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2004 World Press Freedom Review

Bhutan, often hailed as the last Shangri-La, a place of complete bliss, delight and peace, that came out of complete self-imposed isolation only in the early 1970s, is today offering the world an alternative vision of life: a society that pursues not wealth but Gross National Happiness. Bhutan's Gross National Happiness development strategy recognizes that improvements in well-being must accompany any economic development strategy.

Bhutan's principal criticism of the Western model of development is that material wealth has become an end in itself, rather than a means to happiness. The Himalayan country wants a developmental path that put the focus back on happiness, while respecting the value of material wealth. This idea has raised the interest of leaders and political scholars around the world, who, in international meetings, have started looking into the possibility of measuring Gross National Happiness and putting this developmental strategy into practice.

Gross National Happiness, which is based on the four pillars of environmental conservation, sustainable and equitable economic development, cultural promotion, and good governance, is at the core of Bhutan's first constitution, that the country is planning to adopt sometime soon.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan, whose family has ruled supreme over the Buddhist state for a century, announced this year his intention to give up his hereditary powers and turn the Himalayan country into a democracy.

The King, who ascended the throne at age 17 in 1972, has already begun devolving some of his powers to a largely elected National Assembly set up in 1998.

The draft constitution, that currently has only 34 articles and is the outcome of a thorough analysis of the constitutions of many countries, will be presented to the National Assembly in early 2005, after which it will be circulated for public comment.

There is cynicism as to whether the King will eventually release his absolute power; but the King's advisers say "he is liberal and progressive and will do everything to provide his people with an effective framework for governance," as a BBC correspondent in the region reported.

Indeed, in 1999 the King legalized for the first time television broadcasting and a year later he decided to begin the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) and allow global TV broadcasting into the country. This year frequency modulation (FM) radio was introduced and BBS can now be listened to from almost everywhere in the country, despite high mountains and deep valleys.

Very few people in Bhutan can afford to have a TV set since 75 per cent of the population is without electricity. But public television points and Internet cafes are spreading in the country.

The liberalisation of television and the Internet in the country generated criticism, especially in more conservative quarters, such as the influential monasteries. As an officer for the Bhutanese Monastic Body commented: "On the Internet there are good things as well as bad things, and our youngsters could go for the bad, and then, because of that, there could be a drastic impact on them."

On the launch of television, the King of Bhutan expressed confidence that the people would pick the best from the media.

However, the pressures to regulate the media are so strong that the government is considering adopting an Information, Communication and Technology Act. While it is not clear what the Act will restrict, it is believed that it will forbid the broadcasting of pornography and the US wrestling series WWE. Some believe that the children in the country have become more violent because they imitate moves from the WWE.


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2003 World Press Freedom Review

Although there were no serious problems in 2003 for the Bhutanese media, the country has some extremely worrying security concerns. The problems arise from the use of Bhutan by alleged Indian rebels who came into the country's jungle areas to escape the clutches of the Indian army. For many years now the Bhutanese government has been engaged in several attempts to eject them; acts that in turn have led to a degree of instability and uncertainty in the country.

In recognition of these problems, the leaders of the Indian and Bhutanese governments met in September to discuss the situation. The discussions were an opportunity to dispel some misunderstandings on the issue and they led to the National Assembly of Bhutan giving the rebels one last opportunity to meet with the government to discuss ways and means of resolving the issue. In doing so, the National Assembly made it clear to both India and the rebels that they would resort to far tougher action if the matter remained unresolved.
Unfortunately, the attempts at a negotiated settlement failed and there was fighting between the rebels and the Royal Bhutan Army.

On 8 February, there was news of changes made in the management of the state Bhutan broadcasting service ("BBS"). According to reports from the Kuensel newspaper the royal civil service commission announced the appointment of Mingbo Dukpa as the new executive director of the BBS. The newspaper also stated that the former BBS executive director, Kinga Singye, had been transferred back to the ministry of foreign affairs.

During late November, there were media reports that the ministry of information and communications was considering the introduction of a media law. According to reports from within the country, the media law would cover the ownership of media companies, specific topics relating to all traditional and new media, establishment of an appellate council, and other elements to promote the healthy development of the Bhutanese media.

