Vision for Community Radio Development in India

W. Jayaweera, Director Communication Development, UNESCO

Keynote speech made at the National consultation convened by the Government of India – 2008

Thank you for inviting me to deliver the keynote speech on UNESCO’s behalf at this important national consultation on community radio to India.

“The community radio is a form of local radio which defines itself as autonomous entity- and relies on the community for its survival with non-commercial in aim”(Lewis P, 1995:583). This working definition by Prof. Peter Lewis is useful. Nonetheless, it could be well understood only when we can define what we mean by a community in the praxis of community radio. A cursory look at the development of community radio across the world demonstrates that it has been evolved due to different, but interlinking reasons.

For instance in the West it was evolved as an alternative to or a critique of mainstream broadcast media. McCain and Lowe (1990:89) trace its origins in Europe, to the 1960s and 1970s, “when swashbuckling entrepreneurs boarded the airwaves illegally and seized as much of the audience as they could carry away from the treasure chest monopolies controlled by the State with its public service model of broadcasting”.  The pirate stations, thus, have been a major factor in motivating governments and national broadcasting systems to introduce legitimate local radio in Europe.

In Latin American countries, community radio came into being as a critique of, and alternative to, predominantly commercialy oriented radio broadcasting.  There, the thrust was to use community radio as a medium to support education of the marginalized populations. (Roncagliolo, 1995:298)

In Africa, establishment of community radio, in a broader sense, became a social movement after the demise of apartheid regime in South Africa, which was followed by democratisation, decentralisation, and structural adjustment elsewhere in the continent (Bouhafa, 1998). 

But Community radio is not just about broadcast content, it is mostly about the process of community engagement.  Community radio is about social skills, business skills, creativity, IT skills, local democracy, hard to reach groups, involvement of women and young people, and involving hundreds of volunteers… Community radio is about harnessing the tremendous potentials media can offer to engage people and making informed decisions by contextualising. It’s about ordinary people having a stake in the vast broadcasting landscape and become responsible and accountable citizens. Community radio is about ownership, accountability, ethical behaviour and learning from peers. Community radio is also about media literacy. A media literate society can demand accountability from media and, for what better way to become media literate than by making media yourself.

Instead of defining community radio purely on the basis of the transmission coverage, it would be useful to inquire as to what accountability system would transform a normal radio into a true community radio. Here, community ownership and equitable access to community members are the key determinants; There are few important indicators that demonstrate community ownership and community access. They could include the following:

  • Acquiring the community mandate
  • Ensuring community ownership
  • Accountable station management (accountable to the community) representation of various segment of the community in station management board
  • Conflict resolution mechanism
  • Equitable access for community member to make broadcast programmes,
  • Programme Guidelines and transparent code of practice
  • Promotion of community values (dialogue and tolerance, ethical communication, cooperation) with no sectarian interests
  • Public scrutiny mechanism – including of financing and expenditure
  • A proactive National Community Radio Association as a voluntary mechanism to facilitate dispute resolution and to maintain the purpose for which community radio operations have been allowed.

Some community radio experiences in rural areas have shown that the possibility of maintaining access, self-management and participation in community radio operations are less feasible when tensions linked to individual relationships or the nature of local leadership far outweigh other factors which bring a group of people into a community. 

The traditional concept of “community” in rural societies has been largely influenced by the rural agricultural practices that depended on collective irrigation management, where the storage and distribution of water required user consensus. This was the case of the “community” in the Mahaweli community radio praxis in Sri Lanka, at the time it was conceived. Nonetheless, research studies (Dayarathne: 1985)  notes that even in such locale, social behaviours are influenced more by particular individual strategies than by the desires of a collective. The composition of rural societies varies and is no longer determined by the majority occupation such as farming or fishing. Home is becoming less of a production unit. Many people have begun to work outside their homes and immediate surroundings and thus their mobility has increased. Communities are increasingly exposed to media proliferation, which influences the way in which people think of life styles and media functions.  Given these changes, the weakness of the concept of “community” lies more in the community radios’ own traditional attempt to define it, which is based on illusory group coherence in a geographical locality.  The tension between social transformation influenced by the larger society and mass media, and the attempts to retain traditional hierarchical relationships and individual strategies in rural societies, increase the uncertainty of a particular form of “community” in rural areas. Therefore one could say “community” is a fluid concept.

But on the other hand, community radio is an excellent tool to manage the plurality within the community contributing eventually to increase the democratic participation and hold accountable all hierarchies and relationships to a common social goal.  The issue of participation is a central question. Participation is not devoid of tensions because it could challenge traditions, hierarchies, the roles attributed to genders, and values in all what one might called in general terms cultural practices of a given society/community. We cannot disregard them and say that if we need the economic development let’ us eliminate the traditions and cultural practices because it is better to be happy and rich than to remain traditional and poor.

Therefore it is more important to build capabilities of people in deciding for themselves as to what part of traditions cannot be maintained, because some of which hinders among other things building social capital. Social capital is the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups, and organizations. Social capital creates possibilities for community development, but it is also a key product of community development. Social capital is vital to economic life, since economic activity requires social collaboration.

