Kinley Dorji, secretary in the ministry of Information, points out that the main competitors of newspapers in Bhutan are not television, but word-of-mouth rumour mongering.
“Bhutan is a small country,” he says to me over drinks the previous night. “Here we not only know who is sleeping with whom, but also who will be sleeping with whom.”
At last count, Bhutan had six newspapers, five radio stations and one television station. Earlier at a reception, I am introduced to Sherpem, an attractive Bhutanese woman who has a degree in journalism from Columbia University. She is, I am told, ‘the Barkha Dutt of Bhutan’.
Dorji has also studied journalism in the United States. “I came back with a journalism degree,” says the Stanford University alum, “But no newspaper to work for.” So, he did the next best thing: he started his own paper, Kuensel.
From playing editor, Dorji is currently hammering out his country’s media policy. His point of view is that it is the government’s responsibility to develop a professional media industry. The big concern is international media. Until 1999, there was no television, now over 40 channels beam into Bhutanese homes. At the time when TV was first introduced, the role model for most young Bhutanese men was the king. Today it is Shah Rukh Khan and 50 Cent, says Dorji.
How do you fit the concept of gross national happiness into this nascent media world? By having media awards that focus not so much on the top breaking stories as much as stories that best present culture or focus on good governance or the environment.Dorji has his work cut out; not a moment to lose. Bhutan is laying fibre optic lines from Thimpu to its 20 districts, connecting the country by broadband. Freedom of expression and the right to information is guaranteed by the country’s newly adopted Constitution. Over 2,000 citizens engage actively in online discussions and there are 18,000 registered internet users in this country of 634,982 people; 60 per cent survive on subsistence farming, 25 per cent live below the poverty line. Incidentally, Siok Sian Dorji who heads Bhutan’s Centre for Media and Democracy, points out that half the population has cell phones.
Meeting Tshering Tobgay, the leader of the two-member Opposition – sometimes referred to as the world’s smallest opposition - is a delight. Tobgay is one of Bhutan’s best-known bloggers (www.tsheringtobgay.com). In March 2008, his party, the People’s Democratic Party got whupped at the general elections. “So, I did the next best thing. I started blogging,” he says.
Unlike India’s opposition leaders who seem obsessed with opposing government policy regardless of what it is, Tobgay sees his role in a more positive light. “The people have given this government a huge mandate. It is now their job to deliver.” His job is not to discredit the government but to make sure that first, it fulfills the people’s aspirations and that second, it functions within the purview of the Constitution. “Our job should be to support them.”
This philosophy is so refreshing to the jaded Indian audience that one of them suggests that our Opposition leaders be sent at once to Thimpu at once for a crash course in affirmative politics.
Another Bhutanese member of Parliament Sonam Kinga is an expert of the indigenous poetic technique of katsoms, which is a poem that follows an elaborate set of rules. He tells us of another great Bhutanese tradition: that of the night-hunt. Apparently, since Bhutanese society was (and is) largely agrarian, young men found they had no time for courtship rituals, and so this important aspect of social life was best practiced during the dead of night, when there were less pressing demands on time. Men would stake out the houses of women they were interested in - easier said than done, said Kinga. There were walls to be climbed, roosters to be avoided (lest they started crowing) and, of course, parents to be dodged and all this done on the assumption that the woman in question reciprocated the man’s feelings and didn’t send him packing off. But that tradition, alas, is now relegated to the past. Blame electricity, he said.