When Bhutan began its transition into a parliamentary democracy in 2006, its media scene exploded. People in the remote Himalayan country, which lies between India and China, had lived in relative seclusion for decades—television and the internet only arrived in 1999—and there was just one, state-owned newspaper. But the political changes led to a flowering of independent media, and suddenly there were nearly a dozen newspapers for a population of only 700,000.
Since Bhutan’s private sector is tiny, the government became the country’s largest advertiser, effectively subsidizing the Bhutanese press. But the more outlets there were, the less tenable it became for the government to support them all. Now it has begun to cut back on advertising and newspapers are closing down. Some Bhutanese journalists are complaining that it’s not possible to have an independent press if the papers that are left standing are those still supported by the government.
Sonam Ongmo runs The Raven, a monthly magazine on Bhutanese politics and society that launched last October. One of the first female journalists in Bhutan, Ongmo began her career in the early 1990s at Kuensel, when it was still the country’s only newspaper. CJR spoke with her about her work and the media in Bhutan.
What is the media situation like?
It’s an interesting situation because, first of all, the country is very small and the private sector is very small.
If you start [a media outlet] as a business organization, as a business venture, and you want to make money, you have to rely on the government, because the government is the largest spender. There’s no advertising culture in the private sector.
The situation is bad in the sense that you want the government to support you, because that’s the only way you can be subsidized, but at the same time you compromise your right to criticize the government. It’s either or, and I don’t know how, in the long run, the media…private, independent media can survive in Bhutan because of that.
Bhutan is famous for Gross National Happiness. How do reporters reconcile that with hard-hitting journalism?
The previous government talked about Gross National Happiness. It’s very subtle; it’s not in-your-face control from the government like it is in other countries like Russia or somewhere. But because of Gross National Happiness, I think what the government did was they kind of used that to say, “Keep your criticisms down. Learn to criticize in a way that doesn’t make everyone unhappy and dissatisfied.” They were trying to get education and media and everyone to go by this philosophy…It really doesn’t reconcile if you think about [it]…I don’t see how you can have Gross National Happiness in media.
What inspired you to become a journalist?
I enjoyed writing a lot. I used to read a lot, and I remember in grade eight, reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To me, I’d never even left my country, and I had this world open up about what was happening in another part of the world, and it just touches a part of you, where the written word can make you so strongly identify with certain issues, and just opens up a world. The funny thing was, even though I’d never left my country I had access to The New Yorker, Time magazine, books—we were reading a lot. And we didn’t have television. We didn’t have any of that, so we had all the time in the world to read.
Generally, in the developing world, you have an even greater responsibility, because people are not highly educated, and you can influence public opinion in such a way…In a poorer country or in countries where people are not as exposed, as a journalist you have an obligation to really be careful…In the West, in a more highly educated country, as a journalist you write whatever you want [and] people can eventually come to the conclusion and make up their minds, and see it for what it is. But in poorer societies, I think you really have an obligation.
Why did you start The Raven?
There’s no real publication that really delves into the social issues. The Raven is more a social-political magazine…We have a lot of social problems: alcoholism, addiction, drug addiction. It’s a poor country, so it’s a lot of social issues. And so I started it because of that, and I hoped that by starting a magazine it would add to the strengthening of the media institution.
We’re trying to keep it going. We just have to cut back, scale back on the publication, [and] the number of issues.
If the government really cares about the kind of work that people are doing in terms of journalism, they would really, seriously think about doing something, but I don’t see the commitment. We’re struggling on our own, and we’re just trying very hard.