May 3 is the World Press Freedom Day, whatever that means. As a former journalist-broadcaster I assume it is a day of celebration of the modern mass media. So, let me share some quick passing thoughts on this industry that has hosted me for over three decades.
The Bhutanese mass media in the pre-2008 era served a different purpose and thus, any comparison with today’s media is not even remotely possible. Although there was the move towards an autonomous media, which gained momentum after 1998, the development communication model still prevailed. The other comparison often made used to be between Kuensel and BBS that served different audiences with different levels of education and exposure.
What I can share, nevertheless, is what was it like to be a media person. Let me say that it was anything but glamorous. No one knew what the purpose of BBS was – other than to play songs and weather report of the day that was already gone. We also worked under a different kind of pressure from every corner of the officialdom – being a part of the government machinery. It was as if everyone had the license to scold us. To our credits, though, we did our jobs well and since people had to find faults anyway, even trivial mistakes like not getting titles or designations right were objects of ridicules and rebukes. I was even criticized officially for not wearing woven gho on TV (My passion for navy gho goes so far back in time).
While development journalism was the model we adopted in BBS, it was still journalism nevertheless and slowly we crawled into the area of truth-seeking and highlighting developmental issues. We worked hard, had fun, stood our ground when we were right and apologised when we made mistakes. And gradually we won the confidence of the government as people around the country started talking about same topics or singing the same song. Still, getting people to come on shows was more difficult than making your child take antibiotics. So the talk-show format, which is common these days, failed twice before it finally succeeded when we made a third attempt with Q&A with Dorji Wangchuk. The series ran for 112 episodes from 2003 to 2005.
Sometimes we went hungry when we miscalculated our food stock on long production trips in rural areas. No mobile phones, no ATMs. Sometimes we walked out of office under the scorching Sun or a pouring rain to get a 30-second recorded statement and rushed back to the studio to meet the deadline. No enough cars, no complaints – only some childish sense of delights to hear yourself on the radio or bully your friends and family to watch you on TV.
In the greater scheme of things, though, we played our part. The TV talk shows planted the seeds for political debates while Kuensel’s editorials and reportages set the culture of public discourse and scrutiny of public policies. The efforts of both the BBS and Kuensel – joined by new voices such as Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer in 2006 laid the important democratic fundaments as we headed to the polls for the first time in 2008. Furthermore, radio, continued to bring the country together every evening for a round of news, public service announcements and programs ranging from new farming techniques to music request shows. In fact the slogan, which my friends and I coined for BBS back then, was Bringing the Nation Together. They changed it later to a less meaningful, The Bhutanese Expression. In the pre-cellphone era, radio requests went something like, “This request goes from Dorji in Thimphu to his parents in Minjay Kurtoe that he is coming by bus on 3 April and to send horses to pick him from the road head.” We did bring the country together.
Nation-building is a process whereby a society with diverse cultures, traditions, languages, ethnicities and religions come together towards a shared common goal and aspiration. Mass media, I always believed, is a great tool to help achieve it. In creating a shared experience of watching and listening to the same news, same songs and speaking the same language, we kept the nation glued together from Tendruk to Tashigang. Until then, I assume, everyone returned home when the Sun set – to their own lives, issues or ara bottles. And those who had a radio, listened to foreign broadcasts. In fact, as late as 1985, my last schooling year, we were listening to All India Radio and Radio Nepal and singing Bollywood songs – and had absolutely no idea of what was happening in Thimphu or elsewhere in the country. Looking back I feel proud to have been part of the team that turned that huge tide around – and thus helping to create a sense of nationhood and national identity. While BBS and Kuensel targeted different audiences, the key message was the same: we are a Bhutanese nation.
In my opinion, no other agency has done more than BBS to propagate Dzongkha, the national language.
Media today plays the dual role of nation-building and creating a public space for meaningful debates and discussions within the overall process of democracy. The traditional Bhutanese media – radio, TV and newspapers, however, face a new set of challenges brought about by the changing time, contexts and circumstances. New emerging power centers may be exerting new kinds of pressure, while the existing powerful bureaucracy and its closed mind-set has primarily remained as it is. Then there is the discerning and more demanding public that has set an unrealistic benchmark by watching CNN or NDTV.
