Frederick Noronha on 20 Oct 2000 22:38:21 -0000

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<nettime> Community radio debate in India...


By Frederick Noronha

We claim to be the world's largest democracy, but fear opening up the
airwaves to the commonman. Our democratic traditions are far stronger, yet
countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and perhaps even Bangladesh are edging
past us in making radio relevant to their citizens. India's reluctant
march towards democratising radio indeed makes the intentions of its
rulers suspect.

Broadcasting in India is speedily shifting its profile. Indian radio is
currently changing from being a government monopoly to
highly-commercialized broadcasting. But this media needs to be
democratized too. Privatization and total deregulation will not mean much
to the average citizen if radio fails to get a chance to play a vital role
in their lives. India has so far clearly given step-motherly treatment to
public service, community, educational and development broadcast networks.

Over five years back, the Indian supreme court gave an interesting ruling.
This judgement strongly critiqued the long- held government monopoly over
broadcasting in this country. In early 1995, the court declared the
airwaves as public property, to be utilized for promoting public good and
ventilating plurality of views, opinions and ideas.  (AIR 1995 Supreme
Court 1236).

This judgment held that the 'freedom of speech and expression' guaranteed
by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution includes the right to
acquire and disseminate information. And, in turn, the right to
disseminate includes the right to communicate through any media -- print,
electronic or audio- visual. "The fundamental rights," said the judgment,
"can be limited only by reasonable restrictions under a law made for the
purpose ... The burden is on the authority to justify the restrictions.
Public order is not the same thing as public safety and hence no
restrictions can be placed on the right to freedom of speech and
expression on the ground that public safety is endangered."

Judges Sawant and Mohan held that: "Broadcasting is a means of
communication and, therefore, a medium of speech and expression.  Hence in
a democratic polity, neither any private individual, institution or
organisation nor any Government or Government organisation can claim
exclusive right over it. Our Constitution also forbids monopoly either in
the print, or electronic media."

This judgment rightly noted that Indian broadcasting was being governed by
archaic laws. The Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 was meant for a different
purpose altogether. When it was enacted, there was neither radio nor
television, but both these concepts were later sought to be fitted into
the definition of "telegraph".

In view of this, the judges said it was essential that the Indian
Parliament "steps in soon to fill the void by enacting a law or laws, as
the case may be, governing the broadcast media, i.e.  both radio and
television". Also, the judges instructed the Indian federal government to
"take immediate steps to establish an independent autonomous public
authority representative of all sections and interests in the society to
control and regulate the use of the airwaves".


IN RESPONSE TO THIS, WHAT HAS THE official answer been?

Reluctantly, the state-controlled broadcaster All India Radio was given
some level of 'autonomy'. For the most part, this meant that the
organisation would have to concentrate on earning revenues, and foot a
growing part of its own bill.

Further, Indian radio broadcasting is right now shifting from being a
government monopoly to highly-commercialized broadcasting. In mid-November
1999, the government announced that the bidding process to set up 140 FM
(frequency modulation)  stations in 40 cities had closed to "overwhelming
response", with 349 potential broadcasters finally left in the race for a
license. Questions were however asked as to who was given a chance to
enter this race, and how much publicity had been in fact accorded to the
move to privatise radio broadcasting.

By early August 2000, it was announced that some 26 companies have
received letters of intent, from the Indian government, after bidding to
set up FM radio stations in 40 Indian cities. Three companies were not
given letters "as clearance had not come from the Home Ministry", as the
news reports put it.

But how open is open? Can the diversity of the country of one- million be
reflected by a little over two dozen companies, who will be broadcasting
mainly entertainment programmes from cities across urban India?

Argues Prof B.P. Sanjay of the Sarojini Naidu School of Communication of
the University of Hyderabad: "The licence system (for setting up private
FM radio stations) and the response is reminiscent of the telecom bids.
The companies in the name of low returns are likely to default on the
price and would expect a package to bail them out, and, as is the case
with many other auctions, the government will respond. We have to really
wait and watch the developments with regard to many or diverse uses of
radio if any by the media giants. The communities who want and deserve
some attention are yet to get their voices heard."

