Journalist documents the Kingdom’s unique journey

A village in Bhutan

A village in Bhutan

It was an unexpected conversation over dinner that would find Bunty Avieson helping a local family establish the Kingdom of Bhutan’s first independent newspaper.

There with her husband, who was working on a film, Ms Avieson and her baby stayed with a family who owned a printing press.

“They didn’t read very much but had a printing press to print prayer books for Tibetan monks,” she told 702 ABC Sydney.

“We talked one night over lots and lots of whiskey about what it would be like to run a newspaper.”
A few years later, when the King of Bhutan decided on the existence of independent newspapers, licences were granted for the project to begin.

Ms Avieson and her family found themselves in Bhutan once again to help establish the first privately owned, independent newspaper.

“It was their idea, they wanted to explore it and so we did.”

Nestled in the Himalayas between China and India, Ms Avieson would spend that year working as a consultant to the Bhutan Observer, later documenting her experience in the book The Dragon’s Voice.
What Bhutan was like before media existed

Ms Avieson’s written journey begins with the coronation of the fifth King of Bhutan and explores the social, political and economic environment as the country begins charting its own course to democracy.

According to the author it was around 1999 before modern media reached Bhutan, the last country in the world to get television.

From television to newspapers and telephones, Ms Avieson said the media age has taken a unique turn.

“The newspapers haven’t been quite as successful as they would have hoped but it’s the other media, the digital media, the modern Facebook and Twitter that are creating this new media space.”

Ms Avieson said, as a culture that values talking more than reading, modern media is appealing.

“While newspapers have been unsuccessful, they’ve kind of leap-frogged from a medieval, feudal system in the space of 15 years to Facebook, Twitter, Wi Chat and mobile phone,” she said.
Unravelling the mystery around Bhutan from the inside

It’s often remarked that Bhutan places happiness ahead of materialism, scoring well in the Gross Domestic Happiness Index.

However, during her year working with the Bhutan Observer and reflecting society on the pages of its newspaper, Ms Avieson said the process revealed some confronting truths that weren’t always welcome.

“It can be such a simplistic view you have of another country from outside,” she explained.
“When you work in the media, you get to see the underbelly, tensions, all those things that don’t necessarily appear on the surface.

“You see underneath to what’s really going on and it was quite a privilege to be sitting in those news conferences each week with the newspaper, seeing their version of Bhutan.”

According to Ms Avieson, before the media age in Bhutan, societal matters didn’t have a platform to be interrogated or discussed.

“This is the challenge for Bhutan, they have to look at what is happening within their own culture and it is painful for them,” she said.

“A lot of the time they’re angry with the media for bringing it up, rather than being angry with what is going on.”
The Bhutan experience as a Westerner

Ms Avieson said there was a particular attitude towards Westerners and living in Bhutan required caution when dealing with some of the confronting issues.

“Bhutan has been closed to the West for ever and they have a particular attitude to Westerners, which is to be quite wary,” she explained.

“As a Westerner living in that culture, you do have to be very careful about not imposing your values.

“You’ve got to be very respectful and step carefully because they really don’t want the grubby Western influence, and they’re quite specific about that.”

Part of Ms Avieson’s experience involved Dolma’s story – the person who was helping her family during their time in Bhutan.

“Her husband was beating her up, it was appalling,” she said.

“For us to step in was really difficult, we worked our way around it and we did what we could.”
The media age in Bhutan today

For Ms Avieson, the journey from Sydney to Bhutan looks far from being from over, with the journalist planning to go back in December after a trip last year.

“I want to continue to study the way they use media, I’m particularly fascinated with the way they use digital media,” she said.
“The way they use Facebook is extraordinary; it shouldn’t be called social media it should be called something else.

“Because newspapers haven’t worked, that’s where it all takes place.”

The use of social media has seen Bhutan set up consumer swapping in the form of eBay on Facebook, as well as campaigns against the government and government ministers using the platform to communicate to people.

“Here in Sydney, I’m still able to join that conversation and watch that conversation through my Facebook – it’s remarkable.”

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