Sunday, September 16, 2007

TWMN - Bhutan fights for media freedom

Dated: September 16, 2007

Press Statement

Third World Media Network – Bhutan Chapter (TWMN – Bhutan) Chapter is a media organization established and affiliated to Dhaka-based Third World Media Network. TWMN – Bhutan Chapter is celebrating its first anniversary on September 16.

TWMN – Bhutan strikes to work for the media freedom, freedom of speech and expression in Bhutan. It is a body comprising young journalists practicing for unhindered press to be established in a democratic Bhutan. On this eve of its first anniversary, TWMN – Bhutan would like to welcome the launching of SAFMA – Bhutan Chapter, in August 5, 2007, in the harbinger of media freedom in Bhutan. TWMN – Bhutan will be operating fully in accordance to the principles of ‘free press, without being haunted by the absolute Druk monarch’.

TWMN – Bhutan is equally concerned whether the august body like the SAFMA already accredited for its advocacy on behalf of press and media professionals, would be able to carryout its mission in this small country where media is strictly under government control.

TWMN – Bhutan is prepared to recognize the contribution made by journalists working towards press freedom in Bhutan and have established a practice of awarding ‘The Best Reporter of the year’. Thus, TWMN – Bhutan announces Mr. Sangey Oendray, who is a Bhutan-based correspondent of Bhutan News Service, ‘Reporter of the Year – 2007’. On this behalf, we would also like to applaud Oendray for his contribution particularly in independent media sectors in Bhutan and expect similar contribution in the days ahead.

On the occasion of its first anniversary, TWMN – Bhutan would like to call on all working and potential media professionals and international media organizations to envision the ambient atmosphere of complete media freedom in Bhutan. Our deep attention has been drawn towards blockage of a popular site i.e. since June from being viewed within the country. This is a sheer attack on media sectors. We urge Bhutanese government to allow its operation at the earliest. TWMN – Bhutan also believes that unless Bhutanese regime guarantees media freedom in the country, it cannot step into complete ‘democratization’.

General Secretary
Teju Chouhan
TWMN – Bhutan Chapter
Kathmandu, Nepal.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

BICMA & the Dilemma of Free Expression

Bhutan Observer carried a story several weeks ago that covered an interview with BICMA for their justifications in blocking BT. We thought it was a good thing as it brought some light to the issue. It also raised some hope that BICMA was willing to hear different sides of the issue. In that hope, we sent the letter below to the editor of Bhutan Observer to initiate a public dialogue. Unfortunately it seems Bhutan Observer found reasons not to publish our letter. Two of their issues have since been published and it seems their decision not to publish our thoughts is resolute. In the meantime we have sent the letter to the editors of the Other Bhutan Times as well as Kuensel. Neither one has bothered to publish it either.

To say the least, this is disappointing. That such an attitude would be adopted by our three official newspapers is simply mind-boggling. In order for the press to do their job, that is to inform the public truthfully and accurately, an environment of open expression is necessary. Quite clearly, BICMA has not fully comprehended this concept and the three papers are suffering hugely from this. We believed it would be in the best interest of all three papers for BICMA to be more responsible in implementing their regulatory mandate. Sadly it seems they seem happy to wallow in the little monopoly of news that BICMA has inadvertently created for them in Bhutan. –ed.

The Bhutan Observer interview with Wangay Dorji of BICMA on the topic of the banning of Bhutan Times website was most illuminating and we are grateful to Bhutan Observer for eliminating some of the murkiness on this topic. Compared to the earlier announcements of BICMA, this interview was frank and informative.

Wangay Dorji is quoted to have said that after two long months of study, BICMA concluded that “ is an unregulated site which carries any posts”. If BICMA had read the “About BT” link, they would have understood that this is not the case. After much deliberation, BT had decided that only HM would be above criticism of any sort. Clearly therefore, BT does not carry just any post.

There is little else moderators can do. On the one hand, it is very easy to prevent defamation and malicious posting. Simply shut down the forum and reject all mail from readers. It is also quite easy to provide a voice to every citizen by allowing freedom of expression. It is almost impossible however, to do both.

Yet both are extremely important.

