In Depth

Bells, chants launch Bhutan's first daily newspaper

THIMPHU, Bhutan (Reuters) - Buddhist monks prayed for the success of Bhutan’s first daily newspaper, which was launched Thursday but could take a week to reach remote areas of the tiny Himalayan nation carried on ponies and on foot.

Bhutan Today, an eight-page morning paper, is part of Bhutan’s attempt to build a free press after its former monarch and fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, forced his largely unwilling subjects to accept democracy earlier this year.

Delivering copies of Bhutan Today will be a chore in a country with few passable roads, meaning newsagents will have to carry it to far-flung districts on foot and on horseback.

The paper has a cover price of five ngultrum, or about 10 cents.

Monks chanted prayers and rang bells and drums were banged as the newspaper’s first copies rolled off the presses at an auspicious hour chosen by astrologers.

Bhutan’s only newspaper until 2006 was a bi-weekly, state-run venture. Two privately owned papers entered the market later -- the bi-weekly Bhutan Times and the weekly Bhutan Observer.

There is fierce competition for the small advertising revenue generated in the country of about 700,000 people. There are virtually no private advertisers and only government agencies offer advertisements.

In its first editorial, Bhutan Today complained of unfair competition.

“They asked the Ministry of Information and Communications to deny us a license to operate,” it read.

But Tenzin Dorji, the newspaper’s 32-year-old managing director, said they would overcome teething problems.

“I am confident,” Dorji told Reuters, adding that the novelty of being Bhutan’s first daily could win it more advertisements.

Bhutan’s literacy rate is about 60 percent but newspapers estimate a total readership of only about 12,000 people. Bhutan Today has an optimistic print run of 18,000 copies.

It is written in English but Bhutanese law means it must soon be printed in the local language.

The newspaper launch comes days before the coronation of the new king, 27-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, on November 6.

His father and predecessor abdicated in favor of his Oxford-educated son in 2006.

Bhutan held its first general election in March and parliament endorsed the country’s first constitution four months later, formally turning the absolute monarchy into a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy.

Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by Paul Tait