In Bhutan, a tiny landlocked country (estimated population: 691,141) surrounded by India and China, a rapidly modernizing civil society is beginning to take steps to promote democratic media. Recently transformed from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy, Bhutan adopted a Constitution in July 2008, which introduced a system of political parties and elections to provide good governance and to spur modernization.
The country's first newspaper, Kuensel, which became a daily in May 2009, began as a weekly in 1986. An online version of the paper, kuenselonline.com, was launched in 1997 - even before the Internet was first introduced in Bhutan in 1999. This online version was hosted outside Bhutan and had a growing readership of Bhutanese studying outside the country and people with an interest in the kingdom.
The county's first English daily newspaper, Bhutan Today, was launched in October 2008, and is the third private newspaper after Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer, which were launched in 2006 as a weekly and bi-weekly, respectively.
Television, too, did not come to Bhutan until 1999. A Media Impact Study initiated by the ministry of information in 2003 concluded that television had the strongest impact on urban society, especially on the youth population. According to the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, radio has been the main influence on the rural population, while print media reaches the literate and policy makers. TV is, today, synonymous with urban living and is catering to the growing demands for entertainment.
Yet, Bhutan has attempted to balance modernization with its ancient culture and traditions under the guiding philosophy of "Gross National Happiness (GNH)." Rather than through economic indicators, progress in the Buddhist nation is measured in terms of happiness; Bhutan is the only country in the world to utilize such a measure.
Last week, the International Journalists' Network interviewed Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, the director of the newly initiated non-profit Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy (BCMD), which aims to promote quality media in Bhutan. Recently, BCMD organized a two-day workshop with members of the lower and upper houses of parliament, editors from both print and electronic media and representatives of various government agencies. In May, BCMD held the first conference on democracy in the newly founded democratic society.
Since 1987, Pek has been publishing magazines and books, producing radio and television documentaries, training reporters and consulting on the development of media and information services. She helped launch television in Bhutan in 1999, and trained the first team of television news presenters. She still serves as a director on the board of the Bhutan Broadcasting Service.
IJNet: Briefly, can you explain Bhutan's transition from monarchy to democracy?
SP: [The move] was introduced by the Monarchy; the fourth King of Bhutan initiated the drafting of a constitution and set in place the process of eventual democratization, culminating in a general election in March 2008.
How does media fit into this transition?
Media are vital to the good governance that Bhutan seeks as part of the development goal of gross national happiness. Media's role is now more important as ever as they play the role of the 4th estate - watching the democratic process unfold.
In a transitional democracy such as Bhutan -- where a free press may never have existed, how challenging is it to essentially change the way people view and rely on media? How do you make people trust media?
Bhutan is a unique country. People generally had faith in the media, and rarely questioned the media. When we say "free press never existed" we need to understand this in the context of Bhutan, where media have been pushing back boundaries in a small society very effectively over the years. Prior to 2006, when the media grew rapidly, people generally turned to the media for information. Now in a most recent study on media, we find that Bhutanese people are turning to the media for entertainment. TV has become the main medium in a very short space of time.
People are also beginning to develop a healthy questioning of media as they provide different angles to stories.
The need today is for media literacy. In a country where media are a recent development (first newspaper in 1986, first radio in the late 1970s, first TV and the Internet introduced in 1999), people today need to learn how to read, write, listen to and engage in media and to appreciate the important role that media plays in a democracy.
As Bhutan is at a juncture where the lure of entertainment media threatens to take over the very important traditional role of media to inform and educate ... this has become a major challenge. Media literacy, we hope, will make media users more critical of media, and put pressure on media to provide the quality content that is so essential in a democracy.
Will the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy be the first to do what you are doing? Are there other groups that work to train media?
Yes, the first. No other groups although the government's Department of Information and Media is also getting active in media training and professionalism. But as a neutral and non-profit organization the BCMD is well placed to carry out more effectively the media literacy as well as research and educational activities for civil society.
What are the demographics of journalists in Bhutan?
There are not more than 100 journalists in Bhutan. There are more men than women [journalists], and mostly all are young (majority in their mid to late 20s).
Where is most media accessed in Bhutan -- urban spaces?
Media is urban centric. Access is an issue in the mountainous terrain. Radio is most accessible, followed by TV and then newspapers.
Is online media popular in Bhutan? If not yet, do you see a place for it in the future?
No, not yet. Media is mostly FM radio and TV. Media will continue to grow in importance in a landlocked country where communications has always been challenging. Online media is set to become more popular once the government addresses access issues, bringing broadband to rural areas. It will also become more popular once we become more media literate and are able to engage meaningfully online.
The Centre seems to place special emphasis on youth; can you explain your intention here? Is it more challenging to train older journalists, who may already be "set in their ways?"
We work with both media professionals and with media users. Our focus is on youth because they are the majority of the media fraternity as well as media users. Fifty-nine percent of the country is under 25 years of age. We also believe that our youth need to learn to discern and deal with the deluge of information that is coming into Bhutan, to be able to develop the critical skills needed to pick the media and information they need to make decisions.
What are essential elements of media in a new democracy?
Most important role: public service media; media that will focus on developing and fostering a democratic culture for Bhutan - education at all levels.
What sort of activities and events will the center host? How will you recruit? How many journalists do you hope to reach?
We will hold media literacy activities among schools, for out of school youth, and for teachers and parents. We hope to reach as many journalists as we can each year to focus on issues like ethics and management, online media, etc.
Can you tell us about some upcoming programs? Programs you are envisioning for the future?
- We're starting media clubs in schools where young people learn news literacy, and how to reach advertising, etc. These are aimed at building people's critical thinking skills and ability to assess media. We believe that a media literate population is crucial to pressure media to maintain standards.
- Production of a resource book on media in Bhutan for young people
- The Centre will also host periodic seminars, forums, and discussions to build civil society. We want to talk about issues like access to information, public space, and the role of media in promoting civil society, etc.
- An annual conference for media - focusing on issues like ethics, media management, a new business model for media
- Training for media and children - issues of concern for Bhutan (how to handle news reporting on children, how to produce content for children) etc.
- Training for radio jockeys, radio news, online news media, etc.
- Eventually build a kind of clearinghouse Website on media and democracy for Bhutan
How many staff will you have at the Centre?
We're a start-up so we are constrained by limited support, particularly institutional support. There are now 3 of us, and we have people come in for specific projects on a short-term basis. We are hoping to recruit more people once we get more support. We really want to jump-start but we need the institutional support to be able to recruit better experienced people and to build a team that will be able to focus on research, training and education.
How will you measure your impact?
We will evaluate each activity and ensure that we have feedback from people we work with and reach out to.
We believe that some of the results will be evident in the amount of discourse raised, discussions undertaken and understanding of issues of importance in a newly democratic society.
We recently conducted a parliament and media seminar that brought together parliamentarians and media professionals for the first time to discuss ways to enhance transparency and make information more readily available to the public. The seminar provided an open forum for both parties and helped enhance understanding of the need for access to information.
Our recent Conference on Emerging Democracies in the 21st century focused on constitutional monarchies and will result in a publication that, we believe, will have relevance both within and outside Bhutan.
For more information on the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, go to http://www.bhutancmd.org.bt