Speaking of the decision, the secretary to the information and communications ministry said, "Bhutan is being influenced by the outside media. It is high time to have a law to make the media representative and responsible." Apparently, a workshop will be held in early 2004 to finalize the act.


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2002 World Press Freedom Review

Until recently, Bhutan operated a policy of deliberate isolation in order to preserve its absolutist monarchy and the ancient Buddhist culture of the majority Drukpa population. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk relinquished absolute power in 1998 to rule in tandem with the government, an assembly and a royal advisory council (including locally elected members). Although political parties are currently banned in Bhutan, a committee appointed by the King has been debating different types of democratic governments, expressed a preference for multi-party politics and are close to completing a draft constitution for the country that will incorporate a constitutional monarchy. Now under a policy of limited modernisation, Bhutan is tentatively acquainting itself with outside influences, particularly electronic media.

Media freedom in Bhutan is still much restricted by the government, although Bhutan’s only regularly published newspaper, Kuensel, is no longer subsidized by the government. Bhutanese radio broadcasting, begun in 1973, and is entirely monopolised by the state-owned Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS). BBS radio broadcasts 12 hours per day and gives a daily news bulletin in four languages. First introduced in 1999, television is aired to the Bhutanese via BBS (2 hours per day in Dzongkha and English) and about 25 competing cable operators. BBS television is currently limited to residents of Bhutan’s capital Thimpu but plans to become a national service. Bhutan has no private terrestrial television or radio services.

The year 1999 marked the introduction of the Internet to Bhutan. Druknet, Bhutan’s only ISP, was initially conceived purely as a domestic e-mail service, keeping Bhutan sealed off from the rest of the world; but the King then decided to give Bhutanese citizens access to the World Wide Web. Druknet has censored certain sites with specialist hardware. One of Bhutan’s pioneering electronic entrepreneurs, Wangchuk told correspondent Orville Schell, "If people learn how to use the IT, the benefit could be infinite because it will help break up our isolation and give us easy access to the world".

Unfortunately, due to the cost, the demand to use Internet cafes is small. However, Druknet’s aim is to provide access to all of Bhutan’s Internet users in the hope that more schools, businesses and government offices will go on-line. The Minister of Communications has formed a division of information technology (DIT) which signals that Bhutan is taking the Internet seriously as an information resource. But even the Bhutanese who are pioneering this electronic revolution have a decidedly ambivalent attitude towards the advent of television and the Internet. Many attach a certain resistance to these new mediums in order to protect Bhutan’s indigenous culture.

In August this year, Bhutan’s Dzongkha language was integrated into the Microsoft Windows operating system. Calligraphy artists and monks created fonts for approximately 4,500 Dzongkha letters, characters and religious symbols in this effort for standardisation. Previously, there were seven alternative computer operating systems in Bhutan, which were all mutually incompatible in that they used different character codes. Sending emails, creating documents and saving files were rendered impossible. The Swiss Development Corporation funded this project, and were helped by Microsoft, the Dzongkha Development Commission and the UK-based Orient Foundation. The system will be launched in early 2003.

Bhutan’s recent acquisition of television is seen by the authorities as the main culprit in both the increased recreational use of cannabis and the decline in the national sport of archery, in favour of football and basketball, which feature regularly on cable channels. Kinley Dorji, Editor of Kuensel told Orville Schell, "It’s not that TV and the Internet are bad, but that we’re so small, unprepared and vulnerable. To use things like TV and the Internet intelligently and not lose our uniqueness; our people need to be better educated."

Increased globalisation has presented itself as a double-edged sword to Finance Minister Yeshi Zimab, who faces the problem of finding employment for the 40 per cent of Bhutan’s population aged less than 20 years. Having a well educated and career aspirational workforce means young workers are no longer satisfied with working in agriculture. Migrant Indian workers, numbering between 20,000 and 30,000, have traditionally filled the deficit of blue-collar workers. Mechanisation threatens this particular job market and is resulting in stricter rules governing expatriate labour. The IT awareness campaigns run by the DIT for secondary schools in Bhutan have revealed a huge interest in IT and the Internet as career options amongst students. Many Bhutanese recognise the potential of this new media to create a bigger job market, yet struggle with the concept of the entrepreneur, which is contrary to their Buddhist culture.

