The first-ever parliamentary elections in Bhutan were held between December 2007 and March 2008. The events were particularly significant and unique because the entire democratic process was initiated by the institution of monarchy which had ruled the country peacefully for 100 years.
Together with the move towards democracy, independent media also came into being, along with the necessary legislation and regulation. The Constitution, which was in a draft form ahead of the elections, guaranteed freedom of the press, speech and expression as well as the right to information.
Until 2006 the media in Bhutan were limited to the state-owned Bhutan Broadcasting Service (radio and television) and Kuensel, the national newspaper. By the time political parties were formed and elections called, Bhutanese media included three new, independent radio stations and three new, independent newspapers.
The independent media were, however, severely constrained by the small market. Bhutan has a population of just 634,000 people and a 56 per cent literacy rate. The mountainous terrain of the country makes distribution of newspapers extremely difficult and radio signals tend to be confined to the narrow strips of valleys where relay stations are established. As a result, much of the necessary civic education prior to the elections became the prerogative of the BBS radio and TV, which have nation-wide coverage.
Since the Bhutanese media, but for BBS and Kuensel, were in their infancy, journalists working for them required a crash course in political reporting and election coverage. Even those working in the state-owned BBS needed training ahead of the first-ever elections to be held in the country. In fact, in many ways, training was especially relevant and vital for BBS personnel since they had been used to simply broadcasting official announcements and public service messages without much public debate or discussion on public issues. Within a span of one year, over 100 reporters, producers, camerapersons, technicians and editors were trained in different aspects of election coverage and journalism. Additional staff was recruited to provide coverage of all 47 constituencies and the 94 candidates standing for election.
Election coverage was regulated by a stringent code established by the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB). Named the Media Coverage of Elections Rules and Regulations of the Kingdom of Bhutan, it was in line with international best practices. However, the narrow interpretation by the ECB itself restricted the possibility of lively and appealing coverage of the campaign by the media. For example, most of the video material produced for campaigning purposes was rejected and campaign managers had neither the time nor the resources to produce alternatives. The ECB also appointed a media arbitrator who monitored all the media agencies on their coverage of the elections, with the help of four assistants.
Notwithstanding all the above, the campaign for the first historic elections, using the newly diverse media, was characterised by “live” debates between political party presidents on TV and delayed broadcast of TV debates among the 94 candidates. Even the newly established Centennial Radio – a station confined to Thimphu – conducted Question & Answer sessions with all the four candidates of the Thimphu constituency. Kuzoo FM carried out extensive radio interviews catering to rural audiences around the country. These formats were extremely useful in introducing the candidates and their plans and manifestos to citizens about to exercise their franchise for the first time.
Election coverage in the print media followed a different pattern, with reporters following the candidates up and down the mountainous terrain of Bhutan and publishing several “along the campaign trail” features about potential future parliamentarians.
Since polls and surveys were not allowed by Bhutanese electoral rules, unlike in other countries, no media agencies in the country could speculate on who would win or lose the elections. But unofficial predictions as well as informal bar and party chatter anticipated a narrow win for either party.
The international media were represented by 107 journalists and crew members from 63 news agencies across the world. Their presence served to increase the overall credibility of the electoral process. Furthermore, several international observers from multilateral and bilateral donors were present from the run-up to the elections until the results were declared and accepted by the competing parties. The European Union mission also included a media monitoring team that concluded, in its final report, that the national media’s coverage of the elections was fair and balanced.
Media, the accidental hero
The electoral victory went to the Druk Phunsum Tshokpa Party, which captured 45 of the 47 seats in the National Assembly. The result stunned the country in general and the media in particular. In the words of a media colleague, “Not even in their wildest dreams did anyone expect such an outcome.” The result was so overwhelming that no analysis or conclusive study was subsequently done on the outcome of the elections.
With the opposition party occupying just two seats in parliament, the mass media was suddenly under pressure to assume the role of a credible opposition to the government. The nascent independent media in the country, which did not even have a sound financial base, accepted the role more or less involuntarily. But their subsequent performance of the role led to the government and the ruling party in parliament viewing voices in the media more as “protest” than as “public opinion.” This situation may be unique to Bhutan.
However, with His Majesty the King remaining the patron of democracy in Bhutan, the government, the people and the media feel confident about being on the right path of democracy. While the King never intervenes in the functioning of the government or the media, what the current monarch ( Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck) actually does is to ensure that the democratic process initiated by the earlier monarch, his father ( Jigme Singye Wangchuck), is on track. He is keen to see that the nation continues to focus on consolidating the nascent democracy and building it into a strong and vibrant system that will serve Bhutan and its people for a long time to come.
To sum up, the Bhutanese mass media played an important role in the country’s first historic elections. Although the independent media in the country are still very young, they have established themselves as a critically important element of democracy in Bhutan.
The investment made by media agencies to provide intensive training to their staff to cover elections made a huge difference. Trainings were not confined to political reporting but also camera, op-ed writing, investigative journalism and political analysis. Observation trips were arranged to countries like India, Indonesia and Poland where general and state elections were taking place. Although these trainings were expensive to conduct, in the context of the overall national objective to build a good democratic system, they have turned out to be good investments.
Professional ethics and objectivity are by far the most important attributes of good election coverage. These qualities definitely matter and they do pay off in the long run. Although there was no hard evidence of bribery or corruption of the media by political parties, editors and reporters were often cajoled to provide positive coverage of parties, campaigns and candidates. However, with their relatively unbiased reporting and objective analysis, the Bhutanese media emerged as the true winners of the first-ever general elections in the history of Bhutan.