaus or travel, for example, most media simply ignore large parts of the countryside, despite the special place that rural communities are supposed to have in Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness development framework. Thimphu-based reporters wanting to inject local colour into their stories resort to such means as phoning villagers to ask what the weather there is like. More painfully, journalists are also accustomed to not being paid on time, or at all, placing unbearable strains on their households.

Among the world’s media that are basically free, Bhutan’s press is unusually dependent on government advertising for its revenues. The private sector is far too small to sustain the commercial media that the country needs. This opens up the risk of officials applying economic pressure to tame the press. To be fair to the governing elite, their commitment to press freedom remains largely intact. While some abuses have been reported, they do not appear to be systematic.

Therefore, the threat to editorial integrity comes less from direct censorship; it has more to do with the failure of journalism’s business model worldwide. The details may differ: in mature markets, newspapers are losing audiences and advertisers to online media; whereas in Bhutan the consumer base isn’t even there to lose. In either case, though, there is a yawning gap between the kind of journalism democracies need and what commercial markets are prepared to pay for.

Third, most journalists I talked to were dismayed by the tone of the recent election campaign. Candidates descended to personal attacks and name-calling; anonymous posts on social media made things worse. There was not enough discussion of serious issues, and voters did not get to find out the substantive differences between the parties’ positions (assuming they had any).

Commentators had always known that it was only a matter of time before the self-effacing composure of traditional Bhutanese public life would be eroded by the unavoidable contentiousness that comes with electoral politics – this was one of the reasons why the fourth king had a hard time convincing his perplexed subjects why he needed to bestow democracy upon them – but this was all too much, too soon.

Like their counterparts elsewhere, Bhutanese journalists must now face some fundamental questions about their democratic role. Is it really enough for journalists to hold a mirror up to society, disowning their potential to enter the picture and shape it in positive ways? Some media are quite happy to encourage the trend of turning politics into entertainment, since there seems to be no easier way to gain an audience for news. But even more responsible and conscientious journalists are wary of compromising their objectivity by playing an active role in shaping the democratic conversation.

However, without crossing the line between reporter and activist, perhaps there is room for journalists to take more responsibility for setting the tone of public debates. In our dialogue in Paro, there were journalists who could see that promoting civility and reason – and taking a stand against their opposites – is good for journalism and good for democracy. For a start, they said, they could be more discerning about republishing comments and rumours from social media. Just because they are interesting and already out there doesn’t mean they deserve to be repeated for a wider audience. Similarly, untruths uttered by candidates needed to be challenged by the press, if nobody else was going to.

In all these respects, the media in Bhutan are feeling frustrations that are all too familiar to journalists in other parts of the world. How they cope remains to be seen. But, even discounting the tendency to over-romanticise this seductive kingdom, it is probable that they will manage better than most.

A key reason for cautious optimism has to do with the extraordinary circumstances of Bhutan’s democratic experiment. Here was an absolute monarch with the profound wisdom to put his country on the democracy train while he and the crown prince were still universally venerated. There was no need for a divisive revolution or power tussle; it was a “Spring” as pure as a mountain stream.

This is an important legacy: thinkers like Samuel Huntington and Herbert Gans have observed that stable democracy requires an underlying consensus – it is harder when everything up for grabs. The style of Bhutan’s democratic transition, with the current king still only 33 years old and still adored by his people, means that it has a good chance that its press and people will manage new differences without division – a goal that I heard mentioned several times in Paro.

The results of the recent election may have taken aback many commentators, but this, too, may turn out to be a big plus. In too many new democracies, the first elected government is also the last. The incumbents keep winning until what you end up with is an electoral autocracy. Even when this is not due to election fraud and accurately reflects the will of the people, there is a cost to the system of governance: institutional checks and balances – including the press – weaken and atrophy; conflicts of interest grow rampant; and a self-serving power elite emerges.

From that perspective, the opposition’s decisive ouster of Bhutan’s first elected government may be the best thing that could have happened. Key institutions like the civil service, independent regulatory agencies and the judiciary will now be forced to remember that they are separate from the executive, since that executive may rotate every few years. For the same reason, elected officials will be more inclined to respect the independence of those institutions as well as of the public service media and the commercial press.

After all, nothing is more effective at getting a ruling party to commit to fair and transparent rules than the real risk that it will find itself in opposition and needing those rules.

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