The commission appointed by the king to write a draft constitution produced a second version, providing for separation of powers, in June 2003. But nothing changed for the press, which was still controlled by senior palace officials. The only criticism of the monarchy’s policies to be found was on the forum of the official newspaper’s website kuenselonline.com.
Despite the king’s reform policies, including the introduction of universal suffrage into this Himalayan kingdom, little provision has been made for diversity in the media, which are all state-owned and in the hands of palace officials known as "Guups."
The official weekly Kuensel is published in three languages - English, Dzong-ka and Nepalese. The sole radio station, Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), puts out two daily bulletins in the country’s four languages. Television and the Internet arrived in Bhutan in 1999 and have grown hesitantly since then. The state TV station puts out a daily news programme in two languages but it does not yet cover the entire country. The well-off can watch foreign TV stations by satellite dish or cable.
The only Internet Service Provider, Druknet, provides access for the government and for the customers of the country’s few Internet cafés. The weekly Kuensel has a website in English and criticism of the government can be found in its discussion forum. Internet users sometimes refer to the problem of the tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees - especially those of the Lhotshampa minority - who have languished in camps in Nepal since they were expelled from the Bhutan in the 1990s.
In 2003, the king promised that the constitution would provide a "legislative framework for good governance and the rule of law." For this, he turned to a commission and to international experts, including a lawyer with India’s supreme court, to draft a model constitution that would "satisfy the people’s hopes and aspirations." Some observers predict that the constitution will not explicitly guarantee press freedom and will not stop court officials controlling the news.
Information and communication ministry officials met with journalists in the capital at the end of November to debate the government’s proposed laws for regulating the print and broadcast media. The information and communication minister said the government planned to have the laws passed by parliament in July or August 2004. The king wanted the laws, which would help the development of journalists in Bhutan, he said. The authorities also plan to create a press council.
The army launched an unprecedented offensive in mid-December against the camps which separatist groups from north-eastern India - in particular, the United Liberation Front of Assam and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland - have had in southern Bhutan for several years. Neither the Bhutanese nor Indian authorities allowed any press coverage of this offensive, in which several hundred people were killed and thousands were displaced. An Indian journalist working for an international news organisation was denied access to the border area and was prevented from interviewing refugees who had fled the combat zones. The website of the official weekly Kuensel was not updated during the offensive. Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent in the Indian state of Assam complained of a news blackout.