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I am sharing the paper i presented at the Consortium of South Asian Think Tanks (COSATT) Meeting in Thimphu on September 12, 2012. The meeting was organised by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) of Germany and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS)

COSATT Meeting in Thimphu at Namgay Heritage Hotel on 12 September 2012

“Building Bridges: Strengthening Physical, Emotional and Economic Linkages in South Asia” 

Role of the Media – with a perspective from Bhutan

Presented By Mr: Tashi Dorji, Editor and CEO of Business Bhutan

Good morning.

I would like to thank the IPCS and the KAS, Mr Delinic in particular, for asking me to share my thoughts to this august gathering of think tanks from South Asia. I hope that all of you are having a pleasant time in Thimphu.

For those who are visiting Bhutan for the first time, I hope the landing of the Druk Air flight in Paro was not too scary.  It should not deter you from visiting Bhutan again and just to reassure you, I would like to state that since it began commercial operation in 1983, the Druk Air has never had any mishap either in landing or take off. So you can afford to relax.

I would like to begin by giving a brief introduction to the Bhutanese media which has seen a numerical proliferation from one newspaper, one tv and one radio to 12 newspapers and six radio stations in just six years time. The first private tv station is expected to be launched sometime next year.

The advent of the media began in Bhutan in 1967 with the government starting Kuensel as an internal government bulletin. Six years later in 1973, the first radio transmission began. It was a 30 minute program aired every Sunday and it mainly consisted on news and music programs. It was then called ‘Radio NYAB’ NYAB meaning National Youth Association of Bhutan. In 1979, the government took over Radio NYAB.

In 1986, Kuensel was reformatted and as a weekly newspaper published by the Department of Information. The same year, Kuensel got its first professionally trained Bhutanese editor in Dasho Kinley Dorji. He went on to serve Kuensel as it s editor in chief and its managing director till 2009. He is Bhutan’s information secretary now. The same year, Radio NYAB was renamed Bhutan Broadcasting Service.

Then in 1992, following a decree from His Majesty, Kuensel and the BBS were de-linked from the government and both become autonomous corporations. This was done to ensure that there was a professional growth of the media.

Later in 1998, Kuensel stopped receiving government subsidy but the BBS continues to get subsidy from the government even today.  In 1999, Bhutan got television for the first time and the BBS became the national broadcaster. 1999 was the year that Bhutan got TV and also the internet making it one of the last countries in the world to do so. 

Then in 2006, Bhutan decided to allow the private media and in April 2006 saw the first private media in the form of a weekly newspaper called Bhutan Times. In June the same year, another weekly newspaper Bhutan Observer was born. Then the proliferation of the media began at almost an accelerating trend. 

Today, we have 12 newspapers, 6 radio stations, and one TV station. One magazine will be launched soon and the government will be licensing at least two private TV stations anytime soon.

The media fraternity in Bhutan is currently dominated by newspapers. I have personally worked in four newspapers and currently I head the only business newspaper in the country, Business Bhutan, as its editor and the CEO.

By now, all of you would probably have picked up local newspapers. You would have also noticed that none of the newspapers have international or regional news in their front pages. It is probably true for most newspapers in the South Asian Region but for Bhutan, this trend is also a reflection of our history. Let me explain.

Before 1960s, Bhutan was an isolated country. Its philosophy of self-imposed isolation, of course, had its benefits. When the two world wars were ravaging, Bhutan was least affected by it. We doubt whether any Bhutanese even knew the world was at war. The economic realities of the world in the early decades of the past century did not invade Bhutan and our diverse geography did have a big role in helping us remain isolated from even our immediate neighbours.

As a religious country, we looked upon the gods living in the Himalayas to protect us from the world in the north. And it did. In the south, the dense tropical vegetation made it a haven for tropical diseases like malaria and dengue to flourish and therefore human civilization could not flourish there. Thus, the two extreme geographies helped Bhutan to remain successfully isolated for centuries.

When Bhutan decided to wake up to the realities of the post 1950s era which came in the form of the upheaval in the north following the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the independence of India from the British in the South, it did come as a surprise to us. Bhutan decided to open itself to the outside world only in 1961 and so our knowledge of South Asia is only about five decades old.

On hindsight, we can now say that the philosophy of self imposed isolation did not favour Bhutan in at least one aspect – that is in terms of understanding our neighbours. Even today, I think we are just learning to look beyond our own shoulders and the headlines in our local newspapers are a clear indication of this trend.

Now let me take you to the newsroom of our newspapers.

Whenever there are major events taking place in South Asia, be it elections in any south Asian neighbours, a flood in Bangladesh, an earthquake in India, or even when Osama Bin Ladin was killed in Pakistan, our newsroom was at best glued to the TV watching CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera with reporters carrying a cup of coffee in one hand and cigarette in another.  Let me warn you here that smoking in offices is illegal in Bhutan.

The editor would then yell at them to submit their stories and they would then go back to their desk, write the front page story of a landslide destroying a bridge, banks freezing domestic loan portfolios or a man having swallowed a toothbrush by mistake. That’s about it.

The next day, the Bangladeshi flood, Indian earthquake or Osama’s death would be published in the South Asian news section in page 11 or 12 as a reprint of articles written by AP, AFP or Reuters in international newspapers. 

