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Published:October 25th, 2007 01:03 EST
Declaration de Exile

Declaration de Exile

By I P Adhikari

Focus: Bhutan has not done enough for press freedom

Press Freedom and freedom of speech and expression were never incorporated into national policies of Bhutan all through the ages. Fundamentally, freedom of expression and speech was termed anti national approach and access to media was regarded an attempt to destroy the long preserved culture of closed society. The Bhutanese rulers never prescribed that media would be the best means to educate people and a good partner for the good governance. Despite it signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the rights conferred by this international legal instrument, Article 19 we stress, were ignored by Bhutanese authorities.

TV was banned until 1999. All media outlets were strictly controlled and censored by the government until recently when it opened up way for private media as part of the king’s efforts to democratize his regime.

When the struggle for human rights, democracy and equality began in early 1990s, the political parties formed at that time to lead the movement included press freedom in their demand list. Subsequently, the deployment of the military force in southern districts silenced the voices for freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press. Those supporting this justifiable demand were called anti nationals and were evicted. Thus led the strengthening of the fight for freedom of speech and express and the freedom of the press. Thus, we support, in broader sense, the demand for establishment of democracy and human rights in the country considering that press freedom is impossible in their absence. 

In Bhutan's rapidly changing socio-economic, cultural and political scenario, information technology and media are already vital forces that touch all national priorities.

Access to media
Not all people have access to media. Low rate of literacy and ignorance of the importance of media are the major causes for not widening the public access to media. However, the urban population is growing conscious towards the media and its importance.

Indian and other foreign newspapers also are available in the market but they are limited to Paro, Thimphu, Phuentsholing and few other cities. Bhutan's low literacy rate, however, means that the majority of the population is not affected by the print media. Oral tradition is very strong, however, and radio broadcasts are relatively more widely listened to.

Foreign media organizations were not allowed to station their representative. Further, the government also restricted the nationals to work with the foreign media.

Positively, by the end of the last year, the situation changed somehow. Media agencies like Indo Asian News Service, British Broadcasting Corporation etc. produce reports on Bhutanese events frequently. Of all foreign media, IANS has been observed to have stronger hold in covering the Bhutanese issues. Visits by the foreign journalists have increased, but not satisfactorily.

Yet, the government still restricts the transmission of some foreign TV channels. The government cites the eroding effect on Bhutanese culture as the reason to bar the transmission of such TV channels. Few news channels like Aajtak, CNN-IBN, fashion TV, MTV, Zee Network and few other Indian channels have been censored.

Efforts in exile
There had been several publications since the beginning of the refugee issue solely intended for advocacy for democracy and human rights and right to return of the Bhutanese citizens evicted out of the country. However, such publications merely acted as the mouth piece of the publishing organizations. They, at large, could not include a wide range of advocacy campaigns collectively carried out by the Bhutanese organizations in exile.

The efforts for injection of journalism in Bhutanese society in exile had begun as early as 2000. Initially, three papers appeared in refugee community: Shangrila Sandesh monthly, Sandesh weekly and Bhutan Jagaran fortnightly. Inability to generate enough financial and human resources, the publications such as Bhutan Times, Sandesh weekly, Shangrila Sandesh have closed. Yet a group of people continue to strive for fight for press freedom. This led to the formation of Bhutan Press Union followed by Association of Press Freedom Activists– Bhutan and Bhutan Chapter of the Third World Media Network.

Presently, Bhutan Jagaran and The Bhutan Reporter monthlies are published regularly. Another bulletin Vidhyarthi Pratirodh is also seen circulating having sympathetic nearness to communist followers.

In the beginning, the refugee media faced hurdles from within the community and the local administration in Jhapa and Morang districts in Nepal. However, in recent days, the political parties and other opposition groups have become liberal. Yet the increasing violence in the camps has posed serious threat to independent existence of the media in exile.

Inside Bhutan
The government repelled the restrictive policy on privatization of media granting permission to start private media houses. This led to beginning of Bhutan Times and Bhutan Observer weeklies on April 27 and June 2 2006 respectively. Similarly, the government has also licensed two private FM stations– Kuzoo FM 90 MHz and Valley FM 99.99 MHz– which have already begun their transmissions. By law, restriction on TV has ended. The national TV station was established in 1999. No private channel has appeared. Even then, the government continues to ban the distribution of some of the foreign TV channels.

The Bhutan government has not been sincere to its commitments for press freedom. Recently the government blocked two websites, and The authorities claimed they were forced to block the sites since there were posts threatening sovereignty of the kingdom. International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) expressed serious concern over the blockage. However, the South Asian Freed Media Association (SAFMA) which opened its chapter in Bhutan recently, remained mum in this issue.