In Bhutan this seems to be particularly difficult. People, officials in particular are generally not used to criticism and quite a few demonstrate a tendency to hyper-react whenever they happen to experience some. And as many of the BT readers have noted, the definition of Defamation according to the Bhutan Penal Code can potentially be interpreted to treat anything mildly offensive as defamatory. BICMA on the other hand, has no published standards at all. It is rather surprising therefore that BICMA has taken upon itself to be judge and executioner in penalizing BT for breaking their rules they never published.

Sometimes the only defense against the charge of defamation is the truth. A statement extremely damaging to someone’s reputation and stated with malicious intent can also be the truth and would therefore not be defamation. This can be established however only after a thorough investigation by legally competent individuals.

All of the members at BT do in fact want to remain on the right side of the law. Who would want their hard work to suffer the ignominy of a government ban? Wangay Dorji is quoted as saying “If the outlook (of BT) had improved ensuring that the posts in its online forum are not disturbing and defamatory, there were possibilities of lifting the ban”. That statement is most encouraging. But BICMA needs to be far clearer in stating what it wants by for example, defining what it means by ‘disturbing’ and ‘defamatory’. BICMA should also be more forthcoming with the nuts and bolts of their analysis that led to the conclusion that BT must be banned at all costs. What for example was the“one post” that according to BICMA made BT “lose its credibility”? Others would argue that it is Kuenselonline, with its high percentage of rejected posts that is in serious shortage of credibility.

Therefore, even under the kindest terms, what BICMA has done will seem satisfactory only in the backdrop of government organizations that typically treat their own decisions as the word of law. By any other standard, their actions fall seriously short.

In other words, before it takes any such action, BICMA must make and publish its standards. To be really meaningful, these standards must responsibly reflect both sides of the dilemma of free expression. Today BICMA may find itself the reluctant defender of a minister’s delicate ego. Tomorrow, it will be anybody’s sensitivity for which it will have to shut people up. This can result in a muted society of polite smiles disconnected from reality. The fact is that freedom of expression can be hard to stomach and perhaps even painful. But in the long run, the ability to absorb and stomach such freedom of expression will be an important factor if Bhutan is to successfully transform into a democracy.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Bhutan’s repression on Journalists

By: TP Mishra
The repression on innocent Bhutanese refugees by the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA), who endeavour entering their original homeland, Bhutan continues unabated. The detention of Shantiram Acharya, a registered refugee of Beldangi-II, Sector ‘D’ Hut no- 85 along with three other Bhutanese refugee youths, on a fake charge of being Maoist militant, on January 16, is one of the latest subjugation of Druk oligarchy.

The online version of absolute Bhutanese regime’s mouthpiece, Kuensel has initially made it public only on January 24. It is learnt that those youths were arrested at Tashilakha under Chhuka district (South West Bhutan) by RBA. It has claimed that the detainees clandestinely entered Chukha dzongkhag (district) to survey the security deployment of the Tala project.
But, on ten minutes long telephone inquiry with Devi Acharya, his senior brother on January 25, strongly denied his junior brother’s involvement in Bhutanese Maoists. I was also informed that Shantiram was suspected to have undergone metal depression since two months. Meanwhile, one of the news portal ( run by journalists in exile has quoted Devi Acharya as stating that Shantiram was a good writer and used to work in different newspapers in Bhutanese refugee camps.

Dadiram Neopane, Editor of ‘The Child Creation’, a monthly newspaper funded by LWF, says that Shantiram has served as a Guest Editor of Bal Awaj, a Nepali wall bulletin meant for Bhutanese refugee children before one-and-half years. However, Neopane opines that Acharya had gone mental disorderness and used to deal abnormally. Acharya’s editorship in the wall bulletin is also confirmed by Bhim Adhikari, the present Editor of it.

Meanwhile, Communists Party of Bhutan, CPB-MLM in a press statement on January 23 has also denied his affiliation to their party. But it is worth mentioning here that the history will blight Bhutanese Maoists if they are intentionally trying to conceal the facts in front of his innocent family members denying Shantiram’s affiliation.

But when dealing with the facts from the online version of Kuensel then several superfluous and orchestrated messages can be read between the lines. Mr. Acharya was quoted in Kuensel as saying that he confessed the RBA stating he was a Maoists militant sent by Party President. Now this particular vow has turned controversy when it is known that the CPB-MLM doesn’t have presidentship system. It should also be understood here that either RBA had forced him at gun points, like during early 1990s, to split out such a baseless and creative statement or Mr. Acharya might have truly gone mentally depressed as revealed out by his relatives and many close friends.

Here it also appears that the RBA has hatched out fabricated allegations against him simply to save the face of royal regime, as it’s Foreign Minister, Khandu Wangchuk had reported in the recently concluded winter session of the Bhutanese National Assembly that "people in the camps in Nepal are ready-made-terrorists."

Acharya being from the refugee camp, it became the best weapon for the Bhutanese regime to use his arrest in the best Considering torture in police custody is most inhuman in the police and army barracks in Bhutan. The international human rights bodies should be deeply concerned about the life and liberty of Acharya.

According to the online version of Kuensel, Acharya would soon face Judiciary for additional exploration. We cannot predict that the Druk government-controlled Judiciary system would exercise all norms of ‘fair trial’ during the investigation process. Bhutan actually doesn’t have independent judiciary that delivers justice to suppressed and unheard voices.

It should be well noted here that no any detainees, on whatsoever cases, in Bhutanese jails are left physically untouched even if s/he is kept for few hours. And it has almost become more then a week that the whereabouts of Acharya is not made public.

The history clearly reveals that Bhutanese prominent human rights leader Tek Nath Rizal was arrested from his residence in Birtamode on December 16, 1989 by the then panchayat government. He was extradited to Bhutan government via Druk air on the very day. It was the same judiciary system that stated Rizal innocent on December 17, 1999 before releasing on the same date.

This shows that Bhutan’s judiciary system hasn’t gained independency and question on Achary’s fair trial would just be a blunder. What actually had Acharya, who is reportedly known to be of just four years old before forcible eviction from Bhutan during early 1990s, committed crimes for facing government-owned Judicial?. If he is really a Maoist militia then Bhutan shall be able to bar international criticism only if the investigation on him be carried-out amidst international human rights bodies.

This detention is a direct violation of the provisions of international instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Therefore, international human rights organizations such as the Amnesty International, Global Human Rights Defense (GHRD), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) should take intervention on the situation and initiate urgent measures for his immediate release.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Kuzoo FM starts another station Kuzoo FM

Kuzoo FM starts another station Kuzoo FM, the first private radio station in the country has launched separate channels for Dzongkha and English program listeners on September 3.
Listeners can hear all Dzongkha music and other programs from FM 104 MHz while the FM 105 MHz broadcast all programs in English. Both the stations operate 24 hours daily.

Earlier, the Kuzoo had only one FM station: 105 MHz with dominating English programs.
The Kuzoo FM was established on September 28 last year and currently 15 staffs work permanently.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Bhutan's democratic transition and its experiment with free press

By: Dharma Adhikari

Democracy is a multi-edged sword. It cuts many ways. It can chip away at authoritarianism and usher in popular or mob rule. It can tear down walls of prejudices, intolerance and injustices or enable the tyranny of the majority. And it can certainly encourage an open society, but for some governments, freedom (of speech or press) could mean loss of official control or a decline of social order or traditional values.

Some portions of this trajectory are evident today in Bhutan, the eastern Himalayan kingdom. In particular, the country's one-year-old experiment with free press offers some insights into news media democratization in transitional-authoritarian systems steeped in tradition. Like a few sand grains would spoil an entire bowl of rice pudding, some incidents of official control actually continue to dampen Bhutan's positive efforts and gains in free press.

Freedom at last?
Currently, Bhutanese technocrats, in consultation with foreign experts (mainly from India) are laying the foundations of their democratic future. The country plans to transition into a "democratic constitutional monarchy" in 2008. The third and final draft version of the Constitution of Bhutan (PDF) was released at the beginning of August in the capital, Thimpu. It is the kingdom's first such written document and it's been in the works since March 2004.

The most outstanding feature of the draft constitution is that sovereign power belongs to the people of Bhutan, not the hitherto absolute Druk Gyalpo (king), who should, according to this constitution, retire at the age of 65. Under certain circumstances, the parliament would even be able remove the king by two-thirds majority.

