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Bhutanese Media After Democracy

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IS there media freedom in Bhutan? Are Bhutanese citizens’ right to speech and expression guaranteed by the state? Are all citizens exercising their right to information as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Let’s first step into some dubious instances that themselves answer this question.

Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) fined the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) regarding a panel discussion on pre-paid taxi services televised earlier this month. BICMA has asked the corporation to deposit a sum of Nu 18,000. A letter dispatched by BICMA says that it finds no adequate justification to consider such panel discussions are fair, decent and balanced in line with the Code of Ethics of Journalists. In response to the decision of BICMA, the BBS said the discussion was conducted with appropriate representation, including the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA) and other stakeholders.

A question arises as to whether holding a panel discussion is beyond the ethics of journalists. It was the right of the BBS to hold such a panel discussion, and the former’s decision to fine is attention drawing. It is a severe attack on media freedom. Dubbing it contrary to the spirit of media freedom and thinking it could lead to undue restraints on the exercise of free speech in Bhutan, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) even showed deep concern.

As a government regulatory body, BICMA cannot prescribe limits for the press, ethics for journalists and guidelines for the content of the media or instruct journalists how a panel discussion ought to be held. Such attempts would undoubtedly be seen as a tactics to dictate media content. Bhutan’s repeated claim that it has already stepped into the democratisation process seems questionable since there still exists suppressive rules to keep the media under control.

Of late, the Bhutanese authority has declared a jail term of seven-and-a-half years to a refugee journalist, Shanti Ram Acharya, who had reached Bhutan to meet his relative. Acharya, 20, was arrested by the Bhutanese security forces on January 16, 2007 at Tashilakha area on charges of being a member of the underground Communist Party of Bhutan. Showing concern at the High Court’s sentencing of journalist Acharya, the international media watchdog said, “The IFJ urges Bhutan’s authorities to take a humanitarian view of the case of Acharya and review the harsh sentence imposed on him.”

Acharya was produced before the court for preliminary hearing only on March 16. This is against the right of the detainee. It is obvious he faced tremendous torture into confessing to the different charges. Besides, it also shows Bhutan’s unwillingness to respect and safeguard the fundamental rights and allow the freedom of movement and assembly to its citizens enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The Bhutanese High Court claimed it granted full opportunity to journalist Acharya to plead. However, since the judiciary system in the country is still state-controlled, there is no way one can believe the court’s claims. It’s definite that Acharya failed to hire an attorney for his defense for two reasons, and these made him fall prey. One, Bhutan does not have independent attorneys who can be hired by an individual, and two, he lacked the financial backup because he was produced in court without the knowledge of his relatives and family members.

The police charge sheet against Acharya says he was arrested for taking photographs of an outpost of the Royal Bhutan Army with a digital camera, which does not provide enough evidence to prove he was acting against Bhutan. For sure, a journalist will take photos and this is his/her right. It might have been a wrong place – an outpost of the army – for taking the photos, thus, the Court’s order to sentence him for such a long time simply for taking photos sounds illogical.

At this moment when the world is witnessing hasty changes in the media sector, Bhutan still lazes more or less where it was. The question of the state’s guarantee to media freedom, respect and safeguard of the public’s right to speech and expression still remain unanswered despite the regime’s claim that the country has already stepped into the democratisation process.

The citizen’s right to information has been trampled by the state for long, although Bhutan is a member of the United Nations, which guarantees such fundamental rights. Peoples’ democracy would remain a farce as long as there is no press freedom in the country. The so-claimed democracy does not have a free press, a must to drive the regime towards good governance.

Interestingly, the Bhutan Chapter of South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) remains silent on the issue as if to say there is complete press freedom in Bhutan. SAFMA’s aims at strengthening the networking among the media stakeholders, especially working journalists, to improve their professional standards through journalist’s education, training and capacity building and promotion of press freedom is, therefore, questionable.

The media sector has to operate in a free and fair atmosphere so that democracy can foster. The ongoing practices opted by the media houses inside Bhutan in themselves are not adequate. Besides, a sense of self-censorship still exists among Bhutanese journalists.

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