Bhutan has lingering problems threatening its stability and international relations. In the mid-1990s, near to 100,000 Nepali speaking Bhutanese fled to Nepal following the eruption of violence, which was largely caused by deep unease at the prioritisation of the prevalent Buddhist culture and the lack of any political representation. The refugees, who have been living in camps in eastern Nepal for over a decade, appealed to the Nepalese government to help with their repatriation in Bhutan.

By August, Nepalese and Bhutanese officials had completed verification procedures in the Khudunabari camp where refugees are seeking the same for their sister camps. In February, these Bhutanese refugees refused to opt for voluntary repatriation unless their former homes and land in the South of the Kingdom were restored to them. The refugees lost an estimate 39 million in US dollars and want to return to their original homelands. Also, two rebel groups, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) use southern Bhutan as a base for fighting for independence from India, often committing violent attacks on communities in their homelands.


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2001 World Press Freedom Review

Media development is relatively new in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Radio broadcasting has only existed in the country since 1973 and television, as well as the first Internet service, were only allowed in 1999.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who came to the throne in 1972 at the age of 17, instituted a deliberate policy of isolation, fearing that outside influences would undermine absolute monarchy, freedom and Buddhist culture.

In 1998, the king gave up absolute power to introduce a "democratic monarchy" and he now rules in conjunction with the government, an assembly and a royal advisory council. Institutions have developed a unique system of governance which emphasises people’s participation.

However, the "democratisation process" is still at a very early stage and Bhutan has yet to develop a formal constitution. Moreover, conflicts with two factions of armed Indian militants in the south-eastern part of the country and with the ethnic Nepali community in the south have threatened to escalate.

Regarding the media, modern-day Bhutan has several radio stations, one state-owned TV channel, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), and one weekly newspaper, Kuensel, previously subsidised by the government. The newspaper has recently become independent.

Palden Tshering, a reporter for Kuensel, was reported by the Thai daily The Nation as saying "the shortage of good stories was the reason his newspaper was the country’s only paper." Refusing to resort to tabloid journalism and with a shortage of crime stories in Bhutan, Kuensel concentrated on stories about "peaceful community events" or the king’s activities.

The introduction of cable television in 1999 gave birth to a very successful industry but also to a wide range of problems, including uncontrolled network development, lack of skilled manpower, heavy taxation, high licence fees and lax enforcement of rules. According to an article published by Kuensel in August, cable operators in Bhutan believe the absence of a media and broadcasting law is a major deterrent to healthy growth of the industry.

"Channel providers in India have been only too glad to exploit the vitiated cable service industry in Bhutan. Free channels are declared pay channels and rates are ‘arbitrarily’ raised, according to local cable operators," says the article.

The Ministry of Communications says it is aware of the problems and constraints faced by cable operators in the absence of a law, and is presently negotiating with the Singapore government for assistance to formulate a draft law.

Cable operators hope the recently established Association of Private Cable Operators (APCO) will provide them with the opportunity to jointly combat channel providers. It is also hoped the organisation will co-ordinate efforts to develop the industry.

Furthermore, APCO’s members hope to be able to make representations to the government on the 30 per cent BST (Bhutan Sales Tax) levied as an indirect "luxury tax" and to lift some restrictions imposed on their activities, especially those related to the broadcast of commercials.


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2000 World Press Freedom Review

Ruled by a hereditary monarch, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has recently shown signs that social and political modernisation are once again on the agenda. In recent years, there have been increasing improvements in health care, education, communications and sanitation. However, there is little evidence that the desire for modernisation is to be extended to include a fully representative government, an independent judiciary and a written constitution affirming international human rights.

Perhaps the most important advance for press freedom in Bhutan this year was the announcement that a new FM radio station was to be created. Furthermore, there was also a decision made to overhaul the media in Bhutan by holding a forum on the subject.

On 7 June, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) formally opened a new FM station at Dobchula, a high ridge above Thimphu. The station is the main relay station for distribution of FM signals. Leki Dorji, the deputy minister for communications, said that the establishment of the FM service would greatly improve the quality of BBS radio reception, making radio listening a pleasurable and productive experience for all Bhutanese. According to Dorji, "FM has an advantage over short-wave as its signals are clear and unaffected by atmospheric disturbances,". He also went on to say, "The challenge is now for the BBS to match the technical quality with quality programmes that will benefit the Bhutanese audience". Costing about US $1,000,000, the Danish-assisted project began in 1997.

