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The 14th monthly meeting of the cabinet with the press last week was full of sound and fury. An emotionally charged prime minister led cabinet made their case to the press and it did signify many things.

Commenting on the controversial Bhutan lottery issue, the prime minister, in a fit of anger (which he usually justifies as being passionate), accused this paper for working for certain groups in India in our persistent coverage of the issue. He also said that this paper has been insensitive to national interest issues by doing so. The finance minister further blamed this paper for preempting things and blaming Bhutan lottery officials. He also threw the national interest card on this paper.

As a responsible paper, we fully understand the importance of respecting our national interests. We believe that we would not be respecting our national interest if we keep silent on the biggest corruption case that Bhutan has experienced in its history. The issue becomes more pressing with the government adopting a “let’s-wait-and-see” approach on the lottery issue despite this paper having exposed all the necessary evidences and the Royal Audit Authority having confirmed it through an audit.

This paper exposed the lottery issue at a time when the country’s image in the Indian state of Kerala, which is a major market for Bhutan lotteries, was going down the drains. Our government seemed almost nonchalant over the issue then. We have repeatedly said that Bhutan should explore the economic potential of the lottery business. Right now, the government is not even making an attempt to do that. Without doing so, the lottery issue will only remain half told.

In figures, the RAA report pegs the annual turnover of the lottery business in 2007 to be Nu 263.6bn. Reports in India suggest the figure to be much higher. Even the RAA figure is 38 times the annual turnover of the Tala Project of Nu 7bn. If the 1,020MW Tala has an annual turnover of Nu 7bn, it will not be wrong to estimate the annual turnover of the 10,000MW of hydropower projects we are planning to build by 2020 will be about Nu 70bn. Thus, we can say that our ambitious hydropower projects combined together will be earning only one fourth of the 2007 lottery turnover pie.

It is also more than an irony that in 2007, Bhutan only earned a meager 0.278% of annual turnover as revenue. These figures show how miserably Bhutan failed to carry out the lottery business in India. The government has responded by banning the lottery business but the issue doesn’t end with it. Moreover, it has said Bhutan will lose Nu 220mn by banning the business which is not the whole truth. At such a juncture, Bhutan deserves to know what the government will do to right a wrong that has prevailed in the country for so long. What would this elected government do to ensure that those involved in the case will be dealt with and how. This was the question this paper raised during the meet-the-press session.

The response was unexpected. The prime minister accused this paper of having vested interests and questioned the integrity of the paper. It was a blatant accusation without any evidence. After the paper was accused and the subject of discussion moved to a different issue, the reporter (the news editor of Business Bhutan) walked out of the session silently. It then fell on this paper to report the issue which we did.

Now the media division of the prime minister has accused the matter-of-fact(ly) written article as “sensational.” The democratic right of the reporter of walk out of the session (especially after being insulted with a baseless accusation) has been sensationalized to mean abusing the prime minister, cabinet ministers and the entire media. While the reporter silently left the room, the prime minister’s media section has ungraciously stretched the incident saying “the reporter was heard uttering abusive words on his way out.” Moreover, the prime minister’s media section has taken the issue a step further by saying the reporter lacks complete journalistic objectivity and ethics on a separate article where he juxtaposed a statement of the prime minister on the status of safe drinking water in the country.

This response from the prime minister’s office shows how it regards the Bhutanese media. We can even extend it as an attempt to cover up a much bigger issue (the lottery issue) by questioning and putting the credibility and the character of the reporter on the line. On top of it all, the government should also stop throwing the national interest card on the media’s face for its own interest. The media is mature enough to respect national interest issues on its own. While we acknowledge that the prime minister led cabinet has been very friendly to the media, it is also time that they don’t take the media for granted.

The above post was published as an editorial in Business Bhutan on July 9, 2011