So this trend of reprinting news articles written mostly by non-south Asian news agencies typifies the opinion of the people living in South Asian countries about each other. We are today literally connected by an information bridge where all the raw materials of the bridge are manufactured, supplied and organized by non-South Asian sources.

I believe that the challenge and the attempt here of this conference and the organizers of this conference are to encourage new outlets with a South Asian accent. We may have to start building this information bridge from scratch and I believe that this conference is a good beginning towards that.

Having said that, I know it is easier said than done. That’s why we require think tanks like all the participants here to tax your brain and come up with possible answers to this complex attempt. But I believe that it can be done. After all, it’s only optimism that keeps us going.

When we talk about South Asia, the biggest challenge for the region is always its diversity. Figuratively speaking, it’s only natural. After all, its home to well over one fifth of the world’s population, which makes it the most populous and most densely populated geographic region in the world.

Let’s just excuse ourselves from making an attempt to bring the eight South Asian countries together and talk just about India. In this large sub continent itself, it is virtually impossible for many south Indians to even connect with their north Indian brothers.

Here, let me share an incident where I played my part between two Indian men engaged in a rather interesting transaction.

It was in 2008. An Indian colleague of mine from the South state of Kerala living in Thimphu wanted to buy a second-hand motorbike. As is the case with all South Asians when we want to buy something we always want to buy the best at the least cost. So my friend was looking for such a man to do his business with. Finally we found out that an Indian man from Andra Pradesh was looking to sell his rather old bike.

I fixed an appointment for the two Indian men. When they met, they found out that they had a big problem. My Keralite friend speaks fluent English, not surprisingly, and his mother tongue Malayalam. It so happened that the only Indian language the man from Andra Pradesh could speak was Hindi. He didn’t know English. Interestingly, he had lived in Thimphu for so long that he could manage Dzongkha which my friend did not. So here I was listening to two Indian men doing business and translating for the two of them. Imagine that!  And I really had fun there.  

Similarly, I think the situation between any two South Asia countries is something like my Keralite friend and the man from Andra Pradesh.  There are so many commonalities binding us together with each other and there is also a deep willingness to understand each other but there is no Bhutanese friend to mediate between the two of them. The challenge for all of us is to find this Bhutanese friend who will then become the South Asian bridge that I talked about earlier.

Personally, I believe that the best way of building this bridge is to work towards a more people-to-people interaction among the South Asian countries. This can be done in several ways and many of the presentations here have been focussed on how to do it. So I will not talk about it.

When it comes to journalism in South Asia, efforts have been made to bring journalists of the region together. But to find out the details, I have to google it out which simply means that a lot more still needs to be done. And most of these initiatives have been subject to sponsorships from Scandinavian countries or other funders in Europe or the United States.

Let me share a few initiatives that exist and these are of course a result of my googling the net.

There is something called the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC). It is a non-profit organization registered not in South Asia but in Singapore. The AMIC says its mission is to spearhead the development of media and communication expertise in Asia within the broad framework of economic, social and cultural development. As you can guess it was established with funding from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), a private non-profit, public-interest foundation in Germany.

The AMIC was supposed to create a South Asia Media Forum in 2011. The AMIC website still talks about the South Asia Media Forum in the future tense and says “The South Asian Media Forum will be organized in May 2011. This is a unique opportunity for media institutions and professionals to come together to discuss the ways in which the media can be harnessed to enhance regional cooperation in South Asia.”

Sorry to say but I still don’t know whether the South Asia Media Forum exists.

There is something else called the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN). It is coordinated by IFJ Asia-Pacific (IFJ stands for International Federation of Journalists). The SAMSN is an alliance of journalists’ trade unions, press freedom organisations and journalists in South Asia committed to working together to promote freedom of expression, freedom of association and journalists’ rights.

Its members include journalists from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Here, despite it being a South Asian network, journalists from Bhutan and Maldives are not its members.

The third organization I would like to point out is our own called the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) which many of us are aware of. As you would know SAFMA is recognized by SAARC as its associated body. Formed in 2000, SAFMA has taken initiatives to bring journalists from all the eight SAARC member countries to all SAARC meetings. It has also offered many journalism training opportunities.

However, SAFMA have its own share of challenges. A tricky issue for me is to put it as gently as possible that it is mainly because of its head quarter being located in Lahore in Pakistan. SAFMA, as you know, is a SAARC associate body. And SAARC has been dominated by Indo-Pak issues.  All of you would know why I am saying this as this has been true not only for journalism but for enterprise of any kind.

Personally, I believe that the media has a very big role to play in building the South Asian bridge and that is why I believe that SAFMA can play a much bigger role. This has to be substantiated with a strong political will of all the SAARC member countries. Currently, SAFMA’s role has been limited with conflicting political interests on one hand and a severe lack of funds on the other to fully exploit its latent potential.

Today, there already exist some bilateral and multilateral initiatives in the front of tourism, attempts to relax visa requirements, cultural exchanges and also on the economic front, but there is no notable attempt made to understand what are the real issues that bind us together. That is why this conference is very important.

I would like to reiterate once again that as far as I understand, the whole idea of this conference is of a genuine understanding of each other. I believe there are various ways of doing it. As a journalist, I believe we have to work towards serving regional news with the morning cup of tea – that’s where we start building bridges.

Thank you and Tashi Delek.