The first general elections are slated for 2008 to elect the legislatures as well as to hold a referendum on the constitution. The Bhutanese parliament, in which all legislative powers are vested, will consist of the king, the National Council (with one member each elected from 20 districts and five royal nominees) and the National Assembly (a maximum of 55 elected members). The Lhengye Zhungtshog (Council of Ministers) headed by the Prime Minister, who will be elected from the majority party represented in the two-party National Assembly, will exercise executive powers. As for the judiciary, the Chief Justice of Bhutan must be directly appointed by the king.

Other significant gains include the rule of law and fundamental rights of citizens, particularly the provisions of freedom of the press and expression. Article 7 of the draft Constitution (sub-article 5) reads: There shall be freedom of the press for radio, television and other forms of dissemination of information, including the electronic press. Sub-article 2 is categorical that a Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression. Sub-article 3 stipulates that a citizen shall have the right to information. Similarly, sub-article 4 recognizes a citizen's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

These political reforms come with some caveats. For one, according to the final version of the draft constitution, the Bhutanese king still remains the Supreme Commander in Chief of the armed forces and the militia, and he also retains some emergency powers and royal prerogatives. The monarch, a Buddhist by heritage, is considered sacrosanct and he is not answerable in a court of law for his actions. For another, the constitution lacks a provision for an independent judiciary and fails to adequately acknowledge religious, linguistic and cultural freedoms in a nation of diverse communities and ethnicities.

The grounds for restraining individual freedoms are defined too broadly (Article 7, sub-article 21) -- in the interest of sovereignty, unity and integrity of the country. The implication is that the government may curtail any freedom that jeopardizes others' rights and freedoms, or peace, stability, security and well-being of the nation, friendly relationship with other countries, or activities that incite offence on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion or region.

The new constitution heralds a monumental change for a country coming out of obscurity and still partially dependent on a regional power. (Bhutan is bound by a 1949 treaty to be guided by India in its foreign and defense affairs.) Many Bhutanese attribute the change to the benevolence of their king. In fact, they trace the reforms to a 1998 Kasho (royal edict) by their former Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singhe Wangchuk, who proposed a democratic constitution and abdicated in December 2007 in favor of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk. However, the king's opponents doubt his sincerity. For example, Rongthong Kuenley Dorjee, a dissident leader now in exile in India, has described the royal move as an "eyewash and of no consequence."

To be fair, the impetus of change came from many directions, including external developments, internal pressure groups and political movements as well as the growing willingness of the king to minimize confrontational politics and adopt peaceful ways. The Bhutanese king would rather give up his powers by his own volition than face an anti-monarchy movement like the one in Nepal. His reforms gained momentum just as Nepal became mired in total chaos instigated by a decade-long Maoist insurgency and a people's revolution.

In fact, Bhutan became a paradox. Wangchuk's advocacy of democracy and national identity ("One Nation One People" policy) and his theory of "Gross National Happiness" (as opposed to Gross National Product) came coupled with his efforts to silence his critics. His forward-looking edict helped deflect international criticism against his anti-democratic regime that routinely threw opponents in jail, sanctioned a forceful eviction of one-sixth of the country's population in the early 1990s (mainly ethnic Nepalis; more than 100,000 are still languishing in refugee camps in Nepal), and denied individual rights and civil liberties to his citizens.

The real test for Bhutan now is to adopt the constitution formally and to ensure a transparent system. In a genuine democracy, there is no other means as efficient as a free press to ensure transparency and accountability or the practice of individual rights and freedoms.

Experimenting with a free press
Until the constitution comes into effect in 2008, Bhutanese press will be guided by the 1992 National Security Act, which forbids any criticism of the monarch and the country's political system. The Bhutan Information, Communications and Media Act (PDF) is focused on technical specifics and remains totally silent on press freedom.

Yet, the formal opening of airwaves for private radio stations as well as the launch of independent newspapers has opened the door for experimenting with a free press. Two newspapers, the Bhutan Times and the Daily Observer, started publishing in April and June, 2007, respectively, breaking the more than 40-year monopoly of Kuensel, the only government-operated newspaper. The government monopoly of the airwaves also ceased in September 2006 with the launch of Kuzoo FM 90. The government is reviewing more applications for licenses to operate radio stations.

It is noteworthy, though, that Bhutan's press began as a private enterprise. Both Kuensel and Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) were launched by private individuals and independent groups, later to be acquired and operated by the government.

