No news on community radio: An unjustified ban!

IN Media Business | 13/02/2013
That's the worst of the three roadblocks to free speech on community radio,
says STALIN K, discussing the plight of this vital medium in India on the occasion of World Radio Day on February 13.

The constitutional guarantee of Freedom of Speech was at the very heart of our struggle to democratize India's airwaves and to lobby for liberating radio from the monopoly of the state. Though we were able to score a victory in December 2006 when the Government of India, under the revised Policy on Community Radio (CR), expanded the eligibility criteria of applicants to include civil society organizations, the battle for freedom of speech is yet to be totally won.

There are about 150 operation radio stations in India who have availed licenses under this new policy. Educational institutions run more than two thirds of these, while on about a third are run by civil society organizations.

Three roadblocks to free speech

 Three major roadblocks pose serious threat to free speech today. One is the painfully slow application and approval processes that civil society organizations have to be prepared for. Many applicants had to wait for 24 months and more to get all the clearances. Applicants from the so called "disturbed areas" of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Odisha etc, contrary to the desire of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MoIB) to facilitate CR stations in these parts, have been told by the Ministry of Home Affairs that their requests cannot be considered because of 'terrorists activities' here!

The second roadblock is the paucity of financial resources and high cost of setting up a station. While, the MoIB, under pressures and counsel from the Community Radio Forum, have constituted a Community Radio Support Fund to address this issue, we are yet to see any concrete steps to roll this out.

To add to this, the recent ad hoc five-fold increase in spectrum fee announced by Ministry of Communications & Information Techonology has created a situation of despair amongst existing as well as aspiring broadcasters.

The last hurdle is, to me, the biggest and the most immoral. And that is the ban on broadcast of news and current affairs on CR.

Not allowing news & current affairs on CR, a people's platform meant to promote and celebrate their aspirations and their concerns with governance and politics, is immoral and unconstitutional. The ban on news and current affairs is contemptuous of Article 19(1)(a). From a programming point of view, how are communities expected to create content of 'local relevance' (a desirable activity as suggested in the guidelines in the CR Policy) if they are not allowed to do 'current affairs’? 

According to MoIB officials, the government is reluctant to allow news on radio because it is not equipped to monitor the airing of news. This concern is irrational and inconsistent. Currently the government is not able to monitor all of the nearly 850 TV channels in the country. Apparently, they are monitoring about 300. I wonder which ones they don't monitor?

But that's another piece for another time. Currently millions are people are writing little pieces of "news and current affairs" on their personal gadgets and sharing it via SMS, Twitter, FB and scores of other platforms. Maybe for the government, "news" is only news when read and presented in a certain manner. But then, were I to start news channel on the Youtube today and had paid or volunteer news readers reading out news in conventional formats, the same government is not going to come clamping down on me!

This inconsistent fear or concern about allowing news on private and community radio is merely reflective of an archaic mindset. I am hopeful that the ban will be lifted in 2013. In the meanwhile, radio stations, particularly the ones set up by the civil society organizations, should go ahead and exercise their constitutional right and begin broadcasting news and current affairs.

(Stalin K is the Director of Video Volunteers, a media and human rights organization and the President of Community Radio Forum of India. The views expressed are his own and does not reflect the views of the CR Forum.)

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