A quarter of a century ago, Bhutan became one of the world’s last countries to allow television and the internet, but now this Himalayan kingdom and its media landscape are evolving rapidly.
The main daily newspaper, Kuensel, which is published in both English and Dzongkha, is owned by the government. The start of Bhutan’s transition to democracy in the mid-2000s was accompanied by the emergence of privately owned publications such as The Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer. The state broadcaster, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, lacks its own special status guaranteeing editorial independence. Bhutan’s internet is now expanding fast, with more and more news and information circulating on blogs and social media.
Bhutan's constitutional monarchy was established by the 2008 Constitution, which proclaims press freedom. The pressure that the government can exert on the media is limited by the parliamentary system, which allows a degree of pluralism to be asserted.
The 2018 Information, Communications and Media Act confirmed the powers of the Bhutan Infocomm and Media Authority. Its five members are directly appointed by the government, which poses a major threat to media independence. Journalists report difficulties getting access to state-held information, and that, in particular, the royal bureaucracy perpetuates a culture of secrecy and distrust of the press that ends up depriving the population of information of public interest. Recent defamation suits and a national security law penalising any attempt to create “misunderstanding or hostility between the government and people” have acted as a brake on journalistic freedom.
Privately owned publications survive in a difficult economic environment, with a relatively low readership and insufficient advertising. Most ads are placed by government agencies, which account for 80% of the advertising revenue of print newspapers. This can have a direct editorial impact. In 2012, the government was accused of cutting back the ads it placed with The Bhutanese, a weekly newspaper, in retaliation for an article listing cases of corruption. The cut was seen as a warning to all the media.
The level of self-censorship is one of the main problems in the land of “gross national happiness”. Many journalists avoid covering sensitive issues for fear of appearing to challenge the social order. The media rarely refer to the situation of the Lhotshampa, the Nepalese minority in the south of the country which has been the victim of repeated discriminations.
Journalists are rarely the targets of physical threats. But, as a result of social media’s development in Bhutan, journalists whose investigative reporting or opinion pieces cause annoyance may be subjected to online harassment campaigns started by political activists who combine disinformation and smears with personal and sometimes racist attacks.