Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Less free press?

Officialdom seems to have developed cold feet opening up to media28 July, 2008 - Officials have constructed barricades to make things difficult for reporters these days. One of them has been the appointment of ministry policy and planning division (PPD) heads as press spokespersons with the sinister-sounding task of “helping reporters report correctly”.
Reporters are disallowed from contacting officials directly. They are made to submit their questions, through fax and email, to the PPD heads, who consult their bosses before getting back to the reporters. Their promptness, they say, depends on the “gravity” of the reporter’s questions.
The more sensitive the question, the more time taken for a reply. Answers come in writing too, via fax or email. Questions deemed offensive are ignored and reporters berated for overstepping the mark.
Read More

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Notes From a Political Reporter's Diary

17 June, 2008 -
The Candidate's thighs hurt so bad that it was difficult to squat. His stomach ached so bad that it was growling. So he did what he could under the circumstances. He caught the base of an oak tree with both his hands and proceeded to relieve himself. But the forest's flesh-eating bugs would not leave him in peace. Trying to swat the pests, he almost lost his balance. He found out later that, besides his luck, he had also run out of toilet paper, even his notebook was lost.

A few metres away, his party workers waited for him. I was with them covering the Candidate's (names are omitted) campaign. On the previous day, we had walked down to a village nestled at the base of a scraggy ravine between which crashed a wild river. The next day, we were up walking towards a village on top of a ridge.

After what seemed like an hour, the Candidate finally staggered into sight wearing the expression of a man who had just come out of a torture chamber, sitting on a needles and pins chair. His legs shook violently. It took massive self-control on the part of party workers to prevent themselves from bursting into laughter. By the time the group reached the village, which was in the evening, half the crowd had left.

For Bhutan's aspiring parliamentarians from the East, the size and complexity of the Bhutanese terrain, inaccessible by road, and the complications that it entailed, were their biggest challenge. There were always more ridges. Each time they hauled themselves up a ridge hoping to see their destination, they found that there were more ridges beyond, and that beyond that slope there was another, and beyond that another.

Certain sections of their trail were so narrow and precarious that more than once their legs refused to move and their heart, candidates told me, beat so that they felt sick. During rainy days, the paths were rendered ribbons of mud. And mist sat in the path, too thick for the eyes to cut. In interviews, later in the evening, some candidates appeared momentarily overtaken by emotion when asked how they were enduring the strains of the campaign.

Despite the hardship, there would always be a show of public joviality from them. In the meetings with voters, it was rare to find most candidates not smiling, or grinning. Frequently, they chuckled or guffawed. They invariably flashed a grin when they saw a photographer, be it press or some loyal followers. You had to literally creep up on candidates to catch them looking solemn.

Men would get grabbed by the shoulders by the candidate as though meeting a long lost friend. Women would get enfolded with arms with a gusto that others would reserve for a warmly remembered lover. Farmers would react good-naturedly, overwhelmed by their encounter.

Besides that, the candidates seized the opportunity to speak to small groups of people they chanced upon at trail corners, on school playgrounds, and elsewhere. Many people though failed to recognize them on sight. Once, a famous candidate, on his way towards a village, stopped for a chat with a cow herder, who later, after giving his name to a reporter, asked him if he happened to know the name of the man he had been taking to and what in god's name was he doing there.

The fact that candidates delivered essentially the same talk in every village made things easier in some respects and harder in others. On the one hand, they were spared the labours of composing on the road; all they had to do was work in a flattering local allusion ("I'm so glad to be here in your village …"), the names of their coordinators and, for the benefit of the reporters, if there were any, a few affirmations and indirect allegations not previously made. On the other hand, they had to contend with the problem of keeping an audience entertained while fighting off their own own boredom.

There were also candidates who blurred the dividing line between political campaigns and sales campaigns. There was this sense of 'packaged candidate' - a carefully tailored, market-researched, consumer-oriented, family-size genie, guaranteed not to irritate voters or leave a telltale ring of controversy but simply to pitch in and do the job - which was, of course, getting elected. "I can be myself once I get elected," a candidate told me. "But right now I want to be who they want me to be."

Bhutan's first election campaign was dominated by set-piece face-offs and scripted conventions that the candidates themselves could control, and by forces and factors beyond their power. But the weeks and months leading to the election day are as instructive today as they were riveting then: blistering months of mental gamesmanship, piercing attacks, contrasts in personalities and positions, and blunders, played out by two outsized political figures in a super-heated atmosphere.

