OUTLOOK 22 January, 2009 - The Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) has been fined for doing its job.
The government by allowing the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) to flaunt such authoritative powers over BBS is trampling on the Constitution. It violates free press and free speech.The issue pertains to a panel discussion that BBS organised late December 2008. A private citizen had started- with the consent of the Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC)- a prepaid taxi service system that offered passengers half the rates charged by other taxi drivers. The other taxi drivers were not happy. Customers were confused why two taxis were charging two different rates for the same distance. It was a matter of public concern.
The debate on BBS TV that evening turned into a boisterous exchange of arguments, in which one emotional taxi driver criticised MoIC minister Lyonpo Nandalal Rai for approving the pre-paid taxi service without discussing it with other taxi drivers who would be affected by his arbitrary decision.
BICMA who fined BBS declared that the panel discussion was not “fair, decent and balanced in line with the Code of Ethics of Journalists”.
We in the media are deeply concerned. The possibility that a media organisation may be punished and publicly paraded merely for hosting a debate to foster and preserve free speech, promised by our Constitution, ought to trouble everyone. The message from this is that airing of unpopular or offensive opinions on the government will be stifled. This even as the Constitution guarantees us intellectual freedom and the right for private citizens to criticise the government.
Holding BBS liable for a panel discussion in which a minister was criticised could set a dangerous precedent and exercise a worrisome effect on the media’s ability to report truthfully on matters of public concern. Such moves will deprive citizens of information they need to make informed judgments about their elected leaders’ policies and actions.
What goes on inside a government then becomes more and more secret, which is bad news for democracy, and what’s left for the public are official press releases.
If BICMA fines BBS for hosting a discussion in which a minister was criticised, it may one day fine us too for criticising the state. This is not about BBS alone. The fining of a Bhutanese media is about the ability of a free press in democratic Bhutan to do its job.
BICMA is a fine agencyEver since its start, BICMA has taken the necessity of heightened vigilance against what it ominously calls irresponsible journalism, frequently imposing fines and sending warning letters to editors and reporters.
What BICMA could do instead is engage the young Bhutanese media in meaningful dialogues that will point the way towards a vibrant democracy. It should lead the way in reassuring the citizens that the government will respect the value of openness. That free press has a central place in the Constitution because it can provide information the public needs to make things right again.
Imposing fines is definitely not the way to go. It can create mistrust and a sense of authoritarian rule, which works against the public interest and free press. BICMA must act only in the most dire circumstances when it regulates free expression.
That is not to say that some of our newspapers deserve a pass for their overtly sensational or graphic news coverage. More sensitivity and less stridency on them would certainly be welcome. But those erroneous displays need to be addressed by the papers themselves and remembered by their customers.
It’s the paper’s credibility in the end. If a paper’s news coverage is trash or socially offensive, viewers can change papers. If a paper’s reporting is biased, there are other newspapers. Soon enough, in this competitive news market, a paper will get the message.
BICMA or the government must understand that in a democracy, a free and inconvenient press is not a luxury. An independent press is a fundamental human right protected by the Constitution. If that right is taken away or eroded, elections are moot and democracy really cannot survive.
By Kencho Wangdi
Saturday, January 24, 2009