One of the journalists working with newspapers in exile was arrested in Bhutan early this year. Shanti Ram Acharya, who worked with The Bhutan Reporter and Bhutan Jagaran, was alleged to have involvement with communist group, which the party has defied. His whereabouts has not been known yet.

Legal Provisions
Bhutan has formulated new media laws and regulations. Even now, the media act and constitution have little provisions that guarantee media freedom and right to information, speech and expression to the Bhutanese nationals.

Regulations and terms and conditions for operation of media houses have been developed. As a central monitoring body Bhutan Information Communication and Media Authority (BICMA) is being established.

The draft constitution does not adequately incorporate the principles of press freedom and freedom of speech and expression of the citizens and residents. Some of the provisions mentioned therein are:

Article 7 of the constitution has provisions of fundamental rights that include the right to information, speech and expression and freedom of the press as well.

Sub Article (2): A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression.

Sub Article (3): A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.

Sub Article (4): There shall be freedom of press, radio and television and other forms dissemination of information, including electronic.

Sub Article (5): A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information.

However, there are a number of clauses included in the constitution that restrict the complete freedom of the press, right to speech and expression and further it does not adequately guarantee the right to information of the citizens.

Article 6 (3) (e) of the constitution restricts the citizens of right to speech and expression or right to information with many vague provisions such as termination of citizenship if found speaking against the king, country and the people. The government has not explained what it meant by speaking against the king, country and the people.

Article 7 (21) (e) of the constitution states that the government can impose restriction by law in case of 'the disclosure of information received in regard to the affairs of the state or in discharge of official duties.'

Article 10 (15) states, 'the Speaker or the Chairperson (of National Assembly and National Council respectively) may exclude the press and the public from all or any part of the proceedings if there is a compelling need to do so in the interests of public order, national security or any other situation, where publicity would seriously prejudice public interest.'

Article 10 (21) provides liberty to the Members of Parliament for opinion limited within the parliament proceedings.

The draft constitution also has objectionable provisions under Emergency section. Article 33 (7) gives power to the government to suspend rights conferred under sections 2, 4, 5, 14 and 18 of Article 7 during the period of emergency. This means not only the press freedom but all rights enjoyed by the citizens would be suspended during such periods. This will have negative impact on the citizens as they fail to have access to the situation of the country, their right to know what is happening in the country.

The constitution does not guarantee that license of the publications, radios or TV stations would not be seized by the state power. The emergency power given to the government can force these media bodies to remain shut, permanently or temporarily.

Because the law does not guarantee 'no censorship' on the operation of media houses, government may cite the reasons like speaking against the country and the people or security or sovereignty of the nation to impose censorship to publication or broadcast of certain news items.

The Media Act 2006, enforced on July 5, 2006, ignores consultation with media workers while formulating any laws, by-laws or regulations related to press freedom and working journalists. Article 13 (3) empowers the information minister not to disclose any information if he or she 'assumes' that disclosure would have negative impact on national interest. Similarly Article 14 (1) states that in the event of emergency 'the minister may by notification take over for a limited period the control and management of media services or suspend its operation'. The Act has also empowered the ministry to cancel the license issued for operation of the media bodies. Article 15 sufficiently empowers the government to impose unlimited censorship on media contents.    

The act does not guarantee the security of the working journalists and also does not speak about the perks and other facilities that journalists must get from media organization in return for the services provided.

Article 3 (1.4) of the Newspaper Regulation states that any person who has been, under the laws of Bhutan, convicted of a criminal offence, will not be issued a publishing license.

Our demands
We, the undersigned organizations jointly demand:

1. Include provisions in the constitution and the laws that guarantee the right to speech and expression, right to information and freedom of the press in the national constitution and media laws.

2. Explain adequately the vague provision in Article 6 (3) (e) of the constitution such as termination of citizenship if found speaking against the king, country and the people. Guarantee that mere criticism of a person would not be the cause of citizenship termination.

3. Amend Article 7 (21) (e) of the constitution guaranteeing that citizens get every information of the state.

4. Amend Article 10 (15) of the draft constitution to allow unrestricted entrance to journalists and media persons in all proceedings of the parliament. Also remove the provision of necessary permission from the parliament before publishing any materials regarding the proceeding of the parliament or vote cast in the house.

5. Amend Article 33 (7) of the draft constitution to ensure that media will have uncensored access to any places during the time of emergency as well.  This is fundamentally important to protect the right to information of the citizens.

6. Guarantee that license issued once will not be repelled in any pretexts such as violations of the national laws or speaking against king, country or people.