Media's Part
Bhutanese reporters would stand by making notes and counting the crowd. When politician began to speak, they made frantic notes, although he would say nothing new. When the speech was done, they would clamber back into their fetid rooms, which they shared with party workers - the aroma was a compound of cigarettes, ara, beer, and the stench of men who had not bathed for days – and write about the day's event.

When the deadline neared, they walked and then drove to the nearest town that had an internet connection. Most roads would be hardly better than a trail, passable to mules but just barely to cars.

There were reporters, who were aboard on a particular candidate's campaign for only a day or two at a time, and who were free to go off and cover another candidate. There were a few reporters, who had been assigned to cover a single candidate until further notice.

These reporters followed the candidate everywhere, ate and drank with his staff, heard his standard speeches so many dozens of times they could recite it with them, watched his moods go up and down, speculated constantly on his chances, told jokes at his expense, traded gossip about him, and they were lucky if they did not dream about him into the bargain.

Bhutanese reporters reported what they heard and saw and very little of what they thought. They left that to the editorial writers. Bhutan's first election was a weighty assignment and no media was prepared or understood the full importance of it. Most newspaper articles were extremely cautious. There were a lot of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand equivocations. Even editorials hemmed and hawed, parsed and understated. Maybe that was to be expected.

One of the main problems was that none of the reporters were trained in political reporting and writing. They also lacked or were afforded very little resources, and editors wanted stories pronto. Most reporters conducted their interviews over phone or at a road-head when candidates came down from the rural to the towns for a respite. And the purpose of many such interviews was often not to gather information but to gather comments, mostly on the various allegations spat at each other by the parties. That way several interesting developments in the campaign went unchronicled.

That way most stories also lacked the advantage of serendipity or the authenticity of having been there.

At the same time, it was impossible to tell how often the reporters censored themselves in anticipation of some imaginary showdown with a cautious editor, or a tense candidate, preferring to play it safe and go along with whatever the rest of the pack was writing.

There were also our political candidates, who took personally things the press wrote about him or her and who were mad at the reporters for what they perceived as "negative coverage." In a campaign filled with tension, such hostility took a whole new meaning for the reporters.

As a practical matter, politicians cherished and coveted uncritical media coverage and, many times, the Bhutanese media obliged. Still pictures of them smiling with their voters and stories on their standard campaign speeches were the delight of politicians.

But the moment a (greatly softened) critical story appeared in the papers, there was this palpable urge in the air to control and bully every freethinking reporter and editor in sight.

But looking back, journalists and observers agree that the Bhutanese media did not ask the right questions or enough questions, or wrote right stories or enough stories. But time is a corrective. We now have the chance.

Hopefully we, Bhutanese journalists, will live up to our sacred responsibility, which is to provide valuable information to the consumer, to the citizen, to keep the level of citizenship high, to keep the vitality of democracy high.
By Kencho Wangdi

Feature: My days (and nights) as a newshound in New Delhi

Where the head is held high and the mind is without fear.
—Swami Vivekanada
20 June, 2008:
"So what was it like?" What"? (The writer says). Well, you know, working in Delhi as a journalist?" The writer sighs and for the hundredth time has to repeat a tale of big media companies, the heat, the glitz, cut-throat competition, politics, death, crime, corruption and excitement.

While in summer there is the omnipresent and all consuming heat, in winter temperatures hover around –20C at night to 20C in the day. It is a 'city of extremes' demonstrated in its climate, economy, history, people, infrastructure, culture, food, complexity, power games, entertainment and sheer size.

All this and a burning ambition made this writer decide, before joining college itself, to build a career there. While the first year passed in getting used to a different world, the second and third years were more useful with job internships that landed the writer two job offers while in the third year of college.

Joining the Indian Express paper was equivalent to getting admitted into a great Indian Institution. The highpoint of this paper was in single-handedly opposing the unpopular emergency in 1973 and being a rally point of a weak opposition in bringing down the government of the then powerful prime minister Indira Gandhi. Once the opposition was in power, even they were not spared from attacks on corruption and other issues.

Being from a reputed college and with some internship experience, the writer assumed it would be a cakewalk and so it was with some *****iness that he walked into the newsroom in July 2006. Two weeks later, thoughts of quitting, self-doubt and desperation were setting in, when none of his articles were getting published.