The royal government has committed itself to financing the expansion plans of the BBS, particularly in the area of the electronic media which has done much to promote increased awareness in society. "We are willing to provide resources to the BBS in order that it can increase its reach and improve quality", the finance minister, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba, said while attending a mid-term review on the future plans for the BBS.

During the meeting, there was a general feeling that the BBS should seek to encourage better quality programmes and be more professional. In particular, it was felt that there was a need for better training for media staff and higher reporting standards.


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1999 World Press Freedom Review

Television and the Internet were finally welcomed into Bhutan this year as part of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk's silver jubilee celebrations. On June 2, the government-run Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) and DRUKNET, the first Internet service provider, were launched in the capital, Thimpu. Initially BBS will broadcast for three hours every day around the capital. A chain of relay stations will eventually carry the channel to all parts of the kingdom. As the first domestic station, BBS holds a complete monopoly in view of a 1989 decree which instructed citizens to dismantle all television antennas and satellite receiving dishes. In 1999 Bhutan also installed a US$ 48 million, digital telephone network which apparently rivals the systems in Singapore and Hong Kong.

These development prompted a rush on television sets, computers and modems which the retailers were not able to meet. The state-run newspaper reported that the shops had low stocks because of the high tax on telecommunications equipment.

The Government tightly restricts freedom of expression in Bhutan. The King effectively controls the Government and the judiciary. There is no private media, no written constitution and opposition parties are not legally recognised. The King has ruled this mountainous, Buddhist nation in an autocratic fashion for the past 25 years, aiming to preserve the culture by issuing decrees such as an obligatory traditional dress-code for all citizens.

The country has only one regular publication, Kuensel, a newspaper with a circulation of approximately 10,000 which generally echoes the official line.

Bhutan's state-run radio broadcasting, the primary news source for Bhutanese, is in the Dzonghkha language as well as English and Nepali. The new televised broadcasts are only in Dzonghkha and English. There are widespread allegations that the Government is guilty of persecuting ethnic Nepali minorities. The government denies this and claims its policies are directed only at illegal immigrants from Nepal, while the minority group insists it has lived in Bhutan for generations.

Late in 1999, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck granted the unconditional release of 40 political prisoners, including Tek Nath Rizal, who had been in prison for more than ten years. Amnesty International had declared him a prisoner of conscience as he had been held for the peaceful expression of his political beliefs, in particular his campaign against government policies which he felt were unfairly affecting members of the Nepali-speaking community in southern Bhutan.


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1998 World Press Freedom Review

The primary purpose behind the autocratic policies of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck is to preserve the culture and purity of the land and its people and to keep out Western influences.

No mechanised vehicles are used on farmland and jeans are banned. Citizens were ordered to dismantle television antennas and satellite receiving dishes in 1989.

Bhutan’s two major exiled opposition groups are divided over recent constitutional changes announced by the country’s King, one of the world's last remaining absolute monarchs. While the United Front for Democracy in Bhutan, representing the country’s majority Buddhist community, has accused the King of introducing political reforms only in a desperate attempt to refurbish the global image of his country; the Bhutanese Appeal Movement, the voice of the country’s minority Nepali speaking community, has given a more positive response saying that the changes fit into Wangchuck’s vision of a slow transition to democracy.

Despite the recent rapid progress in education, health, sanitation and communication, Bhutan remains a monarchy with no written constitution or bill of rights and where serious human rights violations have been reported.

Freedom of speech and the press are also strongly restricted by the government. The country’s only regular publication is Kuensel, a weekly newspaper that enjoys autonomous status, but is not privately owned. Bhutanese human rights groups state that government ministries regularly review editorial material and have the power to, and regularly do, suppress or change content. They allege that the board of directors nominally responsible for editorial policy is appointed and can be removed by the government. Kuensel, which publishes simultaneous editions in the English, Dzongkha, and Nepali languages, supports the government but does occasionally report criticism of the King and government policies in the National Assembly. Indian and other foreign newspapers are also available.


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