Quelled voices and amplified silences
24 March 2017
Proponents of community radio have had varying experiences in different parts of Southasia and continue to carve out space for this media.
(This is an analysis from our June 2014 print quarterly, ‘Growing Media, Shrinking Spaces?’. See more from the issue here.)
I met Sunil Wijesinghe at a small book store stacked between nondescript shops that border the road from the Kandy railway station to Peradeniya. The former station manager of the much-hailed Kothmale Community Radio, among the first community radio stations in Southasia, now oversees the daily functioning of the store. Amidst tending to customers, Wijesinghe sat down to talk about the initial days of community radio, when private broadcasting was hardly prevalent in Sri Lanka. “Those were the days when private radio was not a conspicuous part of the Sri Lankan media. My employer, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), was the only big player, with national and regional radio services spread across the country. The community radio initiative was started way back in 1981 and our aim was to reach out to those displaced by the Mahaweli project,” Wijesinghe recounted, his voice revealing the excitement and pride that came with being part of the experiment that would fundamentally alter the media landscape of the region.
Community radio, by definition, is a form of broadcasting that is owned and operated by communities at the local level, catering to ideas and interests intrinsic to the inhabitants. Community radio broadcasting is set apart from private, state and public service radio by virtue of local participation and ownership. This kind of broadcasting creates a space for content that is not privileged in the mainstream media, and is looked upon as a force that democratises the media landscape.
As part of the Mahaweli Community Radio project, two teams were formed in 1981, one each in Girandurukotte and Kothmale. Wijesinghe described the novel programme production cycle followed by the teams. “Each team had about ten members. We would spend one entire week in the villages, dressing like the village folk and living with them as part of the community. The first two days were devoted to research to understand people’s needs, skills and their problems. For the next four days, we would strike up conversations on a variety of issues and record them. We would then come back to the office, listen to the many hours of recordings and make half-hour programmes,” he explained. Similarly, the second week of the cycle was focused on editing and producing the programmes. “We introduced very novel ways of bringing in community participation. We would invite the villagers to listen to the programmes, and would edit or re-produce them according to the feedback. The programmes would be broadcast on the Rajarata and Kandy Sewa (the regional radio stations of SLBC) simultaneously.” Over the years, the programme time increased and the reach of Mahaweli community radio expanded. “Gradually, we also had volunteers from the villages joining us in programme production,” Wijesinghe explained. All this while, the initiatives were being supported by external funding from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) and UNESCO, the Mahaweli Development Authority, and came under SLBC.
Coincidentally, the person who is credited with having mooted the idea of community radio in Sri Lanka was visiting the country just then: Knud Ebbesen, who had worked with Radio Denmark for over four decades. Ebbesen agreed to meet in Kandy, and soon Wijesinghe and I were on our way to the Olde Empire Hotel, a conserved building in Kandy dating back to the late 1800s. Wijesinghe continued to discuss examples of the community radio initiatives becoming a part of the lives of community members. “Community radio was established to facilitate the rehabilitation process after the massive resettlement of the population along the Mahaweli River. For instance, we made programmes on how children could not be admitted to schools because they often did not possess a birth certificate. Another time, we mobilised large numbers to clean up a pond and got the Mahaweli officers to help the community with fish farming. A broadcaster should not only provide information and entertainment. We must be involved with the community, and address their issues. That is what real community radio is all about,” he said emphatically.
