We live in changing times. The significance of socioeconomic and political changes that Bhutan is going through must be documented, because this narrative tells the story of a changing Bhutan.
The media and the role it plays in a young democracy have been much stressed. One of the visible changes in Bhutan’s transition into a democracy was the liberalisation of media. Our leaders believe that people need information to make informed decisions on issues that matter to them.
But this responsibility of the media to inform the people on public policies often gets constrained. Elected leaders believe that discussions on public policies that matter to every Bhutanese are an internal matter. It is assumed that the presence of media personnel curtails candid discussions in a public forum.
The education ministry has yet again barred the media from attending the upcoming Sherig Conference in Panbang, Zhemgang because most of the conference would discuss administrative issues. The ministry on its facebook page tells us that media barred from sherig conference should be read as media not invited for the education conference. It states that the ministry invited the media last year to attend the conference in Phuentsholing and even provided logistical support because most agenda were of public interest, which needed to be transparent.
A rational such as this from the ministry that is responsible for educating the nation is deplorable and problematic. Education remains one of the important sectors in the country because of the role it plays in nation building. An opening of a school in a remote community indicates socioeconomic development for the community, just as it did for Bhutan more than a hundred years ago. Its responsibility centres on public interest.
The media’s responsibility is driven by public interest. As part of the Bhutanese society, it has the mandate to report on issues of public interest. The media is not a technology or a foreign phenomenon. It doesn’t need an invitation to report on the education conference where matters of public interest are raised and discussed. The media questions policymakers and their decisions because it has the responsibility to find answers. Barring the media from a public forum is undemocratic because by shunning the media, it has shunned the public from participating in the discourse.
According to the ministry, the conference is closed to the media because most discussions would be on administrative issues. The agenda and issues raised from the dzongkhags indicate otherwise. There are about 82 issues from 15 dzongkhags and thromdes listed for discussion. Among them are, teacher protection Act; school feeding programme; inferior quality of shoes and stockings supplied by national suppliers to central schools; inferior qualities of goods supplied to central schools due to procurement norms; regularisation of ECCD facilitators; suicide attempts among students and 90 percent attendance requirement to appear examinations and long vacations impeding 180 instructional days.
Concerns of administrative nature do not necessarily mean that they are not of public interest. The bonding and communication exercise the ministry is planning to do over the conference is important. But since when did an education conference that’s themed, a king’s vision and a country’s future, become a retreat and an internal matter?