Television and the Internet have been accessible since 1999. Both these types of electronic media were introduced despite widespread fear that their "controversial" content such as fashion shows, western music, wrestling, and pornography, could destroy traditional way of life based on unique Buddhist principles.

The question is, how free are the Bhutanese media? In their oft-quoted book The Elements of Journalism, authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel identify these characteristics, among others, of a free and participatory press: commitment to truthfulness, loyalty to citizens, verification, independence from the subject of the story, monitoring of power, forum for public criticism and compromise, comprehensive and proportional news, and journalists' exercise of personal conscience.

Some of these characteristics are reflected in the Bhutanese press, but most are not. The private newspapers are just testing the waters and learning to be critical about the government's policies and programs (as opposed to the system itself or the king). They practice widespread self-censorship and generally appear supportive of the government's foreign policies mainly concerning militancy in Indo-Bhutanese border and refugees based in Nepal. Media watch groups have noticed a bias toward "official truth." In its annual report 2007, Reporters without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based group, hailed Bhutan's cautious privatization of media, but it observed that "most news still remains highly favorable to the authorities." The government newspaper and broadcast outlets primarily serve as official propaganda machines and fail to act as forums for public criticism or diversity of views, particularly those from the opposition.

One clear example that Bhutanese government as well as the country's bureaucratic elite is intolerant of an open media is in the censorship of foreign outlets. The Bhutan Information and Communication Media Authority (BICMA) blocked some websites that it considers defamatory or sleazy. In April 2006, it banned SUN TV, Asianet, ETV Bangla, Aaj Tak and Zee News from India, as well as FTV and Ten Sports, because they were "culturally degrading and were undermining Bhutanese cultural values, besides distracting students from their studies." In June 2006, Bhutan's worst fears about the moral implications of modern media came true when an image of then Crown Prince Jigme Khesar, flanked by provocatively dressed Thai women, began to circulate on the web.

In the Bhutanese context, then, a free press also entails responsibility on the part of the media to defend moral values, as defined by those in power. And, of course, the media must also contribute to nation building and protecting the country's security and sovereignty.

The view from the outside is that Bhutan has a long way to go. Freedom House, a Washington D.C.-based independent think tank, has consistently categorized Bhutan as "not free." The organization's annual surveys measure "freedom" broadly in terms of political rights and civil liberties, which include freedom of the press. The 2007 survey observed that the Bhutan Information, Communications and Media Act, passed in July 2006, provides no specific protections for journalists and does not guarantee freedom of information.

The latest setback occurred recently when the royal government banned a news website that it perceived to be critical of Sangey Nidup, a cabinet minister who is also the maternal uncle of the current Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar. On June 15, BICMA ordered all three of the country's Internet service providers to block local access to a news aggregator website called Bhutan Times (not related to the Bhutan Times daily metioned earlier in this essay), which is hosted in the United States. Authorities were vague, but the government-operated newspaper Kuensel speculated that the unregulated, freewheeling forum of that site could have been part of the rationale. The Bhutan Times website reported late last week that the block has been removed.

Still, Internet forums and blogs provide a largely unregulated space for free expression. The democratic reforms, deification of the Wangchuk monarchs, Nepal bashing, and criticism of international media coverage (or the lack of coverage) on Bhutan are among the common threads in online forums, such as a discussion of Bhutan's happiness index on Global Voices.

Perhaps a more vibrant display of the Bhutanese free press are found among publications brought out by Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. In fact, the exiled press, though lacking in resources, is not only pluralistic in content but also critical of the system as well as monarchy, not to mention the government's policies and programs. They seem vigorous in exercising the "personal conscience" proposed by Kovach and Rosenstiel.

"The refugee journalists" have been at the forefront of media activism long before Thimpu woke up to the challenge of a free press. Since the early 1990s, they have been publishing newsletters and organizational mouthpieces as well as newspapers. However, more than half a dozen publications went defunct due to lack of funds. The first Bhutan Times actually began in one of refugee camps in Nepal in July 2000, almost six years before a newspaper with that same title debuted inside Bhutan. Leading the free press movement in exile now is the Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA).

Americans or Indians created their versions of a free press to advocate for republics and to gain independence from Britain. The Bhutanese experiment, forced by internal as well as external factors, seems to have overlapping motives rooted in the desire to maintain the old ways while embracing and confronting new possibilities or challenges.