We met Ebbesen at the hotel lobby and sat down to talk about his interest in transferring the idea of community radio to Sri Lanka and the journey it has been. “I was here on a personal visit and wanted to come back to Sri Lanka in a year’s time. It was also the time when the Mahaweli project was underway. Back home, I worked on the Baandvaerkstedet, or the tape workshop, a public access programme on Radio Denmark. I thought it would be a good idea to introduce the concept to the re-settlers. This would also give me a chance to come back to the country,” said Ebbesen. The SLBC authorities were open to the idea of community-oriented broadcasting, with UNESCO and DANIDA agreeing to provide support and equipment. Ebbesen spoke about how the collaboration was marked by constant negotiation – on content, independent operation and sustainability. “In the early years, the programming was independent of interference from the SLBC. However, when funding began to dwindle, it became a white elephant. People like Sunil Wijesinghe became very popular with the community, and it is their perseverance, personal rapport and charisma that ensured that what we had was community and not another SLBC station.” He made no bones about the numerous instances of interference and attempts at using the stations to promote government propaganda.
Nepal’s pioneering role
While Sri Lanka was a leader in the region in introducing the idea of community-based broadcasting, Nepal became the country to put Southasia on the community radio map in the late 1990s. By 2005, the country was home to 20-odd independent community radios that were licensed as private stations and did not operate under the aegis of the state radio, like in Sri Lanka’s case. Radio Sagarmatha, the first independent community radio station in Southasia was almost a decade old then and similar radio stations had sprung up across the country even as the second Jan Andolan (People’s Movement) was at its peak. Earlier instances of state repression that could be viewed as aberrations were becoming a way of life, as King Gyanendra decided to curtail freedom of expression. Independent radios were among the many victims of the crackdown, with the King sending the army into newsrooms and radio studios to browbeat broadcasters into not being critical of the autocratic monarchy. Durga Karki, a producer who had been working with Radio Sagarmatha for six years then, recalled that fateful night when she and a few of her colleagues were arrested. “The BBC Nepali service had interviewed the Maoist supremo Prachanda. The King wanted to ensure that his interview did not reach more people and have an impact. The army marched into our studio and shut down our broadcast because they thought we were broadcasting it, which was not true. It was around 8 pm when the studio was shut down and the police arrested me along with my colleagues,” she said. Underscoring the sheer importance of an independent space like community radio in times of war and conflict, she recollected, “During those days, we would hear so many rumours. When people would hear that a group of army men had been killed by the Maoists, they would massacre anybody they thought to be supportive of the latter. This was true of the other group as well. Verifying the details was not something that could happen spontaneously then. Community radios like ours were crucial in passing on credible information in the midst of all the violence.” This was why the Save Independent Radio Movement gained traction, as journalists got together to defend freedom of speech and expression in the face of clampdowns.
Independent radios were among the many victims of the crackdown, with the King sending in the army inside newsrooms and radio studios to browbeat broadcasters into not being critical of the autocratic monarchy.
Raghu Mainali, who had been part of the movement for community radio licensing, along with other prominent people like Bharat Dutta Koirala and Rajendra Dahal back in the mid-1990s, was the convener of the Save Independent Radio Movement. With media on their side, the protestors took to the streets and also filled the airwaves with voices of dissent. Interestingly, the group relied on cultural signification particular to Nepal to reach the masses. “In Nepali, there’s a popular proverb that suggests that handing over a valuable thing to someone who doesn’t comprehend its value is like placing a coconut in a monkey’s hand. So, we went to the Swayambhu area in Kathmandu, where we find monkeys and placed coconuts in their hands. We wanted to drive home the value of the space that independent radio provides, and how we’re handing it to a government that does not recognise this. Most broadsheet newspapers carried this on the front page,” Mainali recalled. Similarly, the people also went to the Pashupatinath temple, placed a radio set on the prayer tray and prayed for a “wise government”. “Our King would always conclude his speech with the words, ‘Lord Pashupathinath bless us’, and this was our take on that. The mainstream media, again, was very supportive,” he added. Another event planned in December 2005 turned out to be one of the biggest following the King’s takeover. Thousands gathered to witness a six by eight feet radio set erected on a truck, with a red tape running along the breadth of the installation as a way to amplify the demands to restore freedom of expression.
