Media Development in Bhutan

What struck me most about Bhutan’s experiments with accelerated democracy and plural media is the romanticized idealism behind both. There is so much hope inspired by so much innocence.

Gross National Happiness (GNH) is singularly Bhutan’s most successful international export and its defining global brand. It is the enveloping philosophy for balanced development of society and the environment, temporal goals and religion, tradition and modernity, group responsibility and individual freedoms. Almost all policy initiatives are framed by GNH contribution and impact.

Social progress owes much to leaders who dare to dream of a better world for their people. When they are able to create the ground conditions to translate dreams to reality, magic happens. That is where the noble GNH aspirations crash into reality. The execution gap is the challenge for Bhutan in all aspects of its governance. In media policy that gap is particularly wide.

Media vital for democracy. Media is also a business

Plural media can add multiple perspectives to issues in the public domain. It can inform public debate. It can allow wide participation of citizens in evolving policy. Media is therefore considered a social good in progressive societies.

However, media is also a business which has to generate a surplus of trading profit over operating costs. Unless media is profitable it cannot survive. A core ingredient for media health is the amount of advertising revenue available in the market.

In Bhutan 80% of annual advertising derives from government notices for tenders, announcements and job vacancies. There is no private sector to speak of apart from an oligarchy of privileged elites with national franchises. Sonam Kinga who serves as the deputy chairman of the National Council makes that point very well in his Blog (www.sonamkinga.bt).

There is a serious disconnect between the liberal issue of publishing licenses and the advertising available to support the proliferation of newspapers. In 2006 Kuensel (1965), Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer were the newspapers published. Government sharing of advertising seemed sufficient for their survival. They had a mission and reason to exist.

The total number of press titles now stands at twelve! Unless they are mission-led, bringing distinct value and differentiation of content, twelve newspapers for Thimpu is overkill. Most First World economies can only support one or two newspapers in each city. Their capitals may be able to support three or four. How can twelve newspapers survive in a city of only 100,000 people?

An attempt by the administration to distribute advertising on independently measured criteria of audience reach was defeated by the players appealing to the Prime Minister to void it. A press industry willing to fuzz its way to joining the dole queue raises a lot of questions about motives, integrity and value for democracy. Is this the kind of press the government wants to encourage? Why? How can such a press demand transparency and accountability of anyone else?

The standard excuse for policy errors is “we are a young democracy”. That does not justify the reluctance to rectify an unsustainable situation which is damaging responsible press. Why is leadership absent in such a critical area of the democratic framework? The worst effect of this muddle is that serious press is penalized and disabled for new supplicants joining the queue for government advertising and political advertising for the 2013 elections.

No government wants to upset the fourth estate before an election. Disabling responsible press before an election can be counter-productive.

Investigative journalism & Right to Information (RTI) Bill

The dependence on government for commercial survival is not a healthy situation for investigative journalism. Departments which have the discretion to channel advertising placements will naturally tend to favour ‘friendly’ media. Newspapers will have to trade off investigative journalism for advertising revenues. That can only create a poodle press, not a watchdog for democracy.

It is not the business of independent media to be publicists or propagandists for the administration. State media is there for the purpose although if they overdo it they will lose credibility. The primary job of independent press is disclosure. “All else is advertising” declared Randolph Hearst, the media baron who built the largest newspaper chain in America mid-20th Century. “News is something someone does not want you to know”.

The government has still not tabled an RTI Bill for parliament to debate and pass into law. It is currently amending the original draft and there is some indication the administration hopes to table it before its term expires. Investigative journalism needs facts to work with beyond rumour, suspicion and conjecture.

Governments have secrets. Amendments to the Bill will seek to balance the public’s right to know with the administration’s need for cover. If parliament fails to pass an effective RTI Act, it could well become an election issue for 2013 – which will further sensitize the public and reduce trust in government.

Press will be handicapped if routine requests for information are stalled. The hitherto supreme power of government and the civil service needs to adjust to a democratic landscape where plural press is being promoted as a social good – along with transparency and accountability of governance.

More meetings about media policy? Killing press is a bad start

The first and most urgent action required of the policy makers is to stop the killing. Quality press is being devastated by distributing the limited government advertising across all new license holders irrespective of audience reach. There seems to be much opportunism driving the fever to secure publishing licenses before the upcoming election. The unintended consequences of this government largesse are clear for all to see. It defeats the intent to promote a responsible and committed plural press.

ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations) measurement needs press to submit verifiable print and sales records to certify average net sales per issue. It needs the co-operation of the industry. Press with false sales claims will not want independent measurement. Established press will have the advantage of incumbency. So be it. The ABC is measured in six-month cycles and can be implemented for a coalition of the willing. When the new titles have the numbers to audit they can join the ABC process.

Alternatively, readerships can easily be measured through scientific surveys which yield far more information than net copy sales. IPSOS, Nielsen and TNS are global media research houses with proven methodologies for Net, TV and Hardcopy audiences. They can profile audiences of each channel and map media consumption habits without any input from the publications, websites or TV.

Audience research can be implemented in Thimpu where 80% of all newspapers are sold, through strict international supervision and local university field teams by end-year, if funds are made available.

