With the election of a new party in power in Thimphu last year, many saw it as a sign that Bhutan’s ‘young democracy’ was thriving. Its equally young independent media, however, doesn’t seem to be doing quite as well. In February 2019, Druk Neytshuel – a privately-run Dzongkha-language weekly – became the fifth private Bhutanese publication to go under in recent years, revealing the difficulties of media sustainability and independent journalism in the country.
Bhutan’s media landscape was composed entirely of state-run press and broadcasters until 2006. But the arrival of electoral democracy that year, and the first parliamentary elections in 2008, saw a boom in the number of privately-owned dailies, weeklies and magazines in English and Dzongkha (Bhutan’s sole official language). In 2010, there were 12 print publications in the country. By 2017, however, the number had reduced to nine. With Druk Neytshuel’s closure, there are now only seven print news publications in the country, including the state-run ones.
Like most media outlets that shut down in recent years, Druk Neytshuel – which started in 2010 – had been struggling with low subscriptions – Bhutan’s readership is notably small, with a 60-percent literacy rate in a population of around 800,000 – and insufficient funding from commercial advertisers. But private media’s biggest structural constraint has been their heavy dependence on state advertising – responsible for the majority of their operating costs, reports suggest. Following the economic crisis of 2012, however, the government shrunk its budget for advertisements to private media, choosing instead to post them on ministry websites. This has left privately-run media outlets struggling to compete against state-media monopolies. The decline of media has hit Dzongkha publications hardest, with only one such privately-run publication remaining. This is quite apart from additional challenges to independent journalism, such as a new criminal defamation law.
Across the world, financial survival in the age of the internet remains a constant concern for media organisations – for those in the mainstream, the margins and everywhere in between. As Bhutan negotiates its second decade of democratic exercise, however, the closure of Druk Neytshuel marks a troubling pattern of shrinking media space in the country.
~ More Mediafiles by Chhetria Patrakar here.