The poor or bad management of plurality manifest itself most predominantly as intolerance to and suppression of the fundamental rights and freedoms. The plurality in a society is reflected through a combination of public, private, commercial, mainstream, alternative, national, and community media with diverse content and possibilities for various segments of the society to engage with different media. The capacity of community radio to foster democracy via access to broadcasting and its associated potential to ‘extend the freedom of the individual, foster local interdependence and cultural enrichment’ involving both the rights of groups and individuals to broadcasting opportunities and the obligations of democratic governments to provide a conducive environment to public participation underpins the community media sector, the purpose of which is distinctly different from the media operating at national levels.  The community radio sector’s responsibility to seek to widen the community’s involvement in broadcasting and to encourage participation by those denied effective access to, and those not adequately served by other media squarely falls within this concept of managing the plurality.  

Studies have shown that community radio indeed can overcome the tensions and help build social capital to the extent that community radio is able to maintain its true community ownership and the accountability to the community it serves. Social capital is the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups, and organizations. Social capital creates possibilities for community development, but it is also a key product of community development. Social capital is vital to economic life, since economic activity requires social collaboration. However, a minimal, pre-existing level of social capital is necessary for community development to work. In this regard, one of the basic principles introduced in community radio policy in India becomes very relevant. Indeed, the policy requires that community radio applicants should not only be explicitly constituted as ‘non-profit’ organisations, but also should have had a proven record of at least three years of service to the local community. This means having a pre-existing level of social capital within the community.

It also means a prevalence of trust by the community towards the applicant organization based on the expectation of consistent, honest and cooperative behavior. This trust rests on shared social goals, norms and values, which are generally unwritten but commonly understood formula for determining appropriate and approved patterns of trustworthy behavior. The licensee organization indeed can claim this trustworthiness, but it is far more important to verify such claims  with the community members.  . It is the onus of the licensee organization to prove that they not only have the mandate from the community but periodical public scrutiny of their operations is a conscious feature of their obligations towards the community. A built-in periodic public scrutiny mechanism is essential to maintain this trustworthiness continuously throughout the existence of community radio.  The ability for public to scrutinize the operations is apparently linked applicant organizations democratic structures by which community members can influence the decision making process and demand accountability.

The assumption is, that the organizations seeking to operate communication structures for communities are not motivated by utilitarian self-interest at the expense of others.  They are expected to work for common social goals, in a context in which individual contributions are characterized not only by pure self interests but also by reciprocal relationships, defined as a combination of altruism, empathy as well as respect to other view points. 

Some countries have introduced a National Association of Community Broadcasters – a kind of a peer association, which among other things would form a part of the mechanism to monitor the trustworthiness of community radio stations. The case in point is the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) and its code of practice for community broadcasting licensees. The code incorporates the objectives of the Community Broadcasting Act along with other matters that are of concern to the wider community. What is significant with Australian code of practice is that  it includes measures for conflict resolution  and handling complaints on operational aspects of community radio practice.  The code of practice prescribes methods of dealing with disputes and conflict resolution within community broadcasting organizations. Licensees are required to have mechanisms that facilitate conflict resolution conscientiously and promptly within their broadcasting organization. In the case of unresolved disputes, , licensees are required to seek alternative resolution such as mediation or arbitration.

In regard to handling complaints the code prescribes the manner in which complaints and comments from members of the public are dealt with. Amongst the requirements, community radio licensees must:

  1. acknowledge the rights of their audiences to comment and make complaints concerning compliance with the codes of practice, conditions of the license, programme content and general service;
  2. provide regular on-air information about the Community Broadcasting Codes of Practice and how they may be obtained;
  3. community radio management should make every reasonable effort to resolve complaints; make appropriate arrangements to ensure that complaints will be received by a responsible person during office hours, they will be conscientiously considered, investigated and responded to as soon as possible, and they will be promptly acknowledged and answered within six weeks;
  4. in the case of dissatisfaction with the licensees response, they will advise complainants of their right to refer the matter to the Australian Broadcasting Authority.

These measures make community members feel that they can demand accountability from the community radio station. In addition National Community Radio can assist the regulatory authorities by forming a broadcast complaint commission and nominating panel of arbitrators to deal with unresolved disputes.

There are other aspects that reinforces community ownership. Firstly, community should be able to claim the ownership of the resources, such as physical structures, buildings, equipment, transmission towers etc. Instead of looking for funding sources, at  the very outset licensees should mobilize community support to establish physical structures through collective donations, subscriptions and voluntary work to build the radio station. In the case of UNESCO support to community radio initiatives in the Philippines it was a condition for the communities to build physical structures for community radio through community support. Such mobilization efforts led into to formation of organizational structures enabling communities to claim the ownership of their community radio. In some cases such as in Nepal, there are instances where community ownership is assured on the model of muti-purpose cooperative societies, by which each community member can own the station by purchasing a share of the cooperative society.   

