Exiled scribes say Bhutan poll farcical without free press


Kathmandu : While World Press Freedom Day is being celebrated Thursday, Bhutan’s exiled journalists say the polls promised by the Druk government in 2008 won’t be free and fair till there is an independent media.

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“The media sector in Bhutan has been under the absolute regime’s control since years,” said the Bhutan Chapter of Third World Media Network, a network of exiled journalists working from Nepal, India and other countries.

“Attempts to gain independence in the media sector have always failed due to threats from government bodies. The Bhutanese people have been deprived of their fundamental right to information for years.”

The exiled journalists are urging international press and human rights organisations to probe the allegations that the Druk government is violating the rights of ethnic groups and cracking down on dissenting journalists.

They are also asking for special international focus on the plight of a young Bhutanese journalist whose whereabouts remain secret after his arrest this year.

Shantiram Acharya, 21, said to have been working as a reporter for several newspapers run by the Bhutanese refugees who live in Nepal, was arrested by Royal Bhutan Army soldiers at the Tashilakha outpost in January.

“We urge international human rights bodies and the International Federation of Journalists to investigate the arrest,” said Teju Chouhan, general secretary of the network. “We demand his unconditional release since detainees’ lives are under threat in Bhutanese jails.”

The exiled journalists are also expressing scepticism about Bhutan’s earlier king Jigme Singye Wangchuk’s announcement that a multi-party election would take place in 2008 as a step towards the transfer of power, now concentrated in the crown, to elected representatives of the people.

Last month, the Druk kingdom held a mock election in preparation for the event with a second rehearsal scheduled end of this month.

“The 2008 general election will not be fair until the government allows independent and private media houses and human rights organizations to operate freely,” the network said. “Peoples’ democracy will never foster until the government of Bhutan guarantees media freedom.”

Wangchuk’s abdication in favour of his son has also been treated with scepticism by the exiled Bhutanese who say it is a ploy to deflect international donors’ attention from the reluctance of the regime to allow exiles to return home.

Over 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin have been struggling in refugee camps in Nepal for nearly two decades after being forced to leave the country.

Despite 15 rounds of talks with Nepal, Bhutan has still not agreed to take the refugees back, prompting an offer by the US government last month to resettle the camp residents in American cities and rural areas.