When Bhutanese media forgot March 24

On March 24, 2008, Bhutan elected its first government to become a parliamentary democracy. Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of that day when Bhutanese voters gave the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, an overwhelming mandate to lead the country. The People’s Democratic Party won only two of the 47 seats to become one of the world’s smallest oppositions.

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Three English papers come out on Sundays – Bhutan Times, the first private paper launched in 2006; Bhutan Today, the first daily which later became a bi-weekly and The Journalist, a paper started by scribes who walked out of Bhutan Times in 2009 citing management interference in editorial. None of them remembered March 24, the day the country began its tryst with electoral politics. 

Kuensel, Bhutan’s biggest and oldest paper, not publish on Sundays, did not have a March 24 issue. The paper’s regular ‘Today In History’ snippet on March 25 said on this day in 1911 a fire in a New York garment factory left 146 dead. And yea, today is also Elton John’s birthday.

March 24 also slipped the minds of Bhutan Observer, the second private paper, Business Bhutan, the only financial paper and The Bhutanese, an investigative bi-weekly.

That charged Monday evening, the 24th of March 2008, first generation smartphones rang from tobacco-smelling corners of the Bhutan Times newsroom in the third floor of a busy maintown building. Reporters called frantically from noisy restaurants and mobile-signal enabling hilltops. Back in Thimphu, editors huddled in a room with sheets containing names of candidates and voter figures. Their confused faces proved they are yet to make a choice; focus on news or just relish moments of history in the making? An LED display hung precariously from the balcony with a reporter assigned to thumb in results from a crudely connected keyboard.

As the national counting center in Thimphu started announcing results, some screamed, others cried and most kept quiet, dumbstruck. The only journalists who moved around sane that evening came from papers and agencies outside Bhutan. Dispassionately, they asked: what do you make of the results?

 For some fresh air and to make sure I am not in a dream like some of my colleagues thought they were, I walked out of the Bhutan Times office into the Hongkong Market crowd to watch the destiny of a new-born democracy flash across the red LED display that hung from the paper office. PDP lost. DPT won.

The election special edition of Bhutan Times came out a day later, on March 26. The issue went to press late, a furious two-color machines made sure the paper came out only in the evening. A spring long before 1/7th of the Bhutanese population are cajoled by five political parties to ‘friend’ them on Facebook, the whole office gathered by the road waiting to spot an approaching Bhutan Times van carrying the first copies of the paper. ‘The JYT Phenomenon’ the headline read with a file photograph of the would-be prime minister training an arrow during an archery match. The hours of photo-storming that went into selecting the picture proved worthwhile. 

The fight between Kuensel and Bhutan Times to be the best in covering the country’s transition into a democracy produced an amazing first-draft-of-history. Kuensel was led by the father of professional journalism in Bhutan, Dasho Kinley Dorji, who later became the top bureaucrat of the communications ministry. At helm in Bhutan Times was the paper’s founder and maverick editor Tenzin Rigden. The best among Bhutan’s writers dispatched stories from community schools, grazing lands, health centers and glacial riverbanks.

Those were the best of times.  

A handful of March 24s later, Bhutanese media has flourished in numbers. But except for Kuensel, which has reporters across the country and an impressive newsroom in the capital, all other papers have shrunk. Once robust with around 100 employees, Bhutan Times now resembles a fire-struck, beaten, malnourished Mario, the popular video game hero. The websites of all private papers, except Bhutan Observer and The Bhutanese, are down. The star writers and editors are no more in newspaper journalism. News articles written by ‘Staff Reporter’ (read press releases) are gaining dominance over bylined articles. A tight government advertisement budget, drop in revenue, and reporters leaving for jobs that pay is ensuring the increase of international news in private papers while local coverage has suffered. See the twist of fate. Five years back, it was Kuensel complaining about advertisements. A notification published by the paper then read, “ If a customer decides to choose one medium for political or other reason we have no complains.”

The Bhutan Media Institute, a private training firm is conducting a two-month election-reporting course for fresh graduates interested to cover elections. Led by Martin Bennitt of the AFP Foundation, Paris, the course is supported by the government. The under-staffed papers are expected to recruit the trainees for election reporting. 

The newly registered three political parties, the ruling DPT and opposition PDP have former journalists leading their media teams into the two-stage elections. The primary round will knock out three parties. The general round will decide who will occupy the ruling and opposition benches. 

Citing a forgotten March 24 as the sign of things to come is being unjust to all working journalists. The race is yet to gain momentum. The pulse of the hamlets is yet to be read. 

But, at the time of writing this blog, the pulse of Bhutan’s private media is weak. There is no noise from the newsrooms, forget a memorable story or a strong opinion piece. Reporters can stick to deadlines because the angry editor who throws stories back is MIA.

 

PS: During the 2008 elections, your’s truly was working with Bhutan Times. 

( Photo Courtesy: NY Times. The picture was taken during the mock elections of 2007 ) 

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