TELEVISION IN BHUTAN
Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Television, including satellite channels, and the Internet were gingerly allowed in only in the last decade, and only after great debate. Even then, authorities banned MTV and a sports channel that broadcast professional wrestling because of their potentially deleterious effect on youth. [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2008]
Television sets per 1,000 people in the early 2000s: 30 in Bhutan, 84 in low-income countries; 735 in high-income countries; and 938 in the United States [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, 2007]
Bhutan was the last country in the world to introduce television. From 1989 to 1999, the Bhutanese government a banned private television use. Although Bhutan did not have its own television station, broadcasts were transmitted from India and Bangladesh.Television broadcasting was reintroduced in 1999. The same year, the government allowed the licensing of cable companies. There were three main television stations in the early 2000s, one sponsored by Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) and two cable stations. In 2004, there were about 15,000 cable subscribers. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
The the introduction of democracy and adoption of the constitution in Bhutan has meant that the BBS would take on a greater tole educating the public and providing quality news programs. India has helped been involved with the development of media in Bhutan. There is no legal provisions for the right of free expression in Bhutan. The government to restricts criticism of the King and some of government policies of the National Assembly. [Source: Wikipedia]
No Television and Internet in Bhutan Until 1999
Until 1999, Bhutan officially had no televisions, no satellite TV, no Internet and no television stations. In 1989, the Bhutan government ordered the destruction of all television antennas and satellite receiving dishes as part of an effort to protect Bhutan's national culture. "We are trying to modernize our country, not Westernize it" the Bhutanese Foreign Minister told the Washington Post in the 1990s, "We have not allowed satellite TV. We feel it will erode or country in no time — within a year or two our value system would change."
The rules were ignored. Some people had satellite dishes hidden in their barns. Others watched movies on pirated videos brought in from India on home VCRs. In the late 1990s, Thimphu had 25 video stores, the largest of which rented out 350 videos a day, including many new Hollywood and Bollywod films.
Up until the 1990s radio was the only official source of news and information. Bhutan Broadcasting Service, established in 1973 and given its current name in 1986, operated under the auspices of the Department of Information; it offered thirty hours a week of shortwave radio programming in Dzongkha, Tshanglakha, Nepali, and English. There was daily FM programming in Thimphu and shortwave reception throughout the rest of the nation in the early 1990s. In 1991 there were thirty-nine public radio stations for internal communications. There were also two stations used exclusively for communications with Bhutan's embassies in New Delhi and Dhaka and thirteen stations used by hydrologists and meteorologists.
There were no television stations in Bhutan in the early 1990s, and a 1989 royal decree ended the viewing of foreign television by mandating the dismantling of antennas. The government wanted to prevent Indian and Bangladeshi broadcasts from reaching Bhutan's citizens. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
Introduction of Television in Bhutan
Bhutan was the last country in the world to permit television within its borders. Television was officially introduced in Bhutan in June, 1999 in what King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk dubbed the "Light of the Cyber Age" had come. The first television broadcast was of a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the king's coronation. The first broadcast featured a speech by the king in front of 15,000 of his subjects at a stadium and one of Bhutan’s queens cutting a white ribbon in a television studio while dignitaries and reporters from the United States, Britain, France. Denmark and Germany looked on.
The Bhutanese government set up its own television station — the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) — which has its studio and offices in a building in a suburb of Thimphu. At first transmissions were limited to Thimphu and provided with one kilowatt broadcast signals that were bounced off towers on hills. Programming was limited to a few hours a day and consisted mostly of documentaries and news about the Bhutanese. Programming ended with a Buddhist prayer. The aim was to use television to strengthen the Bhutanese identity rather than open up the Bhutanese to the outside world. The restrictions on satellite television were lifted in 1998 just before the start of the World Cup soccer tournament. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: The introduction of television into Bhutan was sparked by the World Cup Soccer Final of France in 1998. The 3-0 victory of the home side over Brazil was watched by thousands on a big screen in Bhutan's National Square. TV in Bhutan was such a success that a year later, on the 25th anniversary of his coronation, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk decided to allow the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), founded in 1973, to broadcast TV programming. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]
During the first broadcasts, people who had never seen a television before sat in rapt silence. Teenagers who had seen plenty of videos on illegal VCRs found the broadcasts boring. The first commercial was a shot of large offering of congratulations to the king from Penden Cement.
Television sets — many of them Malaysian-made Sonys or Indian televisions — sold at a rate of around 100 per week on the eve of the first broadcast even though the sets cost two months pay for an average Bhutanese. In the early days of Bhutanese television it was not unusual for 40 or 50 people to gather around a single television set.
Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “ Euphoria reigned in the towns as the outside world in all its garish glory beamed into shops and living rooms. Pulling the lid off Pandora’s box, however, raised concerns. What happens, after all, when an isolated, deeply conservative society is suddenly exposed to gangsta rapper 50 Cent and the World Wrestling Federation? [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]
“For a religious perspective, I went to Punakha. At an elevation of 4,100 feet, compared with Thimphu's 7,600, this relatively warm town is home to the Buddhist leadership during the winter months. There Thsula Lopen, one of Bhutan's highest-ranking monks, told me that television needn't contradict Buddhist values; in fact, he said, Bhutan now has Buddhist TV shows. (But there is no Nielsen system to measure their ratings against those of the Indian soap operas that have transfixed much of the nation.) "In olden days, there was no communication of our Buddhist religion," he went on, speaking in Dzongkha, the Tibeto-Burman language that originated in western Bhutan and was declared the national language in 1961. "Now, with modernization, I think our religion can spread all over the world." [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]
Impact of Television in Bhutan
After the television was introduced in June 1999, Bhutanese was had access to cable were suddenly bombarded with 46 channels. For vast majority of Bhutan's population, they did not have electricity, let alone access to television. By 2002, the crime rate had increased appreciably, in Bhutan and at least part of the blame was placed on cable television.
One villager told he Washington Post, "It's better to have television. That way I can see what people in other countries are doing.” Foreign Minister Jigmi Thinley said: "The whole world is getting smaller, and we need to be part of the global village,"But how to do it while maintaining our traditions is a challenge...We are quite happy to be on our own. But is very important that the Bhutanese people not remain oblivious to the rest of the world. Kinlet Dorjee, editor of Bhutan’s only newspaper told Reuters: “It’s an aerial invasion. Bhutan is a small country...Its strength is its unique identity, its religion, clothes. Television exposure is seen as a dilution of this culture.”
The government controls television access. Some politicians said the government only introduced television because it was criticized by foreigners for keeping the foreign media out. Television has been credited — or blamed — with changing conversation topics and children’s behavior and speech patterns, Before television families sat around and chatted for a while after dinner and went to bed but after the introduction of television they often ate more quickly, watched three or four hours of television and went to bed later.
Satellite television service launched in February 2006 expanded BBS's programming to content from in almost 40 Asian countries, including Turkey and Indonesia. Parents complained their children are so fixated on the television they don’t say hi to their parents when they come home from work and they pick up Bollywood songs before they learn Bhutanese songs. Traditionalists complain that children watch pro wrestling instead of practicing traditional sports like archery and use English slang instead of studying Bhutan Buddhist literature.
“The impact of access to TV screens has changed Bhutanese society considerably, especially one that, as a matter of policy, attempts to preserve and conserve traditional values. The editor of Bhutan's only regular newspaper, the bi-weekly Kuensel, explained that the thinking in the country is that as it will never be a military or economic power, its strength must be its unique society. He believes that television represents a direct threat to this. Some observers have noted an increase in violence among children and a rise in crime, while others note that the more the Bhutanese are exposed to globalization, the more likely they are to lose their own culture. Such concerns have led to the regulation of the industry and control what goes out over the airwaves through acts such as the 2006 Information, Communication, and Media Act, which bans the broadcasting of material (e.g. pornography and the U.S. wrestling series WWE, both of which, it is believed, leads to violence among Bhutanese children) thought to be detrimental to Bhutanese society. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]
Negative Impact of Television in Bhutan
Television has been blamed for destroying family life and increasing crime and juvenile delinquency. Three years television was introduced in 1999 some shows like professional wrestling were taken off the air because they blamed for causing a surge in the crime rate.
Reuters reported: Since cable TV first arrived in her tiny village in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan” in 2005, “55-year-old Kencho Om keeps getting in trouble with her husband for staying up late watching movies. “My husband scolds me. He says at this age, I should be spending my time saying prayers," she said, sitting on the floorboards of her front room, the walls broken only by a shelf on which her small TV set is perched. "He says that after I die, instead of doing the funeral rituals, he will just put my body next to a TV." [Source: Reuters, May 15, 2007]
The Bhutanese were presented with an alternative vision — of glamour and wealth — and bombarded with advertisements for products they never knew they had missed. In a survey, more than 66 percent said TV had had a positive impact on society, and only 7.3 percent disagreed. Still, criticism persists. Petty crime and recreational drugs, almost unheard of a decade ago, have arrived in the past ten years. “I hate television," Chencho Tshering, the managing director of Kuensel, the state-owned newspaper, said, reminiscing about a recent night when the cable service went down. His wife was deprived of her Hindi soap operas and his three daughters missed Friends, but the family came together and started talking about the past. "That was the best night I can remember since 1999," he said
Television Programs and Stations in Bhutan
Bhutanese could watch CNN, MTV, the Cartoon Network, international football, the BBC, uncensored HBO, Indian films and the National Geographic channel in the early 2000s. They could tune in to “Friends”, “Teletubies”, professional wrestling, toothpaste commercials, American dramas, Bollywood musicals.