To put it in perspective, unlike popular perception, there are no senior reporters or editors patting your back and telling you what to do because, if truth be told, everybody is too damn busy in the rat race. It is in these harsh settings that a reporter is expected to run, while he/she may be thinking of crawling and so only the fit survive while the fittest forge ahead.

Desperate times demanded drastic measures and so the next logical step was to investigate the spending of Rs 30 million building grants given to three top colleges of Delhi, including mine (St Stephen's). A unique lesson in the power of the press was when the principal and lecturers, we squirmed in front of until yesterday, were now sitting uncomfortably while trying their best to answer some questions.

Though the investigation could turn up nothing fishy, my first few stories on Delhi University started getting published. Also, the two-hour jam-packed bus rides in merciless heat, back and forth from DU to office, toughened me mentally and put me in touch with hard reality after three comfortable and secure years in college.

However, nothing could describe the initial thrill of seeing one's name in the morning on the paper and the tinge of jealousy on seeing other names. By now, working hours could be described as a daily grind of 9 am to as late as 11 pm in office, with oily and junk food one's staple diet. But who cared if they dropped dead by 60, because it was success at any cost that mattered.

The first lesson in cut-throat competition was when a slightly senior reporter dropped into 'Delhi University' during the annual news heavy election period and took away many of my stories. Swearing never to fall into such a situation, I focussed on the toughest and most ignored beat of the New Delhi municipal council.

This NDMC body was separate from the municipality of Delhi as it looked after the area in which stayed all the VVIPs of India, like the President, Prime Minister, Ministers, MPs, Secretaries, Judges, foreign embassies, etc.

My first major story here was in investigating and publishing the long overdue unpaid water and electric dues of everyone, right from the PM down to 340 MPs to ministers and other national and state leaders. One would expect all hell to break loose, but such is the strength of India's democracy and the maturity of its senior leaders that all I got was a letter from Omar Abdullah (Kashmiri leader) protesting that I had compared him to Pappu Yadav (Laloo Yadav's brother-in-law) and another from the union finance minister clarifying that he had paid the dues brought to his attention. Reporting in Delhi also had its dangers, especially during the time when all the traders went on strike over court orders to seal large markets.

There were blockades everywhere and Delhi had turned into a war zone and, for those not in the know, Delhi is a trader's city with 100 plus big markets. With a photographer and driver, we toured the city's major markets from morning to evening to get a feel. During these tours, we met all hues of people like hardened criminals, traders, surprisingly patient cops, party workers and even a sadhu. In the end, I had the strange experience of meeting the main leader of the traders in his hideout and also later in his office the police commissioner, who was looking for him. Both were good determined people but stood on either side of the fence on some issues.

There were also the very sad times when we were reminded time and again of the monstrosity of human nature. The first was when there were blasts on a Pakistan bound train from Delhi and, looking at the charred bodies and talking to the families, was not a happy experience. Another incident that created shockwaves was when a 50-year old man's mansion in Noida was found to be the site of the rape, torture, murder and cannibalism of around 40 children. On the first night they were digging out the bodies from the drains, we had to spend the whole night there and the tragedy of the incident was almost unreal at times.

A major plus point working for Express was that every Tuesday we had VVIP guests coming to our office for an interview session called idea exchange. The session was where senior national, party, industrial, entertainment, sports, intellectual, and constitutional figures of India were grilled by us for around two hours each week. In spite of that, there was never a shortage of guests. While in college, my friends were drawn from the elite and included sons and daughters of the who's who of Delhi, but it was a different experience while working.

I gradually became a workaholic, cutting short my weekends, lengthening my work hours, ignoring my friends and immersing myself in work. The strategy paid off and there was rapid progress with an out of turn promotion and offers from rival firms like India Today.

But the costs were at a deeper level because the price of success was now loneliness, emotional blindspots and stress. It had also been 15 months since I had been home, cutting me off from family too. With this and other more private personal issues, I decided to come to Bhutan for a year and try the new and exciting media scene here with elections and everything. On informing my senior editor, he got the shock of his life but agreed to let me go after generously reminding me that I could come back any time I wanted. My friends and acquaintances after 16 months working in Delhi included cops, politicians, municipal bosses, student leaders, bureaucrats, activists, intellectuals, artists, glamorous people, people in the slums, dabawallahs, rickshaw drivers, other journalists and more.

The media in India is truly a fourth estate and a powerful voice and agent of change on behalf of the wronged and weaker sections of society. One little secret about Delhi and India is that, no matter how desperate, diverse, crowded, poor, rich, weak, strong you may be, at the end of the day your rights are protected and guarded not by politicians, bureaucrats or judges, but a fierce, just and strong media that is the cornerstone of any strong democracy.