For decades, India's radio stations have been centralized,
government-controlled, over-dependent on relays and lacking in editorial
independence. In recent years, a small number citizens' groups across
India have been pushing for something very different, through the
community radio model.

Recently, a group meeting in Hyderabad issued the Pastapur Initiative on
Community Radio, released at the end of a four-day UNESCO-sponsored
workshop from July 17-20. It pointed out that "a truly people's radio
should perceive listeners not only as receivers and consumers, but also as
active citizens and creative producers of media content."

If the government is really serious about freeing broadcasting from state
monopoly, then it needs to proceed to its logical conclusion by expanding
the available media space and permitting communities and organizations
representing them to run their own radio stations.

It was also pointed out that community radio should have three key
aspects: non-profit making, community ownership and management, and
community participation.  Community radio is distinguished by its limited
local reach, low-power transmission, and programming content that reflects
the educational, developmental and cultural needs of the specific
community it serves.


INDIA COULD WELL benefit from the creation of a three-tier system of
broadcasting in the country: a state-owned public service network
(existing framework); commercial private broadcasting; and non-profit,
people-owned and managed community radio stations.

What the country badly needs now is to dedicate frequencies, specifically
for the creation, maintenance and expansion of community broadcasting in
the country.

Permission for low-cost community radio has long been on the cards. But
while dozens of FM (frequency modulation) radio stations are currently
being set up by the private sector, the rules for setting up non-profit
stations are yet to be framed.  Even educational institutions and
universities -- ranging from IGNOU to Shantiniketan, the National Law
School University of India and Jamia Milia -- have been waiting to reach
out via the airwaves.

Non-profit and development organisations have been lobbying for more than
five years to get permission to broadcast information that could help the
"information poor" to get an understanding of issues critical to their
lives. Recently, neighbouring countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka edged
past India by allowing non-profit community radios to be set up. Asian
countries like the Philippines has already shown the beneficial impact of
such locally-managed, non-profit initiatives taken up by citizens

Nepal's Radio Sagarmatha, run by a body of environmental journalists, has
attracted attention globally for its unique style of operation in a
subcontinent where radio has so far been tightly government-controlled.
Despite an unhelpful attitude by the government, it has managed to promote
information-based and green messages.

"In Sri Lanka, we are using a community radio station in Kotmale to find
information on the Internet, which readers ask for via phone or post. This
helps simple villagers to get access to the information superhighway too,"
University of Colombo journalism lecturer Michael J.R. David said during a
recent visit to India.  He is the project leader of the Kotmale community
radio station, which took off in May 1999 but is already being studied
worldwide as an innovative experiment in development communication.

India's state-owned All India Radio (AIR) had set up a string of local
radio stations some years ago. But without carrying these plans through
effectively, the stations were not locally relevant and community-run. By
contrast, community stations can play an important role. Repeated changes
in governments and bureaucratic red tape has meant that community radio is
still to become a reality in India.

Bazlur Rahman of the Bangladesh Coastal NGOs Network for Radio and
Communication says that Dhaka is expected to license non- profit radio for
community groups in 2001.

T.H. Chowdary, advisor to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu
Naidu on technology matters, said at the recent Hyderabad meeting, "On FM,
the bandwidth permits a very large number of low-powered radio
transmitters. There can be up to 5,000 FM stations, roughly the same
number of tehsils (district sub-divisions) in India."

Today, it is technically and economically feasible to set up hundreds, if
not thousands, of low-powered FM radio stations across the country. These
would not interfere with one another.  What is lacking are the government
laws to permit this, and the political will to allow radio to play its
role in a country like India.


Haryana, both aged 21, have assembled a low-cost FM radio transmitter that
they hope will spread useful information that could make a vital
difference to the lives of villagers, including on agricultural practices.

