The ultimate aim of any democracy is to create an informed citizenry or an informed public. This is based on the rationale that people in a democracy have the right to determine their own future. They have the right to choose which party or government should govern them. However, in order to make an informed choice, people need to be provided adequate information. They need access to information to be free and self-governing.
And that’s where the media must come in. That’s what the media must do to foster democracy. Even His Majesty the King has reiterated time and again that free media must be fostered so that it fosters a vibrant democracy. Free media is not just an indication of a free society, but it is also a condition for it. That goes without saying that even the country’s constitution, therefore, outlines basic freedoms of the press and media.
The recent decision barring the media from attending the Sherig Conference scheduled from December 27 – 31 this year at Panbang in Zhemgang is, therefore, a sort of insult to democratic ideals, instead of promoting press freedom and access to information. Education conference is a meeting of public officials to discuss issues that are relevant to the education ministry and those that concern the children of Bhutan. In this regard, it makes little sense why media are not allowed to report those issues.
The education ministry reasoned that this annual education conference would mostly discuss administrative issues. And even if the issues are mostly administrative, let the media decide what to report and what not to. What is there to conceal unless there is something fishy.
While it is heartening to know that the ministry will make public decisions of public interest through press conference or press release or any other medium, media release, still needing to be truthful, may not contain the whole truth. A lot of censorships happen and most of the time it contains a careful selection of facts to show an organization or issue in the best possible light. Its main purpose is to ensure that good news gets told and that bad news is shrouded as best as possible.
Following the story ‘Media barred from Sherig Conference’ in a local newspaper, the ministry also issued a clarification on its Facebook page that the headline be read as ‘Media not invited for the Education Conference’. However, the question here is when do/should media need an invitation to cover something that is of importance to people? Should media only cover events when they are invited? The role of the media in such a scenario may be sadly confined to only reporting events, launches and meetings of promotion and publicity. Is the media then fulfilling its responsibility of rendering a space for public debate and discourse?
Additionally, it is befitting if we leave it to the public to decide what is of public interest. But free media access to a transparent ministry in a democracy is obviously of critical national interest. Similarly, free media access to a transparent government is obviously of serious national interest.