Thursday, August 23, 2012

IFJ expresses concern over Media Freedom in Bhutan

The build-up to the private media’s concerns over the government’s recent policy shift on advertisement has been highlighted by the international Federation of Journalists (IFJ) with the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN). The federation expressed concerns over such a policy shift in an online post.
IFJ is the world’s largest organization of Journalists established in 1926 and re-launched in 1946. Today the Federation comprises around 600,000 members which includes journalist from more than 100 countries.
It promotes international actions to defend press freedom and social justice through strong, free and independent trade unions of journalists. It is the organization that speaks for the journalist within the united system and within the international trade union movement.
IFJ policy is decided by the Congress which meets every three years and work is carried out by the Secretariat based in Brussels under the direction of the elected Executive Committee. The recent Congress was held in Cadiz on May 25 to May 28, 2010.

IFJ’s concern
Besides the policy shift, the IFJ has also shown its concern over the stamped confidential circular issued by the Ministry of Information and Communication (MoIC) which directed all departments under it not to entertain any advertisement to The Bhutanese.
The IFJ posted: “a secret circular was issued by the Ministry of Information and Communication on April 2 asking all government departments to withhold their advertising from the daily newspaper, The Bhutanese. This circular came to light mid-August and has caused serious concern among independent media”.
However MoIC’s Media Officer, Daw Penjor said it is being misinterpreted.
The IFJ wrote that the government’s directive which forbade advertisements to The Bhutanese is believed to be in retaliation for the publication of articles critical of possible abuse of power and corruption, arising from the government’s use of its discretionary powers.
A week later the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) circulated a circulation on 16 August which stated that all election advertisements would be given to the two state-owned media and one private radio. A reliable source said that the ECB was forced to make the move after they received a muscular letter from Finance Secretary on August 9.
The IFJ however also posted that, in June, the MoIC in Bhutan, ostensibly in line with a directive from the Ministry of Finance imposing budgetary restrictions on ministry budgets, asked all government departments to review their ad placement decisions in all media outlets.
However, Daw Penjor refuted it and said that this is factually distorted. He said the clarification was issued through a press release on August 20, this year; few days after the ECB issued a circular in Kuensel.
The biggest congregation of the world’s journalists posted, “We call on the government of Bhutan to review these directives and to follow the official policy which protects an independent media.”
IFJ said in the online post that it is the declared policy of the government to delink ad placement decisions from the content or editorial stance of the media outlet concerned.
They said that this is a sound policy, vital to sustaining a free media in a country where the limitations of the market impose formidable barriers to media growth. “It must be fully adhered to in practice.”
However, the Royal Government has issued a press release clarifying on the recent ECB’s circular on election related advertisements to the media.
The press release states, the circular from the Ministry of Finance (MoF) on June 11, 2012 was not directed to the ECB alone but to all government agencies. The press release justified that it was directed to all government agencies to apply cost cutting measures not only in government advertisements but across the board.
“The circular was sent mainly to rationalize government expenditure and as part of the royal government’s belt-tightening exercise,” it stated.
Further it stressed that the type of media used for the government advertisement must be most suitable and appropriate in terms of budget availability, type of advert and reach required, and that there is no need to have the advertisements put in all papers at the same time.

Govt. steps on its words
The printed ECB Circular, however, states that their circular originated in obedience to the directives contained in the circular (MoF/R-Circular/2012/694) of 11th June, 2012 that government agencies are to publish advertisements in selected medium and not all the papers at the same time.
Contrarily, the government in its press release clearly mentioned that the Royal Government does not have a hand in ECB’s decision to select the three media houses since it is an autonomous agency and in fact, one of the Constitutional bodies.
Moreover, the government said that the Royal Government strongly believes in spreading out advertisement revenue from the government to “as many media houses as possible, and not just to the three that the ECB has mentioned, for a vibrant press and for democracy”.
Coincidentally Bhutan has also plummeted six places in the World Press Freedom ranking from the 64th position to the 70th position among 179 countries.
The organization that conducted the survey ‘Reporters without Borders’ say that indication like financial pressure on the media, self censorship, freedom to criticize, threats to journalists, ability to investigate and harassment to the media are used to calculate the total points.

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