Bhutan's experiment with a free press

Bhutan's democratic transition will involve some serious multi-tasking, writes Dharma Adhikari

By Dharma Adhikari
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

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*), 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 ("all-is not-well") 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.


The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.

*Editor's Note (8/22/07) : AsiaMedia amended this article to clarify that the Bhutan Times website which was blocked is not the same as the Bhutan Times newspaper mentioned earlier in the piece. We regret any confusion caused by this editing error and thank reader Greg Baker for bringing the clarification to our attention.