Finding a balance
The challenge for both the servile national media and the activist exiled press of Bhutan is to find a balance between the Buddhist puritanism ("all-is-well") of the establishment and the vigorously critical role ("no-news-is-good-news") of a democratic press. All over Asia, authorities have often stifled free press (despite constitutional guarantees) to emphasize "responsibility." But they never succeeded in silencing the press fully, although they caused much damage to the natural evolution of their media systems. Bhutan should not fall prey to this historical misjudgment.

In a true democracy, citizens and elites are critical users of information, which is not possible without access to popular media with multiple voices as well as a measure of media literacy among the citizens. Newspapers have limited subscriptions and readership of a few thousands in a country of some 0.8 to 2.3 million (estimates vary). In late 2006, less than 30,000 people had access to the Internet. Cable television is limited to a few urban areas. Without doubt, the largely mountainous country's democratic future will be tested on airwaves via radio broadcasting and satellite television. In what is possibly the first of those tests, the government-owned television station recently adopted satellite technology and is now receivable throughout southern Asia. A collision between free media and free market is likely, since Bhutan, like its neighbors, is concerned with the "Indianization" and "Westernization" of its airwaves.

Free media may enable a cultural war or an official spin, but the greatest test of press freedom is the ability of citizens to tolerate, and even appreciate the "other" views. Many Bhutanese, who love their country, would want to be left alone, without dealing with their own diverse opinions. But that is not possible in a globalizing world, where press freedom seeps across national borders and spills into new media, such as the Internet. Since "truth," like democracy, has many sides, Bhutan will most likely have to do some multi-tasking in the days ahead.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Mystery surrounds Bhutan journalist's arrest

By: TP Mishra

The whereabouts of Shantiram Acharya, who, it’s claimed, has been working as a reporter for a number of newspapers operating in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal, is still unknown.

Acharya was arrested on January 16, 2007, on the charge of being a Maoist militant. His case was initially reported eight days later on January 24 by Kuensel, the state-owned website.

The Bhutan Chapter of Third World Media Network (TWMN) investigated and filed a report on Media Helping Media expressing deep concern about Acharya’s arrest and disappearance.

Devi Acharya, a brother of the missing journalist, says the only hope is for international human rights organisations to probe his brother’s detention.

Speaking by telephone with a TWMN-Bhutan representative, Devi Acharya said the family feared for Shantiram Acharya's safety.

“The state terrorizing situation inside Bhutan is extremely risky. I do not know whether my brother is inside a cruel Bhutanese jail or even whether he is still alive.”

The Communist Party of Bhutan (CPB-MLM) has already stated that Shantiram Acharya was not affiliated to their party.

TWMN-Bhutan called on international media freedom and human rights groups to investigate further.

Uncertainty over blocked website

There are claims from within Bhutan that the government is again blocking the Bhutan Times website.

The block was put in place a month ago after claims that the Bhutan Times had been covering ‘controversial issues’. That block appeared to have been lifted earlier this month.

The Bhutan Times is reporting this latest block on its site.

"We are getting reports from readers in Bhutan that the Bhutan Times (BT) has been blocked again and the site statistics seem to confirm this. We aren't sure what exactly is going on but certainly feel this is a highly regrettable action.

"BT has been taking some flak recently on this issue (on the forum and in the news) and at some point we will attempt to get our point of view across. "In the mean time we maintain that our readers will be best placed to judge whether we are deserving of such attention from Bhutan Infocomm and Media Authority (BICMA)."

The Bhutan Chapter of the Third World Media Network (TWMN) has called on the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) to investigate.

"We immediately call on the IFJ to protest in the strongest terms possible so that the Bhutanese government doesn't repeat such a mistake," the TWMN – Bhutan Chapter said in a statement.

The organisation is also calling on other media freedom groups to take action.
"The South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) has recently established its Bhutan Chapter inside the country.

“What is their role when the government is still hoodwinking the international communities," the TWMN - Bhutan Chapter statement continued.

When the IFJ heard about the earlier blocking, the organisation urged the Bhutanese government to reverse the decision.

"We strongly urge the Bhutanese government to overturn this decision, which can only be described as blatant censorship, and allow the Bhutanese people full access to the

"It is a hypocritical move by the government to block local access to this website, particularly after taking so many positive steps towards a freer media, such as allowing the introduction of media privatisation last year."

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Press freedom essential for Bhutan democracy

By: TP Mishra
Bhutan's remarks that it is heading towards democratisation are nothing short of an attempt to fool the international community.

There can be no democracy until it guarantees freedom of press and freedom of speech and expression.

And there are no human rights institutions to scrutinise and speak for these suppressed voices. The government-controlled media will not relay the people's voice.

Not only this, Bhutanese natives are unable to attain uncensored news. Actually, Bhutan neither has any laws or rules regarding the press nor does it encourage private publications. The government officials censor all news to be published, broadcast or telecast.

Even other programmes on the radio, television and most of the write-ups in the newspapers are administered by government. The government not only dampens private publications but also imposes serious penalty on such auditions.

The Bhutanese people have never demanded press freedom nor have they tried to bring out any private publication in the past. In was only after 1990 that autonomy of the press and right to information were considered. During the peaceful demonstration in the early 1990s, the Bhutanese people had press freedom among their top agenda.

This shows that the Lhotshampas want to establish press freedom in Bhutan some day. The other interesting fact is that media professionals now working in the different media houses in Bhutan have received short-term journalism training from the Netherlands, Singapore, Britain and India.

Bhutan, in the name of allowing independent publications, has recently launched Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer, so-called private newspapers. The former was launched on April 30, 2006 and the latter on June 2, 2006. The owner of both these newspapers claim that these are the latest private papers that have the declared objective of carrying those voices which are ignored by the state-owned weekly, Kuensel.

Kuensel was begun in 1960 by Bhim Bahadur Rai and Suk Man Rai in Nepali as a monthly, which was hand-written, from Kalimpong by Moni Printing Press. Later, the government took control of it.

This shows that it was the Nepali-speaking people who sowed the seeds of a private media in Bhutan. It was Kuensel which played a significant role in extending indirect support to the government in evicting the southerners. And all the other newspapers are still under much government control.

Actually two publications by the name Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer were published from the Bhutanese refugee camps - the former by Sagar Rai of Sanischare camp and the latter by Peoples' Forum for Human Rights and Democracy (PFHR-D).

The launching of the newspapers inside Bhutan with the same names as those published from the refugee camps leaves a very clear message that the Druk regime doesn't want to see the Lhotshampas getting involved in the media sector.

Radio service (NYAB Radio) in Bhutan started in November 1973 at the initiative of the youths who formed the National Youth Association of Bhutan (NYAB) led by a Royal family member.

In 1979, the Royal Government of Bhutan, recognising the importance of radio for development communication, embraced the station under the Ministry of Communications. Then it started a three-hour programme every Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday.

Bhutan introduced television only in 1999. Meanwhile, the government continues to impose restrictions on many TV channels that broadcast news. The banning of TV channels such as FTV, MTV, Zee News, Aaj Tak, Sun TV and Ten Sports in the middle of March 2005 puts a big question mark on Bhutan's stance on press freedom.

During 1989-92, DANIDA and UNESCO invested a huge sum for improving the media in Bhutan. But it has all gone to waste. The Bhutanese people have never felt the presence of a private press. Currently, the radio broadcasts 12 hours a day with 1.5 hours of traditional music.

The recently released 'SAARC Human Rights Report-2006' also reveals the state of media in Bhutan. The report places Bhutan second in the SAARC Human Rights Violators Index 2006. Not only this, it reveals the unseen atrocities taking place inside Bhutan.

This report, at a time when Bhutan claim it has high 'Gross National Happiness', shows that the world community is simply a bystander to the gross violation of human rights in Bhutan.

Yet another special report regarding the state of Bhutanese media has been made public in the 'South Asia Press Freedom Report, 2005-2006'. The report was released by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), one of the international umbrella organisations, that aims to push governments to promote social justice and rights for journalists across the globe.

The Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) - Bhutan, an organisation established in the Bhutanese refugee camps, and other organisations such as Bhutan Press Union, Bhutan Media Society and Third World Media Network - Bhutan Chapter are struggling for complete freedom of the press and freedom of speech and expression in Bhutan.

It is clear that democracy and assurance of human rights in Bhutan can never foster until the Druk regime guarantees freedom of press. The media's role in Nepal during Jan Andolan-II should serve as a good example for Bhutanese democrats.