English journalism in Himalayan kingdom takes a break

As newspapers around the world shut down,  the last Buddhist kingdom of the Himalayas gets an exclusive vernacular newspaper

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, roughly the size of Denmark, has more butterfly species than entire Europe or North America.

This country of around 700,000 people doesn’t have  enough names for the odd 900 species of its winged inhabitants, apart from the word Chimla, which in Dzongkha means, ‘small flying thing’.

The vitality of Dzongkha as a national language, spoken by eight of the twenty provinces of Bhutan, has always been a concern for this nation wedged between two Asian giants, India and China.

The Dzongkha Development Commission – supported with government programs – has been trying to free the language from its Tibetan liturgical roots and make it friendlier after it was decreed the national language by Bhutan’s third king in 1961.

The language, now under the threat of a growing Anglophone society, got a leaping pad this week with the launch of Druk Neytshuel, the first exclusive Dzongkha newspaper in the country, published every Sunday.

Bhutan has six other English newspapers, all of which have Dzongkha editions. Save the oldest and state-supported Kuensel, other private papers just translate their English versions into Dzongkha.

This may sound an anomaly for people from Bhutan’s South Asian neighbors where local language newspapers thrive better than their English sisters. Blame it on treacherous mountainous barriers; this small country has 19 languages, now under the threat of Hollywood English slang.

But the 30-year-old editor of the new weekly Dzongkha newspaper wants to change it. “We will have a definite focus with the primary objective to enable people to love the language,” said Chungdu Tshering, a former television reporter and a graduate from the country’s only Dzongkha language institute.

Surprisingly, rival Kuensel gave front page coverage for Druk Neytshuel’s launch.

Tabloid-sized Kuensel, which has been publishing for around four decades, was the only newspaper in the country till 2006; the year privately owned Bhutan Times was launched in English.

Law mandates that all papers have to produce a Dzongkha edition along with the English paper. But the dismal Dzongkha readership in the country has been discouraging for papers which produce namesake vernacular editions.

But Druk Neytshuel, which targets exclusive Dzongkha speaking readers, wants to change the trend. The paper hopes to capture the rural folk, the monks, and students.

Till now competition in the media was only in selling the maximum number of English papers. But the new paper, which has former monks in its editorial team, is expected to change the game.

“It will be good for Kuensel. It will wake up my Dzongkha editorial team to work harder,” The managing director of Kuensel, Chencho Tshering, told the media.

Bhutan’s information and communications minister, Lyonpo Nandalal Rai, said the new paper will help the promotion of the local language but it should not fully depend on the government for its survival.  He said this in the light of the limited advertisement pie being shared by all newspapers.

But, sustenance is an issue for private newspapers in Bhutan.

“To ensure that the new paper is successful, it is important that the government supports it because even the English newspapers are fighting for sustenance today. Druk Neytshuel will be able to deliver quality product only if it gets over fears of sustaining itself,” financial weekly, Business Bhutan’s editorial said.

Whether it survives or not is yet to be seen, but the launching of yet another paper – this time an ethnic language one – shows that the Bhutanese literacy rates are up from 30% in the early 90s to 52.8% now.

After the country became a parliamentary democracy in 2008, people are eager to know what their elected leaders are doing. National politics has suddenly become the subject of small talk in rural hamlets. Thus, with the new paper,  Dzongkha – which means the language spoken in dzongs or fortresses – is finding a new readership.

The launch of the paper is another step in strengthening Bhutan’s language and identity in a geographical  area dominated by Chinese, Hindi (India), English, and Nepali.

Druk Neytshuel is determined to be the peoples’ paper.

“We’re trying to be as colloquial as possible,” said the paper’s editor.

Note: This article was first published in late August on http://www.futurechallenges.org

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One thought on “English journalism in Himalayan kingdom takes a break

  1. Pingback: Gross Blogal Happiness and the new Dzongkha language paper in Bhutan | Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli

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