By Tenzing Lamsang

Monday, July 7, 2008

Journo Threatened

Source: The Bhutan Reporter, June-2008 edition
Bhupendra Timsina, Damak-based local correspondent for Nepal Samacharpatra daily in an exclusive interview with Saranarthi Sarokar at Nepal FM 91.8 on June 21, informed that he received a number of threats over telephone for reporting on ‘infiltration’ of non-Bhutanese in resettlement process. Timsina, who had written a news story regarding the infiltration of non-Bhutanese in the resettlement process on June 8 in Nepal Samacharpatra, complained BNS that he was mentally disturbed in returning to his normal duties.

According to Timsina, he is confident of the reliability of the sources for the news he covered. He further claimed that even exiled Bhutanese were also having hands in such designs.

Int’l support to TBR continues , June-2008 Edition
Dutch organization Alert Fonds, through Global Human Rights Defence (GHRD) has agreed to extend partial financial support for the publication of The Bhutan Reporter (TBR) for at least one year.

GHRD and Bhutan Media Society (BMS) formally signed a ‘condition paper’ on June 19. The condition paper does not contain any vague point such as censoring the contents of the paper from the sponsors.

Issuing a press statement after the agreement, BMS has expressed gratitude to both organizations Alert Fonds and GHRD for wishing to support the paper in exile. “This support has further added courage on exiled Bhutanese journalists towards their commitment for the dissemination of information to refugee community in Nepal”, reads a statement, adding that the BMS was expecting continued support from the international communities.

GHRD, the Netherlands-based international human rights organization is active in extending all sorts of possible support to exiled Bhutanese since its establishment.

Lamitare & Refugees

Source: The Kathmandu Post, July 8, 2008
I read the article, "Frail patience of Bhutanese" by Ashok Gurung (July 2) and subsequent reaction of T P Mishra, "False allegation" (July 4). The article carries useful information in favor of the Bhutanese refugees and informs the resettling authorities—UNHCR, IOM and the government—about the resettlement processes regarding selection of the vulnerable refugees, which need to be reviewed. I fully support his views. In contrary to Gurung, I find TP Mishra of APFA Bhutan trying to protect a person who is accused of writing against the refugees who supported "Durable Solution" vis-à-vis resettlement. Lamitare's contribution to the development of Nepali literature in Bhutanese community may mean something but we, Bhutanese refugees, cannot compromise with those who have tried to destabilize and defame our community.

Lamitare might be a founding member of Bhutan Press Union or a litterateur in others' eyes but he was a nuisance in the Bhutanese refugee camps. I am not surprised why TP Mishra is trying to save him. We have found APFA sympathetic to Bhutanese Maoists rather than to those who sought for a Durable Solution vis-à-vis resettlement a panacea for the exhausted refugees.

Let it be clear that we are not against any political ideology but won't tolerate violence in the refugee camps.

If Mishra argues Gangaram Lamitare is not 'Chatyang' and not the politburo member of CPB-Maoist, then he must have enough grounds to defend Gangaram Lamitare. We should not try to cover information about those who are involved in shooting refugees, attacking IOM vehicles, bombing IOM office at Damak and creating hostility amongst refugees.

By Chandraman Poudyal
Bhutanese Refugee Camp
Beldangi II, Jhapa

Friday, July 4, 2008

Journalist's face covered with mask of maoism

Ashok Gurung from Refugee Rights Coordination Committee wrote an article in The Kathmandu Post, daily of Nepal where his exact quote was “But to my astonishment when I had gone to see my friends at the IOM transit camp in Kathmandu, I overheard one of my friends telling to a man, "I will soon join Bhutan Maoist party". Then the man asked why it was so. The answer was "to fill the vacant post where you were before". Later it was revealed that the man was a politburo member of CPB-MLM, Gangaram Lamitare alias "Chatyang" who was standing with a "khada" worn ready to fly to the United States”.

You can read the whole text of Gurung’s article at this link:

Following is the reaction to his article in The Kathmandu Post

False allegation

This refers to the article titled "Frail patience of Bhutanese" (July 2) by Ashok Gurung. Despite standing in favor of most of his logics in the article, I would like to argue with him if he can really prove Gangaram Lamitare, as mentioned in his article, to be a politburo member of the Communist Party of Bhutan (CPB-MLM).

