Media In Bhutan: A closer look at the Kuensel

Journalism is considered to be essential for democracy, which is why journalism in Bhutan is a new idea. Today, Bhutan has 11 print papers, five radio stations, and three TV news networks, a dramatic difference from the one-paper monopoly the country maintained for nearly 40 years. The country’s first paper, the Kuensel, began in 1967 and witnessed Bhutan’s change from a monarchy to a democracy.

This small, Asian country is considered to be the world’s youngest democracy. In 2006, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck willingly gave up power in favor of this new form of government. It was that same year that the government started training journalists to be the foundation for this new democracy.

Journalism, although new, is already a dying field in Bhutan. According to the World Press Freedom Index, Bhutan ranks 94 out of 180 countries. This means that journalists often face harsh punishments for their work. For instance, in 2016 freelance journalist Namgay Zam shared a story written by Dr. Sacha Wangmo about a property dispute between a local woman and a business owner on her private Facebook page. For sharing the post, Zam was charged with defamation. These strict laws make it unappealing for people to enter the field.

Journalists in Bhutan also work long hours with irregular pay as a result of an economic depression in the country. The Asian Communication Handbook states that 90 percent of revenue for news organizations comes from government placed ads. Because of the recession, the government has cut back on its advertising and spending. Only government-supported papers have survived this recession so far.

Another obstacle papers are facing is the low literacy rate. According to UNICEF, as of 2012 the adult literacy rate in Bhutan was at 52.8 percent. This means that most people in the country either get their news from TV or radio. However, some papers have found unique ways to appeal to the varying levels of education among their audiences.

The Kuensel is one such paper. It is the oldest paper in Bhutan. It began in 1967 as a government bulletin and started writing in a news format in 1986. Until 2006, it was the only print paper in the country and has survived for so long by adapting to the country’s needs. Traditional print and broadcasting were the only ways to spread news until 1999 when the country gained access to internet and television. That same year, the Kuensel went online. However, according to the CIA World Factbook, only 38.6 percent of the population has access to internet as of 2015.

The Kuensel publishes cartoon stories to appeal to members in their audience that are unable to read.

Today, the readership for Kuensel is estimated by the Asian Community Handbook to be at roughly 200,000. They have traditional hard news content that they put out daily online and in print in addition to videos, podcasts, and cartoon versions of their stories to appeal to the portion of their audience that is unable to read. They publish in English, Dzongkha, and Lhotshamkha. Because of their ability to meet their readers’ needs, it is the only paper in the country that is still seeing an increase in circulation today.

The Kuensel bases its operations out of Thimphu, the nation’s capital, but also has an office in each district within the country so they can report on news all across the nation. Their reporters are all college educated with training from Singapore, India, and the Philippines.

The Kuensel Online is considered to be the most visited website in the country. They have the most internet traffic with over 70,000 likes on their Facebook page and an additional 28.8 thousand Twitter followers. Their website has a forum with around 100,000 people that contribute to the posts. Readers using the forum are able to start conversations about things happening in the country and give their opinion on what they want to see happen in a deliberative style of journalism.

Their stories are different from the Western style of journalism practiced in the United States. Stories that can be found on Kuensel Online are much shorter in length, only giving readers the essential information. Bhutan is a small country with a population of roughly 792,877 people. They see themselves as a single community that succeeds and fails together as a country. To respect the privacy of the people in their community, they often times don’t publish names and don’t go in depth on hard news that may be difficult for some people to read, like deaths and crime. Because Bhutan also measures the success of the nation in Gross National Happiness rather than the traditional GDP, reporters often face pressure to not to focus on those types of stories as well.

In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review, Sonam Ongmo who founded The Raven, stated that journalists are told by the government to “keep [their] criticisms down. Learn to criticize in a way that doesn’t make everyone unhappy and dissatisfied.”

However, the Kuensel hasn’t let that ideal stop them from reporting on hard news. They report on issues that other news organizations in the country are often afraid to report on. The Kuensel’s official website states that “Gross National Happiness is not a promise to make people happy. It is a mandate to serve the people. For Kuensel it means establishing values and setting standards. Our aim is to do this with professionalism. This means not just reporting stories but reflecting on them and writing our stories with, not just objectivity, but with sensitivity.” They then leave it to their readers to find their own happiness within themselves.

The Kuensel has witnessed Bhutan’s transition to democracy and has adapted with the country. They have seen first hand how democracy and media are intertwined. Journalism is still new to the country and is facing many challenges as it tries to get established. As Bhutan grows as a democracy, it’s media will grow with it.

As the Kuensel states on their website, “Democracy is not complete without a professional media.”

Source List:

  • Varma, Pavan K. “How Democracy Took Roots in Bhutan.” The Hindu. N.p., 04 Oct. 2016. Web. 01 May 2017.
  • “Statistics.” UNICEF. N.p., 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 01 May 2017.
  • “The Media’s Struggle for Survival in Bhutan.” Columbia Journalism Review. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.
  • Kuensel1. “Kuensel.” KuenselOnline. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.
  • “Contact CIA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 01 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 May 2017.
  • “2017 World Press Freedom Index | Reporters Without Borders.” RSF. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.
  • “Geert Hofstede.” The Hofstede Centre. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.
  • Banerjee, Indrajit, and Stephen Logan. Asian Communication Handbook 2008. Singapore: Asian Media Information and Communication Centre and Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological U, 2008. Print.