Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

MEDIA: World Cup Soccer Brings TV to Bhutan For First Time

Subir Bhaumik

THIMPU, Jul 9 1998 (IPS) - As France ’98, the world’s greatest, and most colourful sporting event ever, winds down, Bhutanese viewers, who have been glued to TV sets every night, are in despair.

The live telecast of the soccer matches, watched every day by millions of people round the world, have been for the majority of people here their first experience of television, which is banned in this mountain kingdom.

The royal administration had, for the first time, allowed select local organisations, mostly associated with sport, to set up public screening facilities for the period of the World Cup tournament which ends Jul. 12.

Also foreign embassies and international agencies, who are allowed to own satellite dishes, used the opportunity to invite select local guests to screenings, while the Indian Border Roads, which has built almost all the roads in Bhutan, issued a general invitation to all Bhutanese prepared to walk to their camps.

“Hundreds of people have rushed to see the matches, some walking several kilometres … This is an unusual experience for Bhutan, where few stay out after dark,” says D.K. Chetri, secretary of the Bhutan Olympic Committee, which has set up two giant screens and charges 10 ngultrums (25 cents) for each match.

“We have to recover the costs for the dish and the TV sets — so we are charging soccer enthusiasts,” an apologetic Chetri explained. “Also without a fee, we would not be able to control the rush.”

But come next week, satellite dishes and TV sets bought for the month-long soccer festival will go back into their packing cases — a painful prospect for viewers bitten by the electronic bug.

“Television must stay. Without it, we have so little to do after office,” laments Pema Tenzin, a hotel manager in the country’s pretty capital.

“The matches have brought some excitement into our lives and we feel so happy,” says unemployed graduate, Karma Phuntshok, who is very proud of his country’s distinct Buddhist culture and very reverential towards King Jigme Singye Wangchuk.

The World Cup telecast has reopened the debate here about whether Bhutan should allow cable television. “We must have our own national TV first. That is very important. I don’t mind exposure to the world through cable, but a national projection is crucial,” says Ugyen Chosom of the Bhutanese foreign ministry.

But Sonam Tshong, executive director of the Bhutan Broadcasting Service says radio, and not television is his priority. “I am not against television, but it is very expensive. I would first like to strengthen our radio coverage and spread it out to every nook and corner in the kingdom …”

According to him, if Bhutan launches a television network without adequate preparation and funds, “we will have poor quality (programmes) and nobody will watch us.” For now, Bhutanese plays are being recorded, and programmes being conceptualised for telecast eventually, Tshong said.

Local productions like films will “open the eyes of our youth to our rich heritage and identity … to appreciate our own culture and … create a concern for our national identity …,” writes Karma W. Shaa in ‘Kuensel’, the country’s only daily in the English-language.

Many Bhutanese officials say the “culturally unacceptable aspects” of cable TV worries them — and that is taken to be a strong argument to keep foreign channels out of this tiny kingdom.

But there are others who say that those who can afford it, in any case, are watching Hollywood and Bollywood (films made in India) movies on their video-players anyway — and even watch pornography.

“This cultural argument does not come across as very genuine. Most rich Bhutanese have video players and they even see porn, so can cable TV be worse than that,” asks Sonam Dhendhup, a Bhutanese student who studies in India.

There are many Bhutanese who would support Dhendhup — and get to see television on a regular basis, even after the World Cup is over.

Even during the soccer matches, many people have been buying recordings, selling at exorbitant prices in many bookshops and retail stores here.

“I cannot stay up so late to see the matches and I don’t like to be pushed around in the crowd, so I am prepared to pay to see the matches, even after I know the results,” says Norbu Tshering, a cloth merchant.

According to Tshering, many people with money from outside the capital city are coming to Thimpu to buy the video-recordings of the soccer matches.

How the authorities will deal with this new passion for television among locals is a matter of conjecture. Having allowed foreign TV networks into the country, even if it was only for the weeks of the World Cup tournament, Thimpu may have unwittingly opened Bhutan up to the electronic media.

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