7. Repel all provisions in constitution, media act and the newspaper regulation that media houses would be taken under control or owned by the state during the period of emergency thereby ensuring that citizens get correct information on what’s going on in the country without any interference by the state.

8. Allow certain percentage of foreign investment in media with guarantee that editorial contents are not administered by the shareholders. Partial foreign investment in media is necessary in Bhutan since Bhutanese do not have capability to make bigger investments for expansion of media houses.

9. Include provisions in newspaper regulations/Media Act that accreditation would be issued to journalists working with foreign media as well (both national and foreign).  

10. Ensure that journalists would be consulted while formulating laws, by-laws or regulations related to press freedom and working journalists.

11. Guarantee the security of the working journalists and state the perks and other facilities that journalists must get from media organization in return for the services provided.

12. Effectively implement the strategy prepared for media development which says, ‘Upholding the universal rights of citizens to information, freedom of opinion and expression, and independence of the media which has the mandate to connect, inform, educate and entertain.'

13. Describe the degree of criminal acts of persons to bar him or her from getting a media license. Petty cases of criminal acts, as has so far been defined by the royal government, should not be the basis to restrict anyone from receiving license.

Appeal for the international press freedom bodies:
We the undersigned appeal the international press freedom bodies and free expression activists to:

1. Put pressure on the Bhutanese government for provisions in constitution and laws guaranteeing greater extent of press freedom;

2. Ask the Bhutanese authority to repel or amend all the restrictive and objectionable provisions in the constitution and laws that do not meet the international standards of press freedom;

3. Ask Bhutanese government to end the misuse of the state owned media;

4. Advocate for uncensored telecast of all foreign TV channels taking into consideration the interests of the Bhutanese people;

5. Recognize the efforts made by the media organizations in exile for establishment of press freedom and freedom of expression in Bhutan like that done by Third World Media Network, which recognized the formation of its Bhutan chapter comprising all journalists in exile.

6. Encourage the representation of journalists in exile in international media forums to make their voices heard;

7. Train the journalists in exile for development of media environment in Bhutan;

8. Monitor the media situation in Bhutan by making regular visits to the country;

9. We draw attention of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Reporters without Borders (RSF), Freedom House, SAFMA, Centre for Protection of Journalists (CPJ), International Press Institute (IPI), International Media Support (IMS), World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), World Association of Newspapers (WAN), World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), International Freedom Exchange eXchange (IFEX) and such other media organizations regarding the need to improve media situation in Bhutan.

Appeal for Bhutanese organizations:
We the undersigned appeal the Bhutanese organizations– political or apolitical– to:

1. Include the demand for press freedom and freedom of speech and expression in their charter of demands;

2. Support for promotion of media sector in Bhutanese community;

3. Make the Bhutanese media organizations to be the first to know any events related to Bhutan and Bhutanese refugees;

4. Make efforts to train their cadres on importance and necessity of the free media for democracy and human rights protection in Bhutan;

5. Make their cadres responsible towards respecting the works of Bhutanese journalists guaranteeing to make no hindrance in any aspects of the journalists’ duty;

6. Provide possible assistance to Bhutanese journalists while they are in duty in the field.
Our Commitments
We the undersigned pledge to:

1. Continue advocating for complete press freedom in Bhutan;

2. Ask the Bhutanese authorities to repel or amend all the restrictive and objectionable provisions in constitution and laws;

3. Ask the political parties and human rights groups to advocate for press freedom and freedom of expression in Bhutan alongside their political and human rights issues;

4. Continue to strive for development of journalism in Bhutanese community in the long term;

5. Work to sustain the publications in exile and encourage the Bhutanese to begin new media ventures in Bhutan;

6. Work for increasing awareness in the Bhutanese community regarding the importance of media in democratic environment;

7. Expand the readership of the Bhutanese newspapers and listeners of the radios;

8. Encourage the younger generation to build their career in journalism;

9. Organize regular workshops, trainings and seminars of media and journalism for enthusiastic journalists;

10. Network collaboratively and cooperatively with the media organization in Bhutan and across the globe to establish complete press freedom and for the development of journalism in the Bhutanese community;

11. Extend possible support to media and media personnel inside Bhutan and in exile to any troubles they come upon;

12. Regard Bhutan News Service as an independent news agency of the country.  

Joint declaration by
Association of Press Freedom Activists – (APFA) Bhutan
Bhutan Press Union (BPU)
Third World Media Network – (TWMN) Bhutan Chapter

(Signed by)
APFA Bhutan


TWMN Bhutan Chapter

Date of Declaration: October 20, 2007
Place of Declaration: Damak, Jhapa Nepal