Challenges for community radio in the 21st century: 40 principles for Plurality and Diversity
In several parts of the world Community Radio is at the crossroads. Even as communication rights are ever increasingly articulated as pillars of human development, the implications of the 40 principles for Plurality and Diversity remind us that community media/radio has a long way to traverse and has substantial challenges to address in the near future. If the Plurality and Diversity principles hold forth challenges to the current global media scape– they have particular relevance for community radio. Underlying these principles is their resonance with the fundamental importance of communication –whether perceived from the Right to Communicate and/or Communication Rights perspective.
At the base of these principles lie three cross-cutting factors: access, which provides the crux of the challenges that confront community radio today: access, inclusiveness or inclusion and equity. How can we address these?
The good news is that community radio is increasingly being perceived - irrespective of ideological contrasts - as an important player in development. This is borne out by changing legislation recognizing community radio as a part of the media landscape in more and more countries. The flip side is that the details of the legislation often indicate restrictions that also at variance with international norms and standards like the above-mentioned principles and prevent community radio from living up to their potential.
In South Asia, community radio is a recent player, but it has already begun to demonstrate the promise of social transformation. Countries like India have put a three tier media/radio structure – public, private and community in place, but have imposed a ban on news broadcasting. The Bangladesh policy is similar. Nepal has a much older and vibrant community radio tradition, but the policy does not distinguish between local and community radio blurring a distinction that compromises the potential of purpose and performance. In parts of South Asia, there is a mushroomingof hundreds of “legal” community radio stations as in countries like Indonesia, but in the absence of clear cut regulation mechanism they remain unlicensed.
There are larger and related implications. How equitable is the sharing of the spectrum – of the air waves? Airwaves have been increasingly upheld as “public property”, but the spectrum ratio is often skewed against community broadcasting in terms of cost, allocation, and access. True, there are examples to contrary especially in South America. But these are the exceptions. How can we reverse this especially in a climate of increasing media corporatisation? In many parts of the world community radio has been articulated as being a voice of the voiceless. But articulation needs to be appropriately “actioned” through enabling policies.
In several countries in Asia, there are moves to put a Broadcast Act in place. There are concerns voiced about cross media ownership. However when push comes to shove, we find that community spaces are increasingly put on the back burner. In my country the Broadcast Bill has been debated several times since the mid 1990s. It has yet to be ratified. Further, in its latest avatar, community radio is not even mentioned.
There are other challenges that need to be addressed. Attacks on Community Media/Radio journalists have also increased across the region. There are also challenges within the sector related to infrastructure, community involvement, content development and regulatory framework. Increasingly, community radio stations find themselves vulnerable to the criticism of „ngoisation.‟ On the other side of the coin, the sector to face the challenge of digitalization. The promise of digitalization is manifold. However this should not be reduced to a debate of digital versus analog, but worked through a framework and a prism of access, inclusiveness and equity.
These are complex issues which need resolution. How do we tackle the m strengthen on air diversity and pluralism?
Nearly 300 community radio practitioners, advocates and production groups who participated at the Bangalore AMARC Asia Pacific Regional Consultations in February
2010 recommended a 10 point agenda for the development of community radio in the region which are summarized below:
1. To have a distinct and clear definition of community radio;
2. To recognize community radio as a distinct sector and acknowledge its contributions to societies and communities;
3. To legitimize Community Radio/ or give it legal status;
4. To open up of the airwaves/frequencies to Community Radios, on an equitable basis: from 20 to 30 percent of frequencies;
5. To urge governments to provide financial and technical support to Community Radios ;
6. To support sustainability of Community Radios through initiatives like a community radio fund;
7. To remove unreasonable restrictions in terms of technical (power) and editorial policies such as the ban on news ;
8. To simplify licensing procedures,
9. To provide guidelines, mechanisms and funding for development, reform, research and development, and capacity building; and
10. To ensure protection of community radio journalists. These recommendations have relevance for other regions as well.
AMARC provides a unique space to amply these concerns and strengthen the voices from the margins. At AMARC 10 we need to see how we can put steps in place to ensure the journey from the precepts of the Plurality and Diversity principles to their practice
Ashish Sen, India