The increased demand is further aggravated by the fragmentation of the audience by the social media and mobile phones – making the traditional media look slow, irrelevant and outdated.
However, what the public and the government need to understand is that there is a huge difference between noise and information, and between information and message.
The social media is too much noice with very little information out there – let alone the message. For example, what is the message from all the Facebook updates and outpour of love and gratitude to teachers? What remains of the big celebration that we had yesterday in Changlingmithang, which through the marvel of technology, I could watch the livecast – some thousands of miles away, here in Macau. This is where the good old traditional media comes in. They provide the message and that is, that the voices of, and for, the teachers are finally being heard. Left to the social media, we would got only selfies without any substance.
Journalism is a profession and behind every profession there is either art or science. Journalism has both. It is a serious field.
Hence, one should not live under the illusion that Tweeter feeds, Facebook updates and Snapchat flashes suffice as information – lesser still as the message. If one does that, one is headed for a serious existence ridden with with superficiality and shallowness.
Finally, the audience should be careful with the basic difference between activism and journalism and between hate speech and free speech. These untoward behaviours have found a fertile ground in the social media. And under no circumstances the traditional media should dance to these tunes.
The way forward
Good journalism remains an absolute necessity to create a vibrant mass media, which in turn, as a cliché goes, is an important element of a strong democracy. This is vital in this era of a pervasive and noisy social media and fake news. Local populations can be swayed by hostile foreign powers or corporations. Of all the countries, the US has learnt it the hard way in recent times. After a spell of euphoria of the new media and death-of-newspaper narrative, agencies like New York Times and Washington Post have registered a million plus new subscribers in the first year of the current administration.
So much is being done in our country to build the necessary democratic institutions so that our experiment with this new system of governance succeeds. However, I don’t see a vibrant democracy happening with a weak media or an inexistent civil society or academia. Imagine a hypothetical situation where the government and the people are on polar opposites? It is not improbable. After all, as I pointed out on a FB update, ‘If you put two Bhutanese together these days, you will get three opinions.” There is the need to build a strong third voice to bring the two to the middle ground. Most importantly, in the era of post-truth and fake news, traditional mass media as a credible source of information should be further developed, sustained and celebrated as a national institution – and not scoffed at or scorned upon as business entities
There is a real threat to the harmony, security and sovereignty if the whole population gets its news, and form their opinions, from the social media. Not to mention the potential of mass manipulation campaign that can be conducted by foreign powers through Facebook and other SNSs – as it has happened in the US and UK.
Now, it is not nation-building anymore. It is national security.
Another issue that will never go away will be press freedom and censorship. Here, media persons in Bhutan should not assume that just because the Constitution guarantees freedom of press, that people will let them do their job. What is written on paper remains on, well, paper. One has to claim the space or keep asserting. It is like land records. Having the thram is only a necessary condition but not a sufficient one to own a land. If you don’t occupy your land, you will lose it – because someone will encroach in it.
Finally, media and democracy are a process. It is continuous journey and dynamic undertaking of contestation, negotiation and compromise. It will be in the hands of the new generation of media persons to forge the new purpose as per new societal demands and changing circumstances. It will be a difficult choice, though – between credibility and visibility, between depth and trivial and between social and substance. Old hands, like me, can only advice.
The Bhutanese mass media has, all said and done, come a very long way and has fulfilled its fair share in the overall process of nation-building, democracy and development communication. In the age of DTH channels, BBS TV continues to galvanise the country with programs such as Ngagay Drendur and Druk Superstar. Meanwhile Kuensel keeps playing the role of the nation’s conscience.
There is every reason to celebrate this day.
(Disclaimer: Having grown professionally in the broadcasting world, my article could be more biased towards BBS. However, I am pleased to say that I am working on the roles and contributions of Kuensel and the film industry on the discursive construction and creation of national identity. More on the contribution of these agencies in future articles and academic papers)