With the internal conflict coming to an end in 2006, community and private radio have boomed in the country. The legal framework, however, has not corresponded with the tectonic shifts in the country’s political scenario. Community radio remains bound with private radio under the National Media Policy of 1992, the National Broadcasting Act of 1993 and the National Broadcasting Regulations of 1995, all of which legitimised private radio in the country and had given rise to the movement for community radio in the mid-1990s. In other words, while the country is home to a thriving community radio sector with about 250 stations operating in 74 of the country’s 75 districts, the lack of a legal framework renders the sector unrecognised as the third tier of broadcasting.
Push for policy in India
India, by contrast, is the first country in Southasia to implement policy guidelines specific to community radio. The struggle for the policy goes back to a 1995 case between the Union of India and the Cricket Association of Bengal, in which the Supreme Court of India ruled that airwaves are public property and that public interest was paramount in accessing them. This judgement paved the way for a re-assessment of the media landscape in the country, especially in light of the newly conceived neoliberal state. Activists and advocates of freedom of speech and expression came together to form a loose group and to call for public access to airwaves in the form of community broadcasting. In 1996, the multi-stakeholder group met at the ‘Consultation on Community Radio and Media Policy’. The group comprised of representatives from a media NGO called Voices, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, UNESCO, media activists, other NGOs, radio practitioners and academics. The group passed the landmark Bangalore Declaration, stating that “Centralized, one-way broadcasting… has a limited scope to serve the goals of development, especially in the context of pluralism and diversity which is a singular characteristic of Indian society.” It also identified the need for a three-tier broadcast system in the country. Later, in 2000, when the first auction of FM frequency to private players was held, the group, now even bigger, took note of the massive change this would bring to the media landscape in the country.
The expansion of the radio sector to bring in private players provided the much needed fillip to community radio advocates, who were mindful of the need to lay claim to an independent third space for citizens in the midst of commercial purchase of the airwaves. By then, the country had witnessed the emergence of initiatives like Namma Dhwani (Our Voices) and Sangham Radio that undertook community narrowcasting, makeshift All India Radio stations that became more community-centric, World Bank experiments like the setting up of Mana Radio (Our Radio), to name a few. “We were no longer a loose group of civil society elite talking about access to airwaves. We had grassroots experiences that stood as strong testimonies for our cause,” said Ashish Sen, community radio activist and former President, AMARC Asia-Pacific (an international NGO that supports the development of community radio). These experiences, coupled with the developments in the neighbouring countries, prompted the now larger group of advocates to convene for the Pastapur Declaration in July 2000, another important pronouncement by civil society.
Meanwhile, developments on the educational radio front, with the introduction of Gyanvani (educational radio) at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) also added to the demand for opening up airwaves to communities. At a consultation held to define the focus of Gyanvani, it was decided that 60 percent of the programming should focus on educational content, and 40 percent should focus on community content. “Gyanvani was also an important step in moving towards community radio in India, since it helped allay government fears about letting go of their control on radio broadcasting to the social sector,” said Dr R Sreedher, the then Director of the Electronic Media Production Centre (EMPC) of IGNOU. Sustained campaigning, advocacy and activism, backed by community-level experiments and initiatives only strengthened the case for the opening up of the airwaves to the public. In December 2002, after a Union Cabinet meeting was held in New Delhi, the then Minister of Information and Broadcasting Sushma Swaraj announced that well-established educational institutions, universities and residential schools would be permitted to run radios. The criterion that allowed only educational institutions to broadcast was met with disappointment. A debate ensued over the following months to interrogate the idea of community radio and to evaluate the disappointment felt by many. Advocates of community radio criticised the government’s reluctance in trusting ‘real communities’ with licences, and taking a safe detour by allowing only educational institutions to run community radios. Others contended that while the policy was restrictive, it was nevertheless a big step forward and continued advocacy would push the government to soften its stance.
The legal recognition accorded to community radio (in India) is commendable. The policy guidelines are, however, far from ideal.
