Bhutan forges its own path for journalism

I fell in love during my last business trip. But my wife needn’t worry. It was with the country of Bhutan and its journalists.

The tiny Buddhist kingdom, wedged between India and China in the high Himalayas, is basically a collection of epic-sized mountains and deep river gorges. The morning clouds trace curlicues along the mountain ridges, and these patterns are copied into the intricate woodcarvings that adorn many Bhutanese buildings. The lucky tourists who go there can trek through unspoiled forests, snap photos of ancient temples and monasteries, and gawk at the cows and doggies that roam free everywhere. It’s like going back in time.

But what captivates me about the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” is the rich sense of history, the compassionate culture and the country’s dare-to-be different attitudes about modernization and governance, all wrapped up in its “Gross National Happiness” goals. The “four pillars” of Gross National Happiness (GNH) are sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation and good governance. This is why tourism is tightly regulated, why the green forests are protected and why all farming is organic. Women wear traditional skirts, called the kera, and men wear robes, the gho. High officials strap a silver sword to their waists. People around the world cheer Bhutan’s vision, yet wonder if it can withstand 21st century pressures.

I was a guest of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy to help run a conference for about 20 prominent journalists, public officials and other leaders trying to grapple with the future of journalism in the country. Images & Voices of Hope, an organization that I’m active in, helped facilitate the dialogue. The discussion was similar to those held by journalists in the United States, but with several Bhutanese twists.

The past 15 years have brought astonishing change. Reforms launched by a succession of visionary kings ushered in the first democratic elections for parliament in 2008. A country that relied on a government-owned newspaper and broadcast station now has witnessed an explosion of media outlets due to recent freedom of expression laws, entrepreneurialism and the awakening of politics. This led to the hiring of a new generation of young, untrained journalists. There are two more important developments to recognize. Television was introduced to the country in 1999, which now means that people are bombarded by American crime stories, Indian Bollywood and other shows—and ideas—from around the world. And now the Internet and social media have arrived, allowing the Bhutanese to lob anonymous complaints and rants, just like we do in the United States.

This past July, Bhutan held its second national elections for parliament elections. Many Bhutanese—including some of the journalists—were shocked by the levels of acrimony, rumormongering, and anonymous or veiled accusations. This, after all, is a society known for nurturing compassion and harmony, where villagers are accustomed to the intimacy of face-to-face dialogue and people speak admiringly about the nomadic yak herders who leave a pile of firewood for the next traveler.

Some people blamed the journalists for dragging Bhutanese society into the gutter. One of the journalists complained: “If you don’t support one political party, they accuse you of being aligned with the other one.” One television anchor launched some shows that he hopes will help “heal the divisions in politics.”

So, here are some of the worries expressed by my new friends in Bhutan:

With the elections fresh in their minds, the journalists want to know how they can promote democratic progress and hold politicians accountable without destroying Bhutan’s traditional values. They didn’t like how the rancor of the elections divided communities and families. They asked if there are ways to keep to the high ground.

They also fear that their coverage of the government’s Gross National Happiness program has been too shallow, succumbing either to patriotic cheerleading or unsubstantiated criticism, which they also witnessed in the elections. How can they cover GNH fairly, accurately and skeptically?

They are frustrated by their inability to bring the voices and concerns of ordinary people, including senior citizens, the poor and rural people—who represent the lion’s share of the population. They spoke passionately about the need to cover these missing voices. “One recurring feedback from the public is that media needs to be more representative in its views and news,” said one journalist. “Every Bhutanese has one leg in the village.” Yet the journalists complained that they lack the time and money to travel to the rural areas to get these stories. One writer recounted how she once did a story by telephone and asked the source to describe the weather so she could add that detail to her story.

In fact, the financial prospects for the news media are absolutely abysmal, and this is the biggest issue—the journalists’ equivalent of the Himalayas. Bhutan’s fledgling economy doesn’t have enough businesses capable of buying media advertising. According to the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, the government accounts for 80 percent of all newspaper and broadcast advertising. This means that the government could close any news outlet simply by shutting off the flow of advertising. So far, the government has divided its advertising pot equally among the different news outlets in an effort to try to be fair—remember, this is Bhutan—but even this does not provide enough revenue. Journalists complain of low salaries and late paychecks. Freelance journalists run the risk of not getting paid. One outfit stopped printing its newspaper and publishes only on the Internet. Did I mention that largest newspaper, Kuensel, and the main television and radio network, Bhutan Broadcasting Service, are 51 percent owned by the government?

I realize that this picture of Bhutan’s news media sounds dismal, so why am I smitten?

I was inspired by the dedication and commitment from the journalists. They spoke passionately about the need to cover the news and to raise professional standards, even as they are hobbled by the lack of resources and formal training opportunities. They acknowledge that the present “business model,” if you can call it that, is not sustainable. They know that there will be some kind of shake out in the news media unless new ways to sustain journalism are discovered. They talked about the potential role that journalists could play in tempering the nasty excesses of election campaigns by keeping politicians focused on real issues. Moreover, many expressed the desire to shape journalism to fit the Bhutanese context rather than blindly copy what they see in other countries.

By the end of the conference, the journalists were making plans to continue to work together to find solutions to these and other problems.

Is it a dream that the kingdom that came up with Gross National Happiness also could forge a new path for journalism? Time will tell. For now, I am inspired by the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy’s realization that this is a critical moment in the development of journalism, a time to encourage journalists to set out on this journey. I was excited to witness the first steps.

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