The state-run Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) airs a mix of news, cultural shows and development programs. The directors of the channel purposely didn’t show Hollywood films in the early 2000s. One director told Reuters, “Hollywood films with too much sex and violence make our families uncomfortable. It’s a bit out of context in Bhutan.” In the mid 2000s, the BBS began showing home-grown soup operas to compete with Hindi favourites.
Ugyen Dorjee was Bhutan’s leading television producer, an entertainment entrepreneur that moved up from selling vegetables to bicycles to clothes to pop music cassettes and saved up enough to create Bhutan’s first recording studios. In the late 1990s he began producing some of Bhutan’s first television programs. He sent an assistant to India to take a crash three-month course in video filming. His first production, about a woman that falls in love with a handsome man with a heart problem, was shown at local theaters in Thimphu. Money made from ticket sales was spent on generators so the show could be taken on the road to small towns and villages.
Radio in Bhutan
The Bhutan Broadcasting Service was established in 1973 as a radio service, broadcasting in short wave nationally, and on the FM band in Thimphu. In 1997, the country had an estimated 11 radios per 1,000 population. In 2003, there were 60 radios per 1000 people: (compared 50.8 per 1,000 people in Mali and 1,982 per 1,000 people in the United States). In 2005, there was only one radio station. It was government owned and included broadcasts in Dzongkha, Nepali, English, and Sharchop. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007; Nationmaster, 2003, nationmaster.com ]
In the early 1990s, there were thirty-nine point-to-point high-frequency radio stations, including two installed in Bhutan's embassies in New Delhi and Dhaka in 1988 for internal administrative communications. There also were eight telegraph offices. The government-run Bhutan Broadcasting Service in Thimphu started with three hours of broadcasts per week in 1973 and had expanded to thirty hours per week by 1988. An FM station in Thimphu and shortwave receivers throughout the rest of the country received its daily programming in Dzongkha, English, Sharchopkha, and Nepali. Whereas there were only 7,000 radio receivers in Bhutan in 1980, by 1988 between 15,000 and 22,000 sets were reported. In 1991 a new broadcasting complex was opened in Thimphu under the auspices of the Department of Telecommunications. Built with Indian aid, the complex included a high-power fifty-kilowatt shortwave transmitter capable of covering all of Bhutan and neighboring areas. There was no domestic television, but there was a big demand for videos, especially in the larger towns. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
In June 2000 FM radio service became available for western Bhutan with the launch of the FM station at Dobchula and one relay station at Takti in the south. The FM service was extended to central Bhutan in January 2001 and the rest of the country in 2005. [Source:“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]
Internet in Bhutan
Internet users: total: 368,714
percent of population: 48.1 percent
country comparison to the world: 160
Broadband - fixed subscriptions: total: 10,802
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 1
country comparison to the world: 169
Internet country code: .bt
[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
Druknet, the nation's first Internet service provider was established in 1999. By the end of 2003, there were about 15,000 subscribers, including Internet cafés in three major cities. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
The Bhutanese government launched the Internet using the Japanese company DoT MoC in April 1999. Bhutan's only Internet service provider is Druknet which is owned by Bhutan Telecom. The mobile subscriber in 2014 was at 14 percent. Internet access in the country has had a major boost by mobile networks, largely by EDGE/GPRS and the new 3G technology platforms. [Source: Wikipedia]
Introduction of the Internet to Bhutan
Bhutan was one of the last countries in the world to open up to the outside world online. The Internet was introduced along with television to Bhutan in 1999 and has only been officially allowed since then. The fourth king of Bhutan, King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk (reigned 1972-2006) brought the Internet to Bhutan as part of his "Light of the Cyber Age" campaign
By 2006, many villages had access to high speed Internet service. One of the goals was to offer long distance learning and telemedicine. At that time Buddhist nuns had e-mail addresses and people used the Internet to check on prices at the Sunday markets. Teenagers chatted online with their friends in the United States while their fathers milk the family cows and yaks.
