Challenges to Public Service Broadcasting

(Front row) Members of Bhutan Parliament(Front row) Members of Bhutan ParliamentThe media landscape in Bhutan offers many opportunities as well as challenges for those involved in reform.   For a country which introduced television as recently as 1999, and which until a couple of years ago had only one (state-owned) newspaper, the spurt in media-related activity, especially since the advent of popular democracy in 2008, has been striking.  It is not surprising, therefore, that attention has now turned to strengthening public service broadcasting in this Himalayan idyll.

Towards this end, an influential group of legislators, policy-makers, technocrats and media practitioners came together, under the auspices of the state-owned broadcaster, Bhutan Broadcasting Service, and a prominent local civil society organisation, the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, to discuss the subject of public service broadcasting in some depth at a seminar organised on the outskirts of Thimphu on 8-9 November 2010.  The seminar,which was supported by AIBD (with generous funding from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung), involved four external consultants – from Thailand, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and Germany – as resource persons, including the present writer who was asked to speak on the Legal and Regulatory Aspects of PSB.

(From left) Speakers Dr Venkat Iyer, Joe Carlos, Gerda Meuer and Thepchai Yong(From left) Speakers Dr Venkat Iyer, Joe Carlos, Gerda Meuer and Thepchai Yong

Clearly, the success of any PSB system would depend, to a large extent, on the presence of an adequate legal and regulatory framework that took account of both local conditions and best practices from other countries.  A key part of the discussions at this seminar, therefore, focused on underlying principles and concepts which needed to be understood before any policy choices were made.  Of particular interest to participants was the issue of whether a state-owned broadcaster could still be relied upon to serve as a public service broadcaster: the experience in a number of developing countries was, alas, not very promising in this regard given the tendency of many state-owned broadcasters to become mere mouthpieces of the government in power.

(From right) Dr Venkat Iyer discussing legal issues with Ms Pema Choden, BBS Managing Director and Marcel Gomez, Programme Manager, AIBD(From right) Dr Venkat Iyer discussing legal issues with Ms Pema Choden, BBS Managing Director and Marcel Gomez, Programme Manager, AIBD

The seminar also examined the legal obligations of public service broadcasters and possible regulatory models for PSB.  Much concern was expressed over funding, editorial independence, corporate governance, and accountability, all of which issues were debated extensively both at plenary sessions and in small group discussions.  Attention was also paid to the importance of ethical conduct by public service broadcasters, and the pros and cons of statutory versus voluntary regulation (e.g. through a Media Council which relied on a code of conduct rather than on ‘hard’ law). 

One of the points that was emphasised was that, important as the law was in ensuring the effectiveness of a PSB system, it was by no means sufficient to guarantee the success of the system.  That depended on a number of other factors, including adequate funding, political will and the presence of a strong societal consensus on the need for the media to serve the public interest.  

Group discussionGroup discussionIf the feedback from the participants was anything to go by, the seminar appears to have aided in increasing the participants’ understanding and awareness of the multi-faceted nature of PSB.   A tangible outcome of the event was the emergence of a set of well-thought out and highly practical recommendations which, it is hoped, will form the basis of future legislative and other measures that may be put in place to advance the cause of public service broadcasting in Bhutan.

 

By Dr Venkat Iyer, Barrister and Law Academic, University of Ulster