The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party was elected with an overwhelming majority winning 45 of the 47 seats and also securing 67 percent of the total votes. This was the mandate of the people in 2008 and the peoples mandate was accepted by one and all.
Therefore it comes as matter of a great surprise that the Prime Minister alleged the private media and elements within it wanted to pull the government down. This was the reaction of the Prime Minister to some critical and investigative stories in the media including those done by this paper (The Bhutanese).
Coincidentally on the same day of the Prime Minister’s explosive speech with young graduates a circular sent by the Election Commission of Bhutan said that all future election advertisement is to be given to only Kuensel, BBS and Kuzoo FM. The ECB’s circular was based on a Ministry of Finance circular and letter.
The restriction of election advertisement to private papers will be a death blow for most if not all private newspapers that are already on the verge of closure. This circular also comes after the ongoing and now public attempt by MoIC and the other nine ministries to stop all advertisement to this paper for its editorial content and critical coverage.
In this government, media and advertisement debate a few clear facts and ground rules must be recognized.
While DPT has the mandate of the people that mandate comes within the larger purview of the constitution and Bhutanese democracy. The same constitution that allows for elections and the elected government to govern the country, also gives rights and freedoms to various democratic institutions, including the media to check and balance the government.
The government must realize that the opposition party sits only in the Parliament. The government’s own statements in the past have either blatantly pointed out or hinted that democratic institutions like the Supreme Court, ACC, RAA, ECB, Media, RCSC, Local government and the bureaucracy are all involved in a great big plot to oppose the government. These are dangerous and irresponsible accusations not credible enough to even warrant any response.
Since the inception of democracy, the media and particularly the private media has played a key role in bringing about transparency, fighting corruption, informing and educating people, keeping the government on its toes, checking abuse of power, promoting human rights and strengthening democracy. This of course has not been without its fair share of controversies and accusations.
While it is true that the private media has varying editorial standards it is the private media that has been at the vanguard of Bhutanese journalism and also behind most of the biggest stories in the last few years. Unrestricted by government ownership and a bureaucratic set up the private media has brought a breath of fresh air not only to Bhutanese media and democracy but also to our national consciousness.
Private media at many levels can be equated as a symbol of when the nation started thinking and expressing itself critically. It also symbolized Bhutan’s move into a new era of democracy and free media.
The MoIC and the ECB circulars both based on government orders will take the Bhutanese media and hence Bhutanese democracy from the modern age to a feudal age of fear, conspiracy theories, ruthless suppression of critical voices and a high degree of intolerance.
Coming to advertisement the government from 2010 itself made a fundamental calculation mistake in assuming that annual government and corporate advertisement expenditure is Nu 300 m. The government budget itself reflects government advertisement as Nu 58 m in 2010-2011. Corporations spend far below the government. The fictional 300 m figure is partly the reason for a dramatic cutback in overall advertisement.
The private media despite having a comparative disadvantage in circulation and reach compared to government owned media houses agreed in principal to the government advertisement guidelines whereby advertisement would be given based on 50% content and 50% circulation. This is with the premise that advertisement is not a subsidy but a message in itself.
However, both the MoIC and ECB circulars do not give any credence to the advertisement guidelines.
Also, while it is important to have reach and circulation, a vibrant democracy also must have space for diversity of views, opinions, criticism, and ideas which is visible in the private media.