Bhutan’s remarks that it is heading towards democratisation are nothing short of an attempt to fool the international community. There can be no democracy until it guarantees freedom of press and freedom of speech and expression. The work of holding the first momentous election scheduled for 2008 has been going on in full swing. However, there are already reports from the different media that some 1,700 voters from the southern division of the country have been barred from enlisting in the voters? list. And there are no human rights institutions to scrutinise and speak for these suppressed voices. The government-controlled media will not relay the people’s voice.
Not only this, Bhutanese natives are unable to attain uncensored news. Actually, Bhutan neither has any laws or rules regarding the press nor does it encourage private publications. The government officials censor all news to be published, broadcast or telecast. Even other programmes on the radio, television and most of the write-ups in the newspapers are administered by government. The government not only dampens private publications but also imposes serious penalty on such auditions.
The Bhutanese people have never demanded press freedom nor have they tried to bring out any private publication in the past. In was only after 1990 that autonomy of the press and right to information were considered. During the peaceful demonstration in the early 1990s, the Bhutanese people had press freedom among their top agenda. This shows that the Lhotshampas want to establish press freedom in Bhutan some day. The other interesting fact is that media professionals now working in the different media houses in Bhutan have received short-term journalism training from the Netherlands, Singapore, Britain and India.
Bhutan, in the name of allowing independent publications, has recently launched Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer, so-called private newspapers. The former was launched on April 30, 2006 and the latter on June 2, 2006. The owner of both these newspapers claim that these are the latest private papers that have the declared objective of carrying those voices which are ignored by the state-owned weekly, Kuensel.
Kuensel was begun in 1960 by Bhim Bahadur Rai and Suk Man Rai in Nepali as a monthly, which was hand-written, from Kalimpong by Moni Printing Press. Later, the government took control of it. This shows that it was the Nepali-speaking people who sowed the seeds of a private media in Bhutan. It was Kuensel which played a significant role in extending indirect support to the government in evicting the southerners. And all the other newspapers are still under much government control.
Actually two publications by the name Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer were published from the Bhutanese refugee camps – the former by Sagar Rai of Sanischare camp and the latter by Peoples? Forum for Human Rights and Democracy (PFHR-D). The launching of the newspapers inside Bhutan with the same names as those published from the refugee camps leaves a very clear message that the Druk regime doesn?t want to see the Lhotshampas getting involved in the media sector.
Radio service (NYAB Radio) in Bhutan started in November 1973 at the initiative of the youths who formed the National Youth Association of Bhutan (NYAB) led by a Royal family member. In 1979, the Royal Government of Bhutan, recognising the importance of radio for development communication, embraced the station under the Ministry of Communications. Then it started a three-hour programme every Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday.
Bhutan introduced television only in 1999. Meanwhile, the government continues to impose restrictions on many TV channels that broadcast news. The banning of TV channels such as FTV, MTV, Zee News, Aaj Tak, Sun TV and Ten Sports in the middle of March 2005 puts a big question mark on Bhutan?s stance on press freedom.
During 1989-92, DANIDA and UNESCO invested a huge sum for improving the media in Bhutan. But it has all gone to waste. The Bhutanese people have never felt the presence of a private press. Currently, the radio broadcasts 12 hours a day with 1.5 hours of traditional music.
The recently released ?SAARC Human Rights Report-2006? also reveals the state of media in Bhutan. The report places Bhutan second in the SAARC Human Rights Violators Index 2006. Not only this, it reveals the unseen atrocities taking place inside Bhutan. This report, at a time when Bhutan claim it has high ?Gross National Happiness?, shows that the world community is simply a bystander to the gross violation of human rights in Bhutan.
Yet another special report regarding the state of Bhutanese media has been made public in the ?South Asia Press Freedom Report, 2005-2006?. The report was released by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), one of the international umbrella organisations, that aims to push governments to promote social justice and rights for journalists across the globe.
The Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) – Bhutan, an organisation established in the Bhutanese refugee camps, and other organisations such as Bhutan Press Union, Bhutan Media Society and Third World Media Network – Bhutan Chapter are struggling for complete freedom of the press and freedom of speech and expression in Bhutan.
It is clear that democracy and assurance of human rights in Bhutan can never foster until the Druk regime guarantees freedom of press. The media’s role in Nepal during Jan Andolan-II should serve as a good example for Bhutanese democrats.