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Podcasting Democratic Change in Bhutan

The Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy is one of Rising Voices micrograntee finalists this year, and has recently completed the first stage of the project: training workshops in podcasting. This piece was written by the project's organiser, Mansoor Fassihi.

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It's never easy growing up – especially for a young democracy. Now 5 years into its democratic transition, Bhutan has started to experience the growing pains that come with elections, party politics, and the psychological reorientation of becoming citizens (along with being subjects of a benevolent monarch).

At the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy (BCMD), we recognize the importance of documenting and telling the many stories of this transition. Stories help us understand who we are, where we are going, and what needs to be done to bring about the changes we want.

With Bhutan about to enter into its second round of democratic elections, we found an excellent opportunity to look into the health of Bhutan's democracy. How far has Bhutan come since the signing of the Constitution in July 2008? What are the burning issues that are emerging that require our action?

Since April 2013, we have been training and empowering youth to tell stories through podcasting. These youth, members of our college media clubs, use their grounding in basic journalism to investigate and discover aspects about their communities. We've supported the establishment and growth of Media Clubs – associations of student journalists – in schools throughout Bhutan as a platform for students to express themselves, explore their communities, and take action to improve them. For this project, we are focusing trainings with the Media Clubs in four of Bhutan's colleges: Paro College of Education, Samtse College of Education, The Institute of Language and Culture Studies, and Sherubtse College.

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Much of this is new territory for BCMD. In the past, we have held trainings in documentary filmmaking, citizen journalism, photography and digital storytelling – but never podcasting. The reason we chose podcasting is due to Bhutan's media landscape, where almost half the population is illiterate and lacks access to internet and television. Recorded storytelling promises to reach the greatest number of people, and to best expand a culture of democracy in Bhutan. (One of the foundations for any democratic society, after all, is access to information!)

With this in mind, our training modules have evolved to meet the learning needs of our Media Clubs. We have found, for one, that scripting requires  more investment than expected to get students to organize their content into a compelling narrative; students must first be taught to frame issues in a way that is conducive to problem-solving, and does not simply blame or criticize; and that dealing with sound, from leveling volume to doing voiceovers, is not as intuitive as we thought.

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Time also hasn't been on our side. Given the many class and assignment constraints colleges here impose on students, we had only days total to train each of the four Clubs in the fundamentals of radio journalism, from interviewing, to writing for the ear, to editing audio.

Nevertheless, we are kept moving by the determination of our students. Through the five workshops that we've conducted with over 90 students, we have received stories investigating tough issues, such as students in remote areas challenged by access to voting opportunities, corruption cases, and gender inequality.

Our most recent workshop started on July 16 – only three days after Bhutan's second-ever elections concluded with a shock 32-seat victory for the People's Democratic Party over the 15 seats of Bhutan's former ruling party, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (who had enjoyed a 45-2 seat super-majority!). The month-long period of campaigning had left a billowing tension over the country, with many questions looming about the election's fairness and transparency.

In wake of these events, our students chose to explore four stories: people's expectations of the new government, the voting rights of monks, the role of women in politics, and the impact of social media on the elections. What did they discover? Listen in!

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(The rest of the stories from our most recent workshop can be found on the Bhutan Media Lab webiste)

Recognizing the potential of the audio form, the students have worked late hours to get hard interviews with local leaders, fellow citizens, and even monks! These are students who are ready to discover the truth, to develop the courage to ask tough questions, to be fair and not presumptuous, and bring social change. They are, in short, ready to take on the responsibilities of active citizenship.

A lot of work remains to be done. Now that we've trained core members of these Media Clubs, we need them to produce stories! Using the Rising Voices funds, we've purchased and equipped clubs with an Audio Recording kit on the condition that they produce at least one story a month. We will continue to provide guidance to club members, give them feedback on their story pitches, and help them in the scripting. Additionally, we are looking into the possibility of packaging these stories and airing them on radio and, using interactive voice response technology for mobile phones.

 

You can follow BCMD's work on Facebook and listen to the podcasts produced during the workshops on their website.

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