Why use government advertising to subsidize press?

Government advertising should serve the purpose; using it as a disguised subsidy to the undeserving defeats the intent of government funds. It will make sense to separate government advertising from press subsidy. Call a subsidy a subsidy and administer it accordingly.

National coverage for government announcements, tender invitations and job vacancies are effectively served by State TV and Radio. Press is a capital city phenomenon and ineffective for national reach. Almost 70% of citizens are out of press reach. Government can place its advertising where it works best. Capital city press has value in reaching the civil service elite, professionals and the urban middle class.

A press subsidy fund should have clear performance criteria for all titles. It should be performance-linked. More importantly, the issuing of any more press licenses should be stopped. Measurement criteria should be objective and neutral. Those who meet the benchmarks can qualify to be subsidized annually. The quantum of subsidy can be pegged to measured readerships agreed through a government-industry consensus for sustainability. That can be reviewed annually to adjust for inflation.

Advertising distribution beyond the press subsidy should follow objective guidelines and not serve to tame press through selective patronage. New publishers should have the funds to sustain without government advertising for at least 12 months so that they can qualify for press subsidy through ABC audits or readership surveys. Mere license approval should not entitle any publisher to join the dole queue. Press demanding government support without an audience is fraud.

New publishers cannot be subsidized at the expense of existing titles with proven audiences. If they do not have the start-up funds to sustain long enough to achieve audience certification, they should not be granted a license in the first place.

By stopping indiscriminate distribution of government funds to unproven press, a culling will happen naturally. A market in private media can develop thereafter for mergers and acquisitions to sort itself out without any more government intervention.

What about ‘yellow journalism’ & factual errors?

If ‘yellow journalism’ is to be curbed, an independent body should monitor that. Press self-regulation is a self-serving arrangement that has failed miserably in Britain and the USA. Press is dangerous when it is free to pursue sales through cheap sensationalism, innuendo, sex scandals, titillation, gory crime and soft porn. The criminals cannot be allowed to police themselves. Their products do not serve society.

For errors of fact in reporting, an independent Press Ombudsman can be appointed with the power to investigate complaints and compel apologies to be printed by the offending publications. Press is notorious for not admitting factual errors. The damage inflicted through inaccurate reporting is real.

Centralized services to serve media

Kuensel has news bureaux across the country. That can be converted into a national news agency for the benefit of all media without wasteful duplication. Cost recovery can be through annual subscription fees. It should be independently managed.

Bhutan newspapers are printed on expensive woodfree (WF) paper stock because they have no access to roll-fed newsprint presses. Commercial sheet-fed presses cannot handle newsprint. A centralized newspaper press can serve all titles and be better utilized. The cost of raw material (paper) can be reduced so that the cover price at which newspapers are sold can yield a surplus and contribute to revenues instead of adding deficits with each copy sold! It will also be much faster and allow later editorial-close deadlines. Economies of scale can be achieved by centralizing newspaper printing.

Government can contribute to these macro initiatives through a Govt-Industry partnership funding over a fixed time horizon. Similarly ‘in the cloud’ sophisticated digital publishing applications software can be accessed by all players to reach youth and remote locations via mobile and online delivery.

These are all macro-industry initiatives which benefit all players but are impossible for individual newspapers to implement on their own. Consultants with practical first-hand experience of these matters can be engaged to produce project assessments for government-industry partnership funding and implementation.

Journalism courses, training & professional development

Is journalism a passion, a mission or a profession? Some of the most outstanding journalists today (and in media history) never attended J-school. J-schools are good at turning out academics. Great journalists are driven by a passion to serve society. Is politics a passion, a mission or a profession? Are great politicians turned out by political science courses?

In Bhutan’s context, unless the press sustainability issue is quickly addressed, a J-school institution will be a misdirection of effort, energy and investment. There will be no private media of any size to employ the output of the J-school. It will become another employment burden for State TV, Radio and Kuensel: Government all over again. (Kuensel is 51% owned by government).

What is the sustainable size of an independent media sector for a city population of 100,000 (Thimpu)? What are the HRD projections of annual employment in journalism and media management? What is the projected growth rate of media to be able to absorb J-school output over the next 10 years?

It will be far more effective to take promising journalists from existing media and attach them to leading Press, TV, Radio and Online sites around the region to observe, practice and learn skills which they can use to upgrade their publications in Bhutan. Exposure beyond Bhutan is vital.

Newly retired senior journalists from ASEAN, India and elsewhere can immediately add value onsite through daily training and skills enhancement on the job. J-schools are already well behind the curve on converging media platforms and new business models. Their textbooks are decades out of relevance.

Short term attachments of leading designers, production quality experts, marketing managers and circulation promotion talent can likewise upgrade the industry immediately. These are investments viable media can make without government intervention.

If commercially viable media is not enabled, there is little hope for press capacity to absorb J-school output. Is it responsible to generate graduates who cannot be employed? How healthy is that for democracy?

It will be far more useful to add media literacy, journalism and media management electives to BBA, BCom and MBA courses so that the graduates have a wider range of employment prospects and career options.

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