‘Unconstitutional' ban on news in community radio â€"Part I

IN Media Business | 30/07/2012
The policy on community radio is less about the right to freedom of expression and more about prescriptions for development,
made worse by bureaucratic implementation, says RAM BHAT, in the first of a two-part report.

November 16, 2012, earmarks six years of community radio in India. When the policy was released, a few voices in the government optimistically declared that they expect more than 4000 radio stations at the end of the first year. Shockingly, for such a vast country, even to date, there are only about 150 community radio stations, which are operational, with more than 70% of them being educational institutions.

Clearly, there is something wrong. The policy framework needs urgent reform so as to lay down the foundations for a more vibrant community radio sector in the future.

Last week, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting's sectoral innovation council, came out with a report recommending a greater relationship between community radio and All India Radio. In essence, the report suggests that community radio can provide “community-based programme content to All India Radio, while AIR can provide capacity building and training to CRS workers in content creation, management and operation of stations”.

One does not know if a regional broadcaster like AIR, will be able to incorporate community radio content, which is extremely localized. On the other hand, one is even more surprised to see how a public (for all purposes, State) broadcaster, can provide capacity building to community radio on aspects like ownership, operations etc. It only further underlines the need for policymakers to urgently rethink community radio as enabling communities' right to free speech, and rooted in community ownership.

Framework

The policy actually says, “The emphasis should be on developmental, agricultural, health, educational, environmental, social welfare, community development and cultural programmes.” This is perhaps one of the few media policies of the government that is not just aimed at regulating content but is prescriptive in nature.

For a policy which stems from 1995 Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) Supreme Court Case[1], and the fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution, namely, Article 19, 1 A - the spirit and the letter of the policy should be about the right to free speech and expression, not about prescribing forms of development. Ironically, most of the policy is about what applicants are not supposed to do. It appears to be a disabling rather than enabling policy. Of course, it is obvious that there is no mechanism to penalize violators, so the easy way out has been adopted – blanket prohibitive approach.

Ban on News and Current Affairs

The Indian community radio policy is perhaps the only one in the world that prohibits the broadcast of news and current affairs. It will come as no surprise if our neighbouring countries take our policy as cue to place restrictions on news and current affairs as well. News and current affairs are lifelines for any radio station, and it is unacceptable for a policy to disallow news and current affairs without any reason or qualification.

It is almost certain that this prohibition will fail the test of constitutionality with respect to the fundamental right to free speech. While it may seem absurd that newspapers, television channels, internet etc. are all allowed news, and only radio (both private and community) is denied news – the reason is quite simple. Private and community radio are the only non-state actors who broadcast on a terrestrial analogue platform. In the television sector, only Doordarshan is allowed.

The problem with terrestrial analogue platforms is that monitoring of content is impossible. While licensing is centralized, the government would hesitate to ask State governments to monitor community radio stations. Unless the government figures out a method of daily monitoring of content, it is unlikely that either private or community radio will be allowed news or current affairs.

Clearly, this distrust of communities does not bode well. If the government feels that it is understaffed to monitor community radio stations, it can partner with civil society organizations like the Community Radio Forum to put in place self-regulation mechanisms. The MoIB has already started this process of self-regulation with private television broadcasters, and their representative bodies like Indian Broadcasting Federation (IBF) or News Broadcasters Association (NBA).

Yet another option would be to have a two-tiered mechanism within the policy. Community radio stations that wish to broadcast news and current affairs can commit to objective and accurate reporting. There can be separate conditions of eligibility or other layers created, which will underscore the need for seriousness of news broadcasting. This has also been followed in the television sector, where the self-regulation guidelines of bodies like IBF or NBA have separate guidelines for news channels.

Process as Punishment

The long-winded red taped process to start a radio station disheartens most applicants and the initial excitement may die out by the time the government allocates frequencies and licenses. Besides, educational institutions get clearances in six to eight months, non governmental organisations (NGOs) have to get clearances from multiple ministries, which take more than two years in some cases!)

The Ministry of Home Affairs has blocked twelve applicants from Jharkhand, by citing Intelligence Bureau’s objection of “terrorist activities” in Jharkhand. The government needs to put in place a single window clearance, where the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting coordinates everything internally, and enables applicants to operate within six months of applying.

(Ram Bhat is the co-founder of Maraa, a media and arts collective in Bangalore. Vice-President of the Community Radio Forum of India, a national level advocacy body for the community radio sector, he has been involved in the community media sector for the last eight years, His current interests are related to policies in the area of spectrum, broadband internet, telecom, white spaces, and digitization of media. He can be reached at ram@maraa.in)



[1] The judgment, among other things, says that airwaves are public property

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