An estimated one sixth of the total Bhutanese population was forcibly evicted during the early 1990s and more than 100,000 are still languishing as refugees in UNHCR-run camps in Nepal and in various Indian states.
In order to keep the refugees informed about events in the camps and back in Bhutan, several media operations have been set up over the years, but most have failed through lack of money.
The problem is that those producing newspapers in the refugee camps, whether they are weekly, fortnightly or monthly, are barred from selling them in the local market. Nepalese law prohibits foreigners from running media organisations in the country. As a result, the local authorities continually put pressure on the refugee journalists to close their media operations down. This means that any newspapers that are published must be distributed ‘for private circulation only’. Even if the refugee journalists could sell their newspapers, those living in the camps could not afford the two Nepalese rupees because they lack any source of income.
The majority Nepali-speaking refugee community has been central to the efforts to establish private media in the camps; traditionally, they have been the driving force behind the print media in Bhutan.
The newspaper, Mukti, was set up in the early 1990s by the Bhutan People’s Party under the editorship of Hari Adhikari. Manav Adhikarko Chirharan was published by the Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan in 1991 and The Bhutan Focus was published by the Students Union of Bhutan in 1990. However, these newspapers simply served as the mouthpieces of the organisations concerned.
The Sandesh, a weekly professional paper had a short life span. It was edited by B P Kasyap and began publishing in December 2000 but closed due to lack of funds in 2004.
The monthly, Shangrila Sandesh, was sponsored by The Rose Class with support from the London-based Photo Voice, and began its publication in 2001, however the print run ended when the sponsors quit without giving a reason in May 2003. Journalists on the paper have been unable to resume publication due to the lack of financial assistance.
Many of the sponsoring organisations, who vowed to promote independent media in the area, cite the refugee status of those producing the newspapers as the main reason for ending their support. However, some simply ended their funding without giving reasons.
The Bhutan Times, a weekly, edited by Sagar Rai, started its hardcopy publication from July 2000 but only survived for six months due to lack of funds. A paper with the same name was launched inside Bhutan on April 30, 2006.
A number of newspapers inside the Bhutanese refugee camps are waiting and eager to publish but they lack the funds to make publication a reality. These include The Bhutan Jagaran, Vidhyarthi Pratirodh and The Bhutan Reporter.
Another obstacle to the growth of media in the refugee camps is the lack of training for the volunteer journalists.
Kazi Gautam, Editor-In-Chief of The Bhutan Reporter says Bhutan’s exiled media situation is dying because of the lack of investment in resources and growth.
“International organisations who are committed to the promotion of the media should extend their support to Bhutan’s exiled media because the press situation inside Bhutan is strictly under the government control.”
Bhutan doesn’t allow any independent media organisations to operate inside the country. Organisations such as the Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) – Bhutan, Bhutan Press Union (BPU) and Third World Media Network (TWMN) – Bhutan Chapter have been established in exile in order to campaign and work towards media freedom and freedom of expression in Bhutan.
Each of these organisations works to support and promotion the exiled media as part of a drive to achieve complete press freedom and freedom of expression in the country. None is able to meet the needs of journalists in exile, such as offering training and helping with financial support. This is mainly because these press freedom organisations, which operate in the refugee camps, are also unable to raise adequate funds.
APFA News, a news portal launched by APFA – Bhutan last year, has been trying to cover all issues related to Bhutan and refugees. However, the editor-in-chief of the portal, I P Adhikari, says continuing to operate online is a real challenge because of rising Internet costs.
Despite these challenges, young volunteer journalists in exile are committed to their task of helping the refugees achieve their basic human right of access to information. They also want to play their part in the establishment of complete media freedom in Bhutan and serve the Bhutanese community both inside and outside the country.
Until the international community supports this effort, the prospects look bleak. And it wouldn’t take much to make a big difference, boost morale and give the volunteer journalists in the refugee camps a sense of hope.
If international press bodies were to open their doors to Bhutan’s media groups and embraced and supported them in their aims, that would, at least, be a start.
(The writer, T P Mishra, is president of Third World Media Network – Bhutan Chapter and the editor of the Bhutan News Service (BNS) and chief coordinator for Helping Hand – Bhutan (a social organisation). He is also the winner of Bhutan’s journalist of the year award, 2006.)