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

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