Snuffing out voices from the margins

BY KANCHAN K MALIK| IN Media Freedom | 11/09/2013
Cumbersome licensing and arbitrary spectrum allocation add to self-censorship of community radio in India,
says KANCHAN K MALIK

An International News Safety Institute (INSI) study recently reported that India was the second most dangerous country for journalists this year (2013), with war-torn nation like Syria at the top spot. According to UNESCO, worldwide, more than 600 journalists and media workers have been killed in the last ten years. In its annual meeting held in Kathmandu, the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) acknowledged physical security of journalists as a necessity for press freedom in the South Asian region, as, “it is today among the most hazardous [region] for journalism”. 

Within the community broadcasting sector also, journalists have not only received serious threats to their lives but there has also been violence against community reporters (e.g. in Nepal and other countries in South East Asia such as East Timor or Timor-Leste and Philippines). Ashish Sen, President of AMARC Asia Pacific, has gone on record to express concerns for the safety of the community broadcasters and designated attacking media workers as a serious breach of freedom of expression that equates to media silencing. 

In India, the safety of media workers in community radio (CR) stations has so far not been an issue of anxiety and there have been no reported cases of the staff or the managers having to risk their lives for airing their programmes. However, it may be simplistic to infer from this fact/detail that community broadcasting in India functions in a free and independent environment and there are no limitations and restrictions on the right to freedom of speech and expression. 

Sluggish growth and unwieldy processes 

The key criticism of the CR sector in India is that the current regulatory framework for community radio broadcasting has seen no change towards further opening up since 2006. The policy has neither been liberalised nor has it enabled a robust flourishing of CR stations in different parts across the country to generate a vibrant alternative media ethos and provide a means of self-expression to the marginalised. The drift about CR in India is its slow pace of its growth due to the cumbersome licensing processes and arbitrary allocation of spectrum. 

Lack of resources as well as the dependence on ‘Delhi-wala’ contacts to secure a license frightens many genuine community based organisations from applying for CR and they give up on their right to access the airwaves. Also, applications from so-called ‘troubled areas’ are denied licences thereby snuffing out the voices from the margins and also the potential of community radio to be used for peace-building. 

Civil society groups have also been advocating that the CR legislation in India is restrictive when compared with international freedom of expression standards. Among the most common disapprovals that have been raised against the CR regulatory framework in India is the prohibition on news. The guidelines state: “The permission holder shall not broadcast any programmes, which relate to news and current affairs and are otherwise political in nature.” 

Ban on news and political content 

Community broadcasters have thus to think twice before sharing any locallyrelevant information with their listeners or at least camouflage it so that it may not be called or construed as news. Meanwhile the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has recommended that the foreign direct investment limit in news channels be raised from 26% to 49%. So, the MNCs with big bucks can serve us our daily news but the communities have to wait till the time government overcomes its inability to monitor the content broadcast on CR to be able to broadcast ‘news’. 

Also,the CR guidelines prescribe that the programmes broadcast should be relevant to the ‘developmental needs of the community’. Ifdevelopment is all about enhancing transparency, better governance, addressing inequalities andalleviating poverty, is it possible to tackleit in isolation from the political dynamics within the community and the country as a whole? Forbidding ‘political’ content is all about making the community broadcasters stay away from the ‘radical’ media potential of CR and limit it to its grassroots developmental avatar. 

NGO-isation 

The content regulations within the CR policy are not the only reason why community voices get muted or give in to various forms of self-censorship. There are other more hegemonic ways in which the programming on CR is influenced and shaped. These pressures, triggered effectively by the compulsions of funding and sustainability, may not necessarily be exercised through coercion, and invariably manifest themselves as informed consent. 

Thegrowth path embraced by the third tier of broadcasting in India is increasingly leaning towards becoming solely an NGO model. As the discourses that historically propelled the CR movement in India were essentially within a development paradigm, community radio has conveniently got co-pted by NGOs as a tool for augmenting their social change initiatives.  

Most NGO-run CR stations rely heavily on funding fromgovernment as well as multilateral agencies.This necessarily fuels a tendency to self-censor andhampers genuine media democratization. Themandates of the CR stations significantly reflect or are limited to the social and developmental agendas of the funding agency as well as of the NGOs. This leaves little scope for opinionated debatesor open negotiations especially those that may lead to withdrawal of financial support. 

Privileging the local

Last but not the least is the fact that self-censorship sometimes also emerges from the fact that community radio is seen as a cultural broadcast mechanism that mirrors the needs as well as the mores/ethnicity of the community it serves. Communities may not necessarily be harmonious and homogeneous entities and are often marked by internal conflict, oppression and patriarchy. 

Respect for local traditions and practices is not always limited to strengthening the “cultural health” of a community bysupporting local artists, musicians, and indigenous knowledge. On several occasions it metamorphoses intosubtle or overt social, cultural, andideological dominance exerted by privileged groups within the community.Feminist scholars especially have cautioned that communities must negotiate against acceptance of too many local norms and cultural traditions thatviolate a woman’s individual agency to pursue a way of lifeshe chooses or curtail her opportunities to live with dignity. 

Breaking the Spiral of Silence 

The intention of my presentation/write-up is not to play down the significance of the opening up of the airwaves in India. It is a step welcomed by all communities who are using it as a platform for self-expression. It is not that community broadcasters across the spectrum are concealing their views and giving in to the preferences imposed from the outside. They have found innovative ways to creatively circumvent some of the unproductive and paternalistic provisions within the guidelines and do their own things with CR.  CR stations also negotiate with assertive local elites to work towards challenging, if not breaking, the spiral of silence prevalent among minority or marginalised segments within their communities. 

The community broadcasters in India are seeking to network with other rights-based social movements to expand their base and lobby for further liberalisation of the sector. 

When you set out to tell the truth about things, you are bound to ruffle a few feathers. So, the real test of the safety of community media workers in India would happen only when they would be able to break the spiral of silence and exercise true freedom of speech and expression. 

(Kanchan Malik is with the Department of Communiction, University of Hyderabad. This article is based on a presentation made at the 'Enhancing the Role of Community Radio and Promoting Positive Social Change' conference, organised by the SAARC Information Centre (SIC) and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC Asia Pacific), Kathmandu, 6-8 September 2013.)

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