In the following years, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) was made the regulatory body for broadcast media in the country. The regulator released a consultation paper for Phase 2 of private FM licensing, and also held an open house a month later. Activists and advocates of community radio used the opportunity to make their presence felt and get their voices heard. Sajan Venniyoor, one such community radio advocate, wrote:
Civil society is seldom given a chance to influence public policy in India. For those who have observed the inaccessibility to public airwaves with growing concern, this is an opportunity to speak up and be heard. Both individually and collectively, we must write to TRAI and address the issues that they have raised… Those attending can assert their views on non-commercial radio both for the communities they represent and, more importantly, for the communities that have no voice to be heard in big cities.
While the legalities were playing out at the policy level, international organisations and civil society advocates continued to engage with government officials and authorities at consultations and conferences, which emerged as important spaces for advocacy. All of this led to a change in the policy guidelines in 2006, with the scope of the community radio policy expanding to allow NGOs to enter the picture. With this, India became the first country in Southasia to implement policy guidelines that allowed communities to acquire broadcast licences, paving the way for a more plural media landscape. Seen against the backdrop of growing concerns over consolidation of commercial media spaces, and with cross-media ownership continuing to deter media diversity, the legal recognition accorded to community radio is commendable. The policy guidelines are, however, far from ideal. Concerns range from the creation of NGO radios, to the ban on ‘news’ that wrenches the very space the policy seeks to create.
Case studies in a regional context
The struggle for spaces that nurture free expression continues unabated in the region. Sri Lanka, the country that pioneered community-based broadcasting, the role of the SLBC notwithstanding, is attempting to negate such platforms today. From restricting information about alleged war crimes to efforts to control internet behaviour, one cannot help but notice an atmosphere of heavy scrutiny and silence in Sri Lanka. The pioneer country is now a mute spectator to developments on the community radio front among its neighbours. Nepal, on the other hand, has a community radio environment that is marked by the ability to broadcast news and current affairs independently. These community radios are run by various kinds of institutions and supported by the collaboration of a host of international donor agencies. However, despite introducing independent community radio to the region, Nepal continues to suffocate the very voices the platform sought to amplify due to the lack of legal recognition. With no demarcation between private and community radio, operators are almost granted the opportunity to lay claim to donor funds that are meant for not-for-profit community radios as well as to the profit that is desired by private commercial radios. The setting up of content syndicates in the capital city of Kathmandu, to fill the silences on community radios in distant regions, only accentuates the need to examine the shrinking space for authentic community voices in the country.
Despite being the initial country in Southasia to provide legal sanction for community radio, India grapples with issues that are by-products of the operational policy guidelines. The revised policy guidelines of 2006 do not recognise the diverse defining features of educational and community radios, the mandates and audiences of which are, more often than not, rather different. Activists show concern over the NGOisation of the sector, an aspect institutionalised by the policy guidelines. NGOs and international donor agencies, which often enter communities as external forces, set up community radios and withdraw unceremoniously as the funding programme draws to a close. Instances of such stations being left in the lurch are only beginning to raise questions about the unsustainability of such initiatives. Further, the contestation over the ban on news on private and community radio continues in the form of a public interest litigation in the country’s apex court. Today, the sector is facing challenges in the implementation of the policy guidelines, particularly in relation to what are seen as ‘disturbed’ areas by the country’s Home Ministry. License applications from areas affected by leftwing militancy and ‘anti-state’ activities are often rejected, due to a fear that the space provided by community radio may be usurped for the purpose of instigating communities.
Critics of community radio often call for moving beyond the technology of radio, especially in the era of the internet and advanced technologies. Experiences in Southasia, however, only accentuate the need to go beyond these only seemingly real dichotomies of ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ media. Instead, there is an urgent need to understand the critical space for which community radios serve as custodians – a space that desperately requires enabling policy environments throughout the region.
~Preeti Raghunath is pursuing her doctoral studies at the University of Hyderabad, India and is a Research Assistant with the UNESCO Chair on Community Media.