TEXT review

Twitter by butter lamp: experiencing media change in Bhutan

review by Carolyn Beasley


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Bunty Avieson
The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan
University of Queensland Press, St Lucia Qld 2015
ISBN 978070225357 7
C-format 240pp AUD32.95


When journalist Bunty Avieson’s six-year-old daughter asked her the meaning of a Sydney billboard that read ‘Want longer lasting sex?’, Avieson and her husband decided their life had to take a dramatic turn. Ruminations over an offer of residential work as a consultant on new community-focused Bhutanese newspaper called the Bhutan Observer ended, and Avieson’s family relocated to the tiny and devotedly Buddhist nation of Bhutan. The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan captures both the experience of a year in the newspaper’s newsroom and the tensions encountered by the state’s newly independent media.

Avieson’s work could easily have slipped into the genre of the culture-shock memoir as she participates in and comes to understand the country’s highly traditional cultural practices and ways of living. However, Avieson’s sympathetic eye for the marginalised citizen during a time of dramatic change, transports her story into a historical record of the impact of technology-led change in a closed media landscape. It also reminds us of the complexities of ethical reporting in developing nations and the need for media organisations to understand the culture they are trying to report on and within.

Structurally, the work has two main story arcs. Firstly, we are drawn through the narrative by following the journey of the newspaper and its role in a newly-independent privatised media. Avieson joins the Bhutan Observer eighteen months after its birth during an exciting time of cultural and political change. The Fourth King has handed the control of the small, isolated nation to its first democratically-elected Parliament in an act that sends ripples of worry through inhabitants. There is much praying by butter lamp for the nation’s beloved Royal Family and a sense of uncertainty as to how daily life will change. It is exciting, yet dangerous, ground for storytelling.

Avieson cleverly captures the dilemmas of new democracy by letting them play out through the lens of the newsroom. What role will accountability and exposure play in this new world when politeness, respect and rigid social hierarchy still underpins every aspect of culture? How far can readers be taken beyond their comfort zone when it comes to reporting on bodies, hardships such as the six monthly food shortages that are a way of life for many villagers, and the lack of citizenship rights for those born in the country but whose regional births were not recorded? Is it appropriate to write a story emphasising the happiness of a family who live in two cubicles of a toilet block?

The editors remind Avieson that it is all a matter of timing. As public consciousness grows, so does the expectation for the media to promote change. Where once it was considered inappropriate to report on Christianity, the editors tell her that public sentiment has shifted and careful coverage of religion outside Buddhism will be possible that year and that next year they expect a more positive climate for reporting on refugees from southern Bhutan. There are, of course, still areas that are a no-go for journalists, including negative stories about the King (or indeed, even positive stories of the Royal family’s individual acts of kindness!) and Chinese border issues.

Secondly, a narrative arc carries us through the stages of a sophisticated and nuanced type of culture shock that seeks to understand the political, interpersonal and cultural nature of Bhutanese society. Beginning with the key office workers that she intersects with every day, and then broadening out to capture the smaller, more secretive lives that cross Avieson’s own, each character brings to the book their own story and acts to capture an essential characteristic of Bhutanese life. For instance, the tendency to support the spiritual above the practicalities of turning up for work and meeting deadlines is illustrated through an editor’s extended absence due to supervising forty-nine days of mourning for his recently deceased father-in-law. The problem of gender relations is demonstrated through Dolma, the Bhutan-born ‘illegal immigrant’ who is hired as the family’s domestic help. She is a victim of family violence who, like many Bhutanese women, has been brought up to accept that physical assault is often simply a fact of coupledom. Through integration of characters such as these, Avieson merges anecdotal observation with social commentary and is highly aware of how her own western views shape her interpretations and judgements. The result is a compelling and warm storytelling style.

There is much to enjoy in the descriptions of the quaint and quirky in Avieson’s work, a delightful ‘othering’ of this seemingly forgotten world that is heart warming and soul shifting. In the hard slog of our consumer driven lives, it’s a gift to know that there are still seemingly Utopian lands where progress is measured not through financial status or Gross National Product, but through Gross National Happiness.

It is not surprising then that Bhutan is often represented as a mystical Shangri-la, a land of misty mountain ranges and peaceful, hardy rural dwellers who tend their land attired in traditional costume. Avieson concurs that these elements are still visible and valued in Bhutan. There is fond remembrance of age-old courtship rituals ominously referred to as ‘night hunting’, and belief in stories about villages of women thought to have crooked vaginas. There is even a name for the style of reportage that emphasises these nostalgic elements: Shangri-la journalism. However Avieson is careful to note that in reality these coexist with the technologies and tools of modern media. An ace rural reporter may live on facebook as much as any teenager, but he declines a job in a city newsroom because he does not want to leave his cow. Newspapers have advertising, but they are adverts that praise the royal family rather than engage in a hard sell. The overwhelming message is that the Kingdom of Bhutan, and specifically the infant independent media, has literally enacted the national saying of ‘take the best of the West and leave the rest’.

Avieson’s work is a rich addition to the current range of texts on the role of the media in times of change. It reminds us that one of the central tenets of a healthy media is an ability to innately understand its audience and to tell a story that makes a positive difference to their world. With so much new writing focusing on the challenges of hidden surveillance and data retention, it’s refreshing to remember that other cultures can experience communication technologies in positive and community building ways. It is also predominately a story about people and the common human elements that bind us – our need to create positive change, to improve the lives of others, to find inspiration in hardship, and the joy of finding a way of seeing the world that is distinctly different to our own.



Dr Carolyn Beasley is the Program Director of Writing at Swinburne University of Technology. She has a degree in journalism and international relations and has written on the ethics of representation.


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Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste