Bhutan
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Gagging the Bhutanese media?

Rinzin Wangchuk 

Even as Bhutan jumped to 33rd place in the global press freedom ranking this year from last year’s position of 65 among 180 countries, editors from media houses expressed their deep concerns over the recent stonewalling of information from government agencies and constitutional bodies. The same concern was conveyed to all the main agencies by the Media Council of Bhutan in writing based on the submission from the editors, the Journalists’ Association of Bhutan (JAB) and the media community over access to information.

Media Council is a statutory legal body set up by an act of Parliament in 2018.

They appealed to the Council to help facilitate easy access to information from public institutions.  They said that access to information has lately become restricted compounded by red-tapeism and bureaucracy, leading to the journalists’ inability to write stories of public interest with adequate clarity and depth.

In the letter to the agencies, Media Council’s chairman stated that the organisations like RCSC, judiciary, Anti-Corruption Commission, and Office of the Attorney General are mandated to ‘promote and protect freedom and independence of the media’ under the Information, Communications and Media Act 2018.

“Therefore, the Media Council would like to request the concerned agencies to kindly facilitate easy access to public information for the media so that they can play their role to inform and educate the people for our shared national goal of an informed citizenry,” the letter stated.

“We share no misconception that any public information made accessible to the media is ultimately not for the media, but for the public,” Council’s chair stated in the letter. “The media is a critical conduit. For all their limitations, the media share your good intentions for public service in the spirit of transparency and accountability stressed by His Majesty The King.”

The letter also stated: “We also share no misconception that free access to information will jeopardise the good intentions and works of public institutions. In fact, the contrary is true. Lack of access to well-rounded information will lead to the spread of misinformation and disinformation, the newest nemeses of the digital age”.

“We hope that you will be in a position to support our media by granting freer access to public information,” Council’s chair said. “On our part, we will be pleased to facilitate better communication between your institution or organisation and the media.”

However, only two institutions—Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) and the judiciary— responded to the Council.  The RCSC maintains they have never issued any directives to civil servants to not speak to the media. They said they are working on streamlining access to information.

The Supreme Court says all queries may be routed through their Media Unit, which was established recently to facilitate access to information.

Patchy access

Deeply concerned over access to information, editors from both print and broadcast media met twice at the JAB secretariat last month. They said that even getting basic information has to pass the layers of bureaucratic procedures.

“Officials with information are scared to talk to the media, after two foresters were handed compulsory retirement order by their parent agency,” one editor said.

One editor from a private newspaper said that agencies are adopting the Thimphu Thromde model of writing questions and seeking permission to avail access to information. “Our reporters are having a tough time getting interviews,” he said.

Thromde officials claimed such protocol was introduced to help both the institution and media organisations maintain accountability. “Even if they respond, it takes three to four days to respond to the media’s queries,” one reporter who covered municipality issues said.

Both ACC and OAG stopped sharing information after issuing the joint press release on the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two agencies on May 23, 2022. The MoU was signed to strengthen partnership and collaboration in the prevention, investigation and prosecution of corruption cases.

The joint press release stated that fighting corruption is a collective responsibility as indeed it is only with the whole-of-society approach that corruption can be tackled successfully. “But how can these two agencies fulfil their Constitutional mandates without involving the media?” one editor questioned. “There is no other way to deter the corrupt people if they are not exposed through media,” he said.

ACC has also discontinued posting or sharing hard facts about corruption cases since May this year.

Going by the trend of not sharing any information with the media, according to the media professionals, the post of media officers in these agencies have become redundant and a burden to the organisations. Some media officers said that they don’t have the liberty to share information anymore. For instance, ACC officials refused to share even the total acreage of government land the ACC recovered over the last five years through prosecutions.

Findings of survey

With recommendations from editors, JAB conducted a survey on access to information and its finding speaks volumes about how getting basic information is difficult today.

Of the 30 respondents, 24 said that access to information is worse now than the previous years. While asking respondents to rate access to information for the media out of five, three respondents rated one and 17 rated two.

Despite repeated editorials and stories on access to information published by Kuensel and other newspapers, the situation continues to deteriorate. For years journalists have been encouraging the public to be active in the media.  “It was about involving the Bhutanese society much more in the Bhutanese media in making our democracy more meaningful,” one of the Kuensel editorials highlighted.

It also stated that in an age where social media platforms enable anyone with a mobile phone to be a source or publisher of information, the role of media has become crucial. The Covid-19 pandemic was a good example. The work of journalists has provided reliable information, countered misinformation and held people accountable.

Considering Bhutan’s current media landscape vis-à-vis the enormity of the democratic mandate of the media, according to one of the contributors to JAB journal, the government needs to play an instrumental role to ensure that there is media plurality and diversity and vibrant public space for discourse and debate in the country.