Community ownership is also reinforced through equitable access of community members to programme making. Most of those radio stations deteriorated from community radio into dependent radio stations had few features in common. First the operations relied very much on, paid staff, who tend to treat broadcasting as an occupation. In some cases donor funding and external support aggravated this situation, by allowing radio stations to engage paid staff.  The paid staff treated any form of volunteerism as a threat for their existence, as a result of which access to programme making by community members are discouraged. Volunteerism is indeed a core concept of community access in community radio praxis. It allows community members to be animportant part of programme decision making without being in a formal setup. On the other hand studies has shown that people cannot go beyond a certain time frame and become volunteers for ever. Therefore community radio has to depend on recurring recruitment of volunteers from the community, rather than on paid staff who would consider community radio as a career. Volunteer participation, and the rate of turnover of volunteers are fundamental to community ownership and access. This would mean that paid staff, should be limited to a station manager and if affordable to a programme manager.

Community radio operations differ significantly from commercially motivated broadcasting enterprises, where broadcasters and producers are bound intrinsically by monetary values, rather than altruistic values. However, although community broadcasting is not an occupation, community broadcasters do subscribe to the same ethics applicable to mainstream media professionals. Community broadcasters are like barefoot doctors, or village physicians. They have not necessarily taken the Oath of Hippocrates named after the Greek physician, but they would not violate any of its rules. 

Ethics are after all conventions that any community of practice has to adhere to if it is to prevail as a community of professional practice. Accordingly from community radio practitioners we should expect, above all, truthfulness. As in the case of any other media, dissemination of  information through community radio practice is in part a discipline of verification.

Now, provided we have procedures for conflict resolutions and hold community radio management  accountable why would we need  a policy clause which states that “The Permission Holder shall not broadcast any programmes, which relate to news and current affairs and are otherwise political in nature”.

This particular clause reminds me of a decree issued by the Royal Nepal Government during the crisis last year. At the height of the crisis the royal decree announced that henceforth no broadcaster was to broadcast news. According to the decree, all broadcasters were expected to broadcast only music and songs, and exclude news and current affairs from their programmes. Of course, the mainstream broadcasters who did not want to risk their investments immediately complied with the Royal decree. But the Community Radio Association in Nepal decided that it is important for people to know what is happening if they have to defend their democratic rights. In unison Community Radio stations in Nepal decided that instead of broadcasting news as spoken language bulletins, their radio presenters would sing the news in songs and ballads because the Royal decree allowed only music and songs.  The ingenuity of community broadcasters to circumvent the royal decree came from their own experience: indeed, folk media formats such as ballads and songs are used traditionally to tell stories and news. Was the royal decree preventing news broadcast meaningful? No,

Editorial responsibility is what makes it possible to distinguish news from gossip. Just like in the case of newspapers, where the editor holds the ultimate responsibility for the news disseminated by his paper, in radio and other broadcasting services, the station manager is held responsible for the news. He may have a trained news editor, or be himself the editor. As long as one can pinpoint editorial responsibility to an accountable management, there is no reason to prevent community radios from broadcasting news. If community broadcasters are not allowed to take their editorial responsibility and broadcast news, perhaps they would be compelled to broadcast or even sing gossips. Not forgetting that the right to broadcast news and current affairs is a part and parcel of freedom of expression. On this point Article 19 of the Indian Constitution resonates the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights. “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. Certainly news and current affairs are part of information and community broadcasters are entitled to take editorial responsibility and disseminate news. I trust that this consultation would provide a forum to review this clause.

Increasingly, people are making their own media, be they be websites, blogging, pod-casting or internet radio operations, SMS messaging – opportunities to become a media operator is becoming abundant. Only need that you would need a licence to operate a community radio is because you are using the frequency spectrum allotted for broadcasting purposes. If you have an internet radio and people have the wireless access to internet through their mobile phones, PDAs, set-tops and even radio sets, all you need is to create an audience not a licence.

Nonetheless, if those technologies are going to be useful it is important for each and every  citizen to learn necessary skills, moreover the ethics of communication. The community radio experience is the best way for people to learn skills and ethics and thereby build their own capacities to hold both old and new media accountable to their audiences.

The community served as well as the community of practice constituted into a national community radio association  should constantly challenge the Licensees of community radios stations to demonstrate their ability to uphold community ownership and community access as core principles of community radio practice. Answers to the following set of questions would indicate abilities and disabilities. 

  • Does the community radio provide information and perspectives enabling community members to participate in public and political life?
  • Does it provide adequate community representation in the management structure.
  • Does it foster equitable access to programme making?
  • Does it contribute to explaining important developments within a society?
  • Does it reflect diversity of opinions, interests and needs?
  • Does it foster innovation and creativity?
  • Does it play the role of local watchdog?
  • Does it give a voice to the voiceless? including minorities and women within the community
  • Does it contribute towards the advance of knowledge?
  • Does it contribute to conflict resolution?
  • Does it contribute to cultural development?

Affirmative answers to these questions would contribute to form a Vision for Community Radio Development in India.

Thank you for your attention.

26 April 2008

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