Covering Thimphu

Granted that Bhutan's is extremely difficult terrain for journalists, but the subject deserved better from the regional and international media — more depth and less bias.

The events in Bhutan of the past few months stood as a challenge to the international and regional media in providing fair and balanced coverage of troubled Druk Yul. Unfortunately, as even a cursory glance at the news reports will reveal, the journalists have by and large not been up to the task.

The problem in covering Bhutan lies in lack of access to its territory, the dearth of independent scholars and writings that can provide adequate background, and the willingness of journalists to lap up information provided either by the government at Thimphu or Nepali groups in exile.


Many Kathmandu tabloids, perhaps a bit over-confident after having participated in the successful movement against the Nepali monarchy, have tended to regard fighting for democracy and human rights in Bhutan as an easy crusade. They are like arm-chair liberation fighters who risk nothing in donning the garb of revolutionary mediamen. In likening Bhutan's problems simplistically with that of pre-April 1990 Nepal, these tabloids seem to ignore the vastly different socio-economic and political equations involved.

Some Nepali papers get their information exclusively from Nepali Bhutanese sources, in particular the Kathmandu liaision office of the Bhutan People's Party. There is no attempt at independent corroboration of the second-hand and obviously partisan information provided, which include detailed "eye-witness" accounts of atrocities committed by the Royal Bhutanese Army and "government-sponsored hooligans". There has been obvious exaggeration and no accountability in describing massacres reportedly conducted inside Bhutan. When mistakes are made, in retrospect, corrections are not issued.

A few Nepali journals have satisfied themselves with lifting straight from press releases. Others have relished using banner headlines condemning "Murderer Wangchuk" and his "Barbarian Dictatorship". Such reportorial overkill reduces the public belief threshold and, in the end, does grave injustice to appreciation of the genuine grievances of the Nepalis of Bhutan.

Why has it not been possible for Nepali investigative reporters to infiltrate Bhutan to bring out first-hand reports? While some intrepid reporters from Biratnagar seem to have traveled across parts of southern Bhutan, no one seems to have ventured deeper. Granted, access is very difficult, but if Nepali reporters cannot do it, then nobody else can. It might even have been possible to hire a Nepali Bhutanese with a good pen to provide in-depth, objective "from the inside" coverage.


If one can criticise some Nepali journalists for mis- or under-reporting Bhutan, the same criticism also applies manifold to the Indian media, which does not have the problems of financial or human resources that the Kathmandu newspapers have. The on-going Indian coverage of Bhutan, as well as that of the Indo-Nepal trade impasse of 1989-90, demonstrates how many Delhi-based journalists continue to toe the government line when it comes to foreign, particularly regional, issues.

On Bhutan, Indian reporters and editorialists, by and large, seem to have decided to take it upon themselves to protect Thimphu's monarch and his government from the "unreasonable wrath" of Nepali Bhutanese. If the Kathmandu tabloids are partisans in one corner of the ring, the Indian newspapers and magazines are firmly in the other corner.

Many Indian reporters and writers fall prey to the same exotic romanticised visions of Bhutan as do "parachute journalists" from the west. The cultural antagonism of some narrow-minded Delhi or Calcutta-based journalists against Nepalis, particularly since the Gorkhaland agitation and the Nepal-India trade crisis, also seems to have played a part in the alacrity with which they have come to Thimphu's defence. One reporter, in fact, made it a point of condemning the "Indo-Aryan Nepalis" for muddying Bhutanese waters.

Given the red carpet treatment (and restricted tours) Thimphu provides Indian and expatriate journalists, it is perhaps not surprising that they come back with glowing accounts of the sensitivity with which the government is treating the present problems. These reporters are allowed to meet and quote only selected high-level personages, who tend to be convent-educated, and absolutely disarming with their sophistication and good English. Just the opposite of sullen Nepali leaders in the refugee camps in West Bengal.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuk also comes off in interviews as forthcoming and "in touch with his people." He is easier for the journalist to sympathise with than, say, the King Birendra of Nepal, whose media advisors kept him far removed from the press and even when access was provided insisted on rigid, stultifying formats and pre-submitted questions.

Indian editorialists, traditionally liberal in use of the term- "terrorist", have taken their cue from the Bhutanese government and are quick to label Nepali militants "anti-national terrorists". Some detect in the Bhutanese violence, unsubstantiated "sinister designs of a greater Nepalese state in India." The standard editorial cue is of Bhutanese magnanimity up against Bhutanese Nepali depravity.


As for members of the western press, they have continued to report Bhutan in sanitised bits and pieces. Newsweek, the international newsmagazine, had an article in mid-June which dealt with Bhutan as if it were show-case china: the headline was "Once Upon a Time: There Was a Nice King"; a map of Bhutan was entitled "tranquil oasis". Bowled over by his own cute vision of Bhutan, it was little wonder that the correspondent missed completely the volcano that was about to erupt.

The Nepali journals, by focusing on sensationalist coverage of rape and pillage, and the India and Western magazines, by insisting on Bhutan's benevolent image, have missed so far the opportunity to confront squarely the Bhutanese dilemma. The Nepali media does not seem to have the resources and the others seem to have no time, to study the processes at work in Bhutan.

The important issues that are waiting to be addressed by journalist and scholars include the social and economic quality of life in Bhutan; the extent of discrimination against Nepalis; details of the major ethnic groups within Bhutan, etc. When are we going to get a detailed treatment of the historical process of migration from Nepal eastwards. Hill to hill migration is as important as hill to tarai migration.

In looking deeper and more honestly at Bhutan, will Nepali journalists find that there do exist Bhutanese Nepalis who support the king and Thimphu's aristocracy for their own reasons? And will the Indian reporter find that many "Tibeto-Burman" Bhutanese are also disgruntled about human rights and democracy in their country?

The Nepali, Indian and Western press, all have made the mistake of studying "Bhutanese Nepalis" as one ethnic group, even though Sikkim's ongoing experience, and the rumblings within Nepal proper, prove that there are growing divides among "Nepalis" themselves. It might not be entirely feasible, therefore, to look at the Nepalis of Bhutan as one monolothic unit. Also, do recent developments in Sikkim, Assam or Sri Lanka hold any lesson for all concerned, or is it enough to look to Nepal's example, or Eastern Europe's?

In the end, neither the Nepali media, nor the Indian or Western media, need be proud of their coverage of Bhutan. On the whole, the reporters have shown a capacity for intellectual passivity and inability to look at the problems of Bhutan other than through their own coloured lenses.

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