“… lack of information often discourages us to do story and ultimately, we quit”
By Sangay Dorji & Sonam Choki
For Bhutan’s media sector, the attrition of journalists is nothing new.
Journalists have been known to leave for a variety of reasons, including the search for better opportunities, work demands, personal conflicts, lack of career advancement, and occasionally management concerns.
However, it translates to the country’s media landscape.
Although Bhutan ranked 33 in the global press freedom this year out of 180 countries, a jump from last year’s position of 65 but the ground realities remain indifferent.
As of March 2022, the Journalists’ Association of Bhutan (JAB) had 91 working journalists as members, including 30 women journalists and as of December 2022, the numbers have decreased to 75 meaning 26 journalists left the profession within eight months.
If journalists’ attrition is an indicator for the health of the country’s media the situation is alerting.
During one of the conferences Tashi Dema, a senior journalist said, “I left because the kind of journalism that was being practiced is not kind of journalism I believe in.”
“Media in Bhutan right now is doing stories that people in position wants us to do,” she added.
Needrup Zangpo, Executive Director, Bhutan Media Foundation (BMF) said that journalists are leaving their professions due to the nature of their work.
“Newsroom attrition has always been high in Bhutan. It is not a recent phenomenon. We can’t pin down a particular reason for the high attrition, but I think it is because journalism is a demanding profession and many people find it hard to cope with it.”
Resonating to his view the president of the Journalist Association of Bhutan (JAB) Rinzin Wangchuk said, “Journalists are leaving their profession because of low salary, lack of opportunities like training, seminars, workshops and lack of access to information. Some are leaving for greener pasture as the overall economy is suffering.”
“More attrition of journalists’ means sad situation in the country”, he added
However, he said that retaining journalists will be difficult with all the media houses are struggling financially.
Pema Choki, a young Journalist said, “The biggest hindrance while reporting is access to information. Even to get the smallest information we have to run to various offices and at the end we are asked to mail them the question.”
She further said, “lack of information often discourages us to do story and ultimately we quit.”
At the heart of freedom of speech or expression lies access to information, which is still a major issue that Bhutanese journalists face today, compounded by red tapism and bureaucracy.
Although constitution of Bhutan, article 7 fundamental right gives the citizen the right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression however the Clause 188.8.131.52 of Bhutan civil servants regulations (BCSR) restricts civil servants from criticizing or undermining government policies, programmes and actions in public and or through media (broadcast, print and online), an optic to transparency.
It also restricts civil servants from communicating, transmitting or posting messages or any content with the intent to express facts of a person or agencies. The recent case of forceful retirement of two foresters for apparently violating Bhutan’s civil code of conduct by “approaching the media”, has instilled fear among the civil servants to approach media even if it is disseminating “important information to keep the public informed” and not against the agency.
It is very difficult to do any government or agencies’ critical stories, people remain reluctant to speak. With this, media in the country is failing to function as a whistle-blower and such stories can be picked only from reports (Royal Audi Authority, Anti-Corruption Commissions, Court verdicts). I see this as a clear obstruction to the transparency and accountability, said erstwhile reporter of private media.
It can be really monotonous to work on stories of project and events opening/lunching, commissioning and completions/closing, and meetings. These are important stories but it’s not the end of all the important and good stories, there are others as I mentioned earlier. Perhaps, you could attribute this as my leaving behind journalism.
“To Reduce journalists attrition, we need to make the profession more attractive and working conditions more conducive”, said Executive Director, Bhutan Media Foundation.
When we say working condition should be more conducive, it means the access to the information should be free, he added.
In the latest, according to the Anti-Corruption Commission’s (ACC) model public service code of conduct, public servants could face disciplinary or criminal sanction if they share official information, including non-confidential, without authorisation. This model code of conduct will be applied as employment terms and conditions of the organization. The organization that seeks to have unfettered access to information while investigating the cases, formulation of such code of conduct for its own employees is perceived as a double standard. However, this is going to make even harder for the journalists to access information with such code of conduct in place.