( This article appeared in the Op-ed section of The Hindu, 22nd Feb 2013.)
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MoIB) organised the 3rd National Community Radio Sammelan from February 9 to 11 to celebrate a decade of community radio. The celebrations were cut short when Secretary to MoIB Uday Kumar Varma confirmed that community radio stations would not be allowed to broadcast news for some time to come. As a stopgap measure, he offered community radio stations the permission to re-transmit unedited news from All India Radio (AIR). The refusal of the government to allow broadcast of original news on community radio is a serious step backward in our journey towards freedom of speech and expression.
At different points in time, the government has cited reasons, both technological and political, to justify this prohibition on news. All reasons seem to point out to only one thing — the government does not trust its own people.
It may seem bizarre to many that while media barons like Rupert Murdoch are free to broadcast news, marginalised communities across the country cannot be trusted with news. It cannot be coincidence that the only two sectors in the media which are not allowed news are the two non-state analogue terrestrial media, i.e. private FM radio and community radio. The other analogue terrestrial media in the country are stations of Doordarshan and AIR.
Analogue terrestrial media implies localisation of content. The content is transmitted only to areas surrounding the transmitter, and coverage depends on strength of transmitter and height of antenna. Community radio stations operate at 100 watts with antennae placed at 30 metres height. One can safely assume that community radio stations will cover a 15 to 20 km radius, making it impossible for government to monitor content on a daily basis.
The desperate attempt to monitor all media cannot be a justification to prevent freedom of speech. The television sector is a telling example to prove this point. In spite of spending crores of rupees on the newly set-up Electronic Media Monitoring Centre, the government is able to monitor only 350 television channels, whereas in reality there are more than