"Such a type of a radio can play a vital role in low-cost communication.
Rural developmental issues can be taken up.  Illiteracy (bottlenecks) can
be overcome. Farmers in the field could easily be given the information
inputs they need," says Markanday. Both the young men belong to Nutra
Indica Research Council, a non-profit NGO in Rohtak that seeks to put
rural innovators in touch with scientists, and also create a platform for
ideas to be exchanged, particularly on the rural front.  Markanday is
still an engineering student.

Weighing approximately 12 kgs., the entire "radio station" fits into a
briefcase. This transmitter has a range of 10 to 15 kms radius, and thus
can be used to beam developmental inputs to rural citizens.

Some suggestions that have recently been considered in this country
include: small transmitters with a reach of ten kilometers, one studio
with recording and broadcasting facilities, and broadcast hours flexible
to fit into local demand -- for example, before and after field work in
early morning and late evening in rural India.

Media advocacy groups have been pressing for licenses to be given to
universities (particularly agricultural universities, medical
institutions, adult and legal literacy organisations), registered
cooperatives, women's cooperatives and suitable public bodies.

"Our problem has been a Delhi-centric approach to broadcasting that we in
this country has taken. One fear is that (community broadcasting and
grassroots radio) could become inconvenient for the existing
power-structure," prominent media critic Professor K.E.Eapen of Bangalore
argued recently.

India's middle classes seem to have re-discovered radio -- with the FM
boom -- in the 'nineties. But for the bulk of the citizens of this
country, radio is virtually the only electronic gadget they can afford.
There's no medium other than radio that can offer relevant, local
information too, provided it is aptly utilised.

Radio has already proven its relevance to Indians. Recent studies suggest
that radio in India has a potential listership of 98.5% of the population
of this vast country. There are some 104 million radio homes, double the
number of TV homes. Radio has a far broader reach than television.

Over the last decade, All India Radio has focused more on the rural
population and the urban lower middle classes, unlike TV's preoccupation
with the relatively smaller number of urban upper middle classes. It has
also been argued that considering the low levels of literacy in India and
the low purchasing power of the large majority, radio will inevitably
retain its edge over the print media and television in terms of outreach.

But radio is not only the "poor man's" option. Even in affluent Europe,
radio plays its role in the community's life, taking across relevant,
local information in a way perhaps no other media can. It is particularly
effective in the busy, morning hours, while TV takes over in the evenings.


SO FAR, THE OFFICIAL RESPONSE HAS BEEN undiluted fear about opening up
radio to the people. Officials argue that AIR's low- powered stations in
semi-rural areas -- some 89 already exist -- could offer one-hour time
slots to panchayats or "bonafide"  representatives of the communities.
Official quarters then entangle the entire debate in the question of how
should they ascertain which non-profit or voluntary organisation is a
"true representative of the community".

Official thinking currently seems to be to block non-profit groups from
setting up their own broadcast facilities, if possible by using the sops
of offering them time-slots on existing official channels. Besides, the
strictly 'no-news' policy on all sectors of non-official radio betrays the
paranoia that our ruling elites have about this medium. They don't mind,
of course, if the entire globe bombards India with whatever programmes via
satellite! One wonders what would be the fate of the official policy
should this be challenged in the court of law.

Officials argue that radio stations in a "remote corner" of India would be
difficult to monitor. If so, doesn't the same hold true for tiny
newspapers. Anyway why should the government presume that all citizens of
this country have malafide intentions? Is it not possible to have a
broadcasting regulatory authority to ensure that broad guidelines, and
preferably a voluntary code, is respected?

Media critics like Sevanti Ninan have aptly asked the question:  "Why is
(the government) so nervous about opening up a medium that has powerful
development potential? Are media groups such as the owners of the 'Times
of India' and 'Midday' more benevolent than development groups? Why is a
52-year-old democracy so terrified of positive decentralisation?"

Questions that indeed could do with answers... (ENDS)

   frederick noronha, freelance journalist,
   near convent, saligao 403511 goa india 0091.832.409490/ 409783
   News from Goa
   Photos from Goa

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