Since I began my journalism career in 2002, Lamitare was serving as Chief Editor for The Jagaran (A Nepali-language fortnightly paper published by and for Bhutanese refugees). Lamitare is regarded as one of the pioneering litterateurs who selflessly contributed to the existence and development of Nepali literature in Bhutanese community.

Lamitare is also counted one among handful of those who sowed seeds of "journalism" in exile. He is the founding member of Bhutan Press Union (BPU), formed in 2001. A number of books on journalism and Nepali literature written by Lamitare better speak of the fact that he is one of the established journalists and a litterateur in the refugee community.

Gurung's attempt to cover Lamitare's face with a "mask of Maoism" is suicidal. Nevertheless, Lamitare was arrested by the police a few years back accusing him of writing in favor of CPB-MLM. This was the result of the continuation of a trend where a journalist who writes in favor of repatriation is basically termed as a Maoist. To my knowledge, many organizations in the refugee community have already given Lamitare a number of awards and felicitation for his contribution in the sector of media and Nepali literature.

These many facts in themselves are more than enough to make a predicament that Lamitare would never convert himself into a Maoist cadre.

By T P Mishra

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

More information on the “fake” Bhutanese refugeesPosted (REPRODUCTION)

By acorcoran
June 22, 2008:
Last week I reported that a family has claimed that someone using their father’s identity has entered the US as a supposed Bhutanese refugee. The US Embassy and the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) have denied those charges here, saying that the screening is rigorous.

However, a blogger writing at a blog called “Media in Bhutan“ says reporters and others who have reported on infiltration have been threatened.

Of late, even local journalists in Jhapa are displaced from their regular reporting duties citing that they reported the issues related to ‘infiltration’ of non-Bhutanese in the refugee resettlement program. Bhupendra Timsina, Damak-based correspondent for Nepal Samacharpatra daily in an exclusive interview with Saranarthi Sarokar at Nepal FM 91.8 on Saturday June 21, said that separate gangs comprising both refugees and non-Bhutanese threatened him over telephone for reporting on infiltration of non-Bhutanese in refugee resettlement.

Timsina, who had written a news story regarding the infiltration of non-Bhutanese in the refugee resettlement program on June 8 in Nepal Samacharpatra, is mentally disturbed in returning to his normal duties. According to Timsina, attempts are underway from non-Bhutanese to fly to the US in the name of Bhutanese refugees and that a section of refugees are also involved in helping non-Bhutanese for such attempts.

However, in a joint statement issued on June 18, the US Embassy in Kathmandu and UNHCR strongly refuted such news reports thereby clarifying that such reports were unfounded. Here, the main concern is how could the gang threatened Timsina if attempts to ‘infiltration’ are not underway? While respecting the stance of both Embassy and Timsina, we can at least make a predicament [Editor: it is a 'predicament' but the word I assume he wants to use is 'prediction'] that there are possibilities of infiltration even if such cases aren’t found till date. So authorities concerned should be alert in possible infiltration of non-Bhutanese in refugee resettlement.
What a mess.

[This piece is reproduced from a blog that carried one of my topics posted in my blog]

On the RTI highway

Monday, June 30, 2008: The first thing that indicates how much freedom you enjoy is determined by how freely you speak and write। To speak or to write, you obviously, need things to read. In other words, you should have the right to information.

Bhutan stands at zero on this issue। But I think, little things are gradually coming up despite the rulers object on people’s right to know. No, this is not solely the responsibility of the government but, practically, the daily behavior of the bureaucrats at all levels of government machinery. Bhutanese bureaucracy descends from traditional thoughts of governance which taught them not to show anything to people on grounds of keeping office secrecy.

South Asia Free Media Association, that opened its chapter in this tiny kingdom, remained mum over its declared agenda for advocacy in favor of freedom of speech and expression and right to information। We criticized enough of its absence-role in drawing laws to promote press freedom, freedom of speech and expression and right to information in Bhutan.

Hopeful we were and are voices for press freedom, freedom of speech and expression and right to information will come to surface when time matures। As I browse through Kuensel frequently or friends from Thimphu send mails on latest situation, I feel happy that voices are coming up.
Tenzing Lamsang has, over the time, raise several questions on right to information bill that remained locked into the government cupboards। I think, unless government bring out clear policy to promote right to information and right to speech and express, democratic transition on Bhutan will remain in half-a-way.

Lamsang, keep on the pace! I have my wishes for your noble initiative.
[The opinion expressed in this piece of the one blogging]