Communities are entitled to news

BY VINOD PAVARALA| IN Community Media | 19/10/2013
Media diversity and pluralism are essential to democracy. Any unreasonable curbs on the media cast serious doubts on one's commitment to those key principles.
VINOD PAVARALA on why the ban on news in private radio must end.

Eighteen years after the Supreme Court of India (SC) delivered a historic judgement (1995) declaring that “airwaves are public property” and that they must be “used for public good,” the Court is once again on the threshold of a momentous opportunity to rectify a gross inequity in the broadcasting sector in the country. This opportunity arose as a result of a public interest petition filed before the Court by the NGO, Common Cause, seeking to annul the prohibition on broadcasting of news over private commercial and community radio (CR).

It took nearly eight years after the 1995 judgement and a sustained campaign led by activists, civil society organisations, and media advocates for the Government to hesitantly open the airwaves to established educational institutions in 2003, and to community-based organisations or NGOs in 2006. There are today about 150 community radio stations located in different parts of India, with the exception of so-called conflict-ridden states of the northeast, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and J&K. The idea of community radio globally has been a medium that functions on a non-profit basis, and has, as an integral component, community participation in not only programme production, but also in the management of the station. The CR movement in India has always articulated the need for community radio in the country as an antidote to the systematic silencing by the commercial media of millions of people in rural areas and living in marginal conditions. Community radio, it has been argued, allows ordinary people to tell their own stories through their own voices, articulating distinct identities, promoting unique linguistic expressions, and exploring solutions to the many everyday problems of development and social change.  

While the development mandate helped soften the intransigent broadcast bureaucracy in the country and made it open the door for community radio, it has also become a trap for civil society and the community radio sector in the country. After about a decade of implementation of the policy, we have many successful community radio stations across the country doing excellent work to project grassroots development issues and local culture.  However, with news not permitted and politics proscribed (clause 5 (vi) of the Policy Guidelines for Community Radio clearly blocks news and programmes that are ‘political in nature’), many CR stations have had to confine themselves to the developmental agendas of the NGO concerned or the donor agency. The irony is that while several CR stations have a model of “community radio reporters,” they are not expected to produce and broadcast any news. At a recent interaction with listeners of Alfaz-e-Mewat, a community radio station in Ghagas village, in the foothills of the Aravallis, in Mewat district of Haryana, I heard a clear clamour for news and more information. 

During formal and informal discussions with the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB), well-meaning bureaucrats have often told CR stations that they were free to broadcast locally relevant information, especially about government schemes, as long as they didn’t call it “news”. It is incomprehensible why local communities running radio stations on a non-commercial basis must adopt subterfuge to broadcast news, while a couple of hundred private television news channels, some even owned by foreign companies, can blare round-the-clock and umpteen number of portals and websites and offer instant news on the Internet. What, then, is so sacrosanct about radio? The only answer one can think of, as pointed out by lawyer Prashant Bhushan in his current petition before the SC, is that radio, historically, has been a people’s medium, reaching people at the far-end of the development road, cutting across barriers of caste, class, and literacy. This indeed can constitute a threat to governments wary of the possibility of a well-informed citizenry aware of its rights.

Among mature democracies with a durable tradition of community media constituting a third-tier of broadcasting (public, private, and community), including the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries, there is no prohibition on broadcasting of news. In fact, local news is one of the prime attractions of a dynamic community media sector everywhere. In neighbouring Nepal, where there are close to 250 community radio stations, all of whom got licenses under the privatisation regime, can broadcast news. These stations managed to broadcast news, with little repercussions, even during the prolonged Maoist conflict and at the height of monarchical authority. International agencies such as UNESCO and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) have unambiguously recognised that community radio can be a very effective platform for alternative, citizen-driven journalism, unfettered by the commercial interests of the private sector and unencumbered by the propagandist zeal of state-controlled media. In fact, the post-apartheid constitution written in South Africa explicitly provides space for a three-tier system of broadcasting with equal rights.

At the National CR Sammelan held early this year, both the minister and the secretary, I&B, expressed their apprehensions about allowing news on radio because “we don’t know what they will broadcast and we have no way of monitoring them”. They then went on to gratuitously offer AIR news for relay on community radio stations. If all that we needed was the right to parrot AIR news, why bother about an independent, third-space in the media landscape of the country? Media diversity and pluralism are the hallmarks of a democratic society and any unreasonable curbs on the media cast serious doubts on one’s commitment to those key principles. AMARC states clearly that a democratic legislation on community broadcasting must ensure the dissemination of diverse contents and perspectives. It is quite evident that relaying or re-broadcasting news produced by the state broadcaster by all radio stations in the country flies in the face of such an imperative.

Finally, one must take head on the prickly issue of security, the basis on which hawks in the home ministry have been consistently reluctant to let community radio take root in some of the troubled regions of the country. It is the same fear that forms, at least, the overt basis on which CR stations are denied the right to broadcast news. If you examine carefully the work of about 145 CR stations that have been in existence for at least a couple of years, and some for as long as five years, there has not been a single instance of any reported violation of AIR’s Programming Code, an omnibus set of content regulations that binds all broadcasters. While not all community radio stations may be run by paragons of virtue, by and large, most stations have a mechanism of accountability that makes them responsible for and responsive to the community (or communities) they serve. The immediate listening community could serve as the first arbiter of content going over the airwaves; and, beyond this first check, there are the laws of the land enforced by the local (district) administration and the police. These local authorities and any other regulatory agencies could also have access to the archives, which, as the policy mandates, must be maintained by the station for at least three months.  Neither technological constraints nor logistic difficulties in monitoring radio content could be rational grounds on which the public could be denied its right to communication, which ought to include the transmission and reception of news. The state, with enormous resources at its command, must find a way that’s not overly intrusive to monitor news.     

Let us hope, as we enter the second decade of the community radio policy in India, the Supreme Court would exercise its enlightened judgment and usher in genuine democratisation of the media landscape in the country by lifting this odorous ban on news.

 

Prof. Vinod Pavarala is UNESCO Chair on Community Media, University of Hyderabad and former president of the Community Radio Forum (CRF) of India. He is also the author, with Kanchan K. Malik, of Other Voices: the struggle for Community Radio in India (Sage: 2007).

Related link: Lift the ban on news in private radio

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