Percent of population with Internet access: 48.11 percent (July 2018 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 160. In the early 2000s there were 26 Internet users per 1,000 people, compared to 28 in low-income countries 538 in high-income countries and 630 in the United States. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, 2007]
Social Media in Bhutan
In 2014, the BBC reported: “Although it stepped into the internet age very late, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter have caught on rapidly. Today there are an estimated 80,000 Facebook users in Bhutan - more than 10 percent of its population. Buddhist Bhutan used to be a deeply conservative country where dissent and criticism were rare. But social media is giving an opportunity for Bhutanese youth to express their views and force change. [Source: BBC, February 19, 2014]
Sonam Yangden, a radio jockey for Bhutan's Kuzoo FM, describes a revolution in Bhutan's attitude to conversations about sex and intimacy. She told the BBC: Social media has had a massive impact - mostly good. We are getting to know what happens inside and outside the country. So much information is coming through. My generation grew up with the internet and television and I believe that makes me more creative. It allows me to know more things. Social networks give you a platform to write whatever you want. Ours is a conservative society but thanks to social media platforms now there are campaigns for issues like same-sex marriages and other sensitive issues.
“Sex education is another area where social media has played an important role in Bhutan. I happen to be a voluntary member of a sexual education awareness programme. We try to spread awareness about sexual education through social media and why it is important young people should know about it. And it was only after it started on social media that people started talking about it in mass media - it even led to debates on television. Initially, people were anonymous but later on many of them started discussing these issues using their own identities. We would not have talked about such things 10 years ago.
Tara Limbu, a journalist and social media activist, says young people now have a platform to talk about what they really think - and disagree with each other. She said: Youngsters are increasingly using social media to network. They have started to take up social and political issues and get involved in discussions. For example, there is one page called Bhutan Street Fashion. That page is very popular and it has more followers than any other mainstream media in Bhutan.
“People were criticising political parties and their policies very openly using their real identities. The page discusses everything from fashion to social issues to politics. The younger generation have started using social media to promote their causes. In Bhutan we are not used to criticising the government or politicians. But social media has changed all that. During the parliamentary elections [in 2013], we could see how people were active on social media - that is where the discourse was. Remember, these latest elections were only our second ever parliamentary polls. But this time people were criticising political parties and their policies very openly using their real identities. We could also see divisions within friends and families based on politics. Social media is what gave us a platform to do that.
Tashi Gyeltshen, a film-maker, points to the power of Facebook in prompting concrete reforms. He said” “When the previous government introduced an act to control tobacco usage, my friends and I started a Facebook page called: "Amend the Tobacco Control Act." We did this after a 24-year-old monk, Sonam Tshering, was arrested for bringing in about US$2 (£1.22) worth of tobacco to the country - he was sentenced to three years in jail in 2011. It was the very draconian law that allowed this to happen. But social media helped us to make an important change. It started a debate and allowed people to come out and openly talk about their dissatisfaction with the Act. Around 4,000 like-minded people took part and because of that Facebook page, we were able to make the government aware of the dissatisfaction around the nation. What followed was a discussion in parliament and then the government amended the act. His Majesty the King also gave amnesty to 16 people who were sentenced under the Tobacco Control Act. I believe this wouldn't have been achieved without the power of social media. I also try to connect with film-makers around the world through Facebook. If you know exactly where to connect and who to connect to it is not difficult.”
Cell Phones in Bhutan
Mobile cellular phones: total subscriptions: 703,554. Subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 92 (2018 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 165. Domestic service is inadequate, particularly in rural areas (2018). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]
Telecommunication systems: 4G platforms now gaining traction; 4G/WiMAX networks now cover well over half of the country; fixed broadband penetration remains very low, due to the preeminence of the mobile platform; low to moderate growth is expected from this small base with a maturing mobile subscriber market (2020) =
Cell phones were introduced in November 2003. In 2005, there were an estimated 22,000 mobile phones in use. In 2004, surveys funded by the French communications company Alcatel and a Danish development company began surveying Bhutan to set up cell phone transmitters based on microwave radio and wireless technology. Subscribers to their service got a telephone hand set, a small antennae able to receive data from a central base station in the village and a solar cell for power. The project was difficult to implement. In many cases equipment had to be brought on by ponies on walking trails. The goal was for most villages to have access by 2006. One of the goals was to offer long distance learning and telemedicine. A director at Bhutan telecom told the International Herald Tribune, “The project is a revolution in terms of education and communication. for the rural people.”
Today many men keep their smart phones tucked into the folds of their traditional dress, the gho. CBS News reported in 2016: Cell phones are everywhere. Some wonder how they got along without them, like freelance journalist Tshering Choeki. “I can't live without my cell phone today," Choeki said. "I make my appointments on my cell phones. I check my emails on my wi-phones. And sometimes when I'm in a hurry I even do articles on my cell phone." [Source: Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert, CBS News April 17, 2016]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022