Posted by: structureofnews | September 8, 2010

Media in Bhutan – If You Could Do It All Over Again

Most of us in developed media markets are trying to juggle managing legacy media and the promise of a digital future; but in Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom nestled – or choked – between India and China, they’re trying to create legacy media while juggling the promise of a digital future.   It’s an interesting sight to see, and one that throws the thought-experiment of if-you-could-do-it-all-over-again-what-would-you-do into the real world.

Not that there are any right answers.  After a week there training journalists, speaking at a media forum, and being interviewed on Bhutan TV, all that’s clear is that there are a lot of questions that the country has to deal with – from policy and legal issues to business models to citizen journalism and activism.  And that there are some smart, committed and energetic journalists who want to get good stories.

Bhutan is a country that sometimes seems stuck between centuries – or millenia.  Take the two-hour hike up to Taktsang, a 17th-century monastery perched precariously on the side of a cliff, and you’ll be struck by how little has changed in the kingdom for hundreds of years.  At least, until your guide starts chatting on his mobile phone.

Two decades ago, when I first visited, there was one newspaper – Kuensel, a weekly in three languages – funded by the government.  Television and the internet came a decade later, as did mobile phones and commercial newspapers.   Physically, much of Thimphu, the capital of 100,000 people, looks much the same as it did in 1989 – more cars, but still no traffic lights.

But in that time life expectancy has jumped from 52 years to 66 years.  Full democracy was introduced a few years ago.  And many of the other changes are similarly not obviously visible – among them the proliferation of media.  For a country of 700,000 with a literacy rate that hovers between 50 and 60 percent, there are now seven newspapers, including one that started last week.  There’s a national TV service, public and private radio stations, Wi-Fi hotspots and plans to install broadband across the country.

Two papers are daily, including Kuensel, now minority-owned by the government; the rest are weeklies.  All except one are mainly in English, with editions also in Dzongkha, the national language.  (The latest is in Dzongkha only.)  And they’re relatively small, with generally a handful of reporters each.

They’re all largely dependent on advertising (some, like Kuensel, also have printing plants which give them another stream of revenue), and 80 percent of that comes from the government – official announcements of tenders and projects that are as much a subsidy for the papers as they are ways of reaching their intended audience.

So now the government is grappling with how those advertising dollars (actually, ngultrum, the Bhutanese currency) should be apportioned.   Should it be handed out evenly, to give everyone a fair chance?  Should it go strictly commercially to those with the highest circulation, possibly encouraging a populist press?  Should it find a way to encourage more public service and accountability journalism?  And how would it do any of these things in practice?

Add to that the growing – from albeit a very small base – of internet users, blogs and other discussion forums in the country, and the question of how to build an open and  local digital media culture while keeping a watchful eye on the 800-pound gorilla to the south, India, also looms large.   The opposition leader in the national assembly maintains an active blog, and judging from what’s up on the screens of local journalists, Facebook is the preferred social networking site.

At the media forum, attended by journalists, legislators, civil servants and NGOs, there were questions raised about how to build more transparency in government and help media serve as a watchdog on abuses of power, as well as on how to encourage responsible journalism.

There aren’t easy solutions.  It seems silly to prop up a half-dozen papers that are unlikely to be commercially sustainable on non-government advertising, even if domestic purchasing power increases dramatically (Bhutan’s per-capita GDP is a shade over US$1,1800, but that’s distorted by large amounts of hydropower being sold to India).  Yet without some organized media, it’s more difficult to build up a better-trained corps of journalists who have the resources to cover more than just the daily happenings.  The coming of broadband will open up vast new areas of opportunity for information flow, but there needs to be much more training in how to take advantage of the technology.  Actively building online communities would be a good start.

There aren’t really any templates that fit Bhutan – a lush, landlocked country stuck between two huge neighbors, with one major export industry (hydropower) and one major foreign exchange earner (tourism) and a commitment to pursue Gross National Happiness (ie, sustainable development) rather than GDP.  Of course, no templates fit any country perfectly anyway, but if there’s a case to be made for exceptionalism, this is probably it.

All in all, a very interesting place to watch the development of media – and a reminder that thought experiments aside, the actual evolution and development of media is a complicated affair in practice.


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