The 12th meet-the-press session on Thursday was a bit different. It saw the cabinet ministers, headed by the prime minister, invoke an age-old debate about how the media could be more responsible and how it should stimulate a positive energy among the citizenry.
This is a debate to which there is no definite solution. It’s a merry-go-round game.
But in a new democracy with a new elected government and a new and sprouting media culture, the issue is relevant and unavoidable.
It is relevant because the role of the media is not widely understood. It is also unavoidable because there is an ardent need to understand media’s role today when information has become synonymous with power.
In Bhutan, the understanding of the media’s role is vague. Many, including some in the media, have completely misunderstood its role of being the fourth estate. One newspaper carried an editorial describing the media as the fourth branch of the government. It compared its roles with the three other branches of the government – the legislature, executive and the judiciary. The perspective completely misunderstood the concept of the fourth estate which cannot be compared to a machinery of the government.
The media is not a tool of governance and least of all the government should not view it that way. Our elected government has repeatedly equated the media as the fourth arm/branch of government or governance. The prime minister said it is also to assert that media is as independent as the other three branches of the government. The intention of the prime minister may be good but the rationale is wrong. Independence of the media cannot be asserted by rounding up the media under the aegis of the government. It can only be done by leaving it independent as a separate institution.
While the issue is debated upon, the elected government also made it clear as to what they expect from the media. Their stand is similar to what all governments worldwide expect of the media – to be an altruistic carrier of information, and for that matter, to carry information that they think is crucial for the citizenry.
This call for responsible journalism means that the cabinet is not completely happy with the media. This is good.
There is a problem if the government is completely happy with the media. It can only happen in an environment where the media is a mouthpiece of the government and is controlled and suppressed by the state. In that sense, a certain level of difference between the media and the government is healthy.
Here, we cannot disregard the fact that the elected government, though being critical to the media, has also supported the media. The prime minister has always maintained that Bhutan cannot afford but to have a bold media. On Thursday, he reiterated his stand when he said that a bold media is critical to building a stable democracy. He said he cannot imagine Bhutan to have a compliant media.
As some ministers cited their dissatisfaction over news articles some newspapers carried and how it could have been portrayed better, they also had some constructive pointers for the media professionals.
The education minister, Lyonpo Thakur Singh Powdyel, suggested that Bhutan should create a Bhutanese media identity. This is a very intriguing concept which needs to be discussed and possibilities explored. He also threw the idea of creating a “third space” where the media professionals and the government could discuss critical issues and come to an understanding.
The economic affairs minister, Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk, suggested that media should take bold stands and take positions on critical issues. He also meant that the media should not be mere interpreter and carrier of information which is largely true for the Bhutanese media. This is a big issue. Overtime, the media has evolved to practice interpretative journalism and even journalists assert that it is wrong to take sides.
The prime minister also applauded the efforts of journalists to form a press club, a media council and the association of journalists. He said it will go a long way in consolidating transparency. In a major revelation, he also said he will review the RCSC rule which prohibits civil servants from talking freely to the media. He said civil servants should take cue from the ministers and be as open as possible.
Thus, we need more debate on the issue. Like the government, the media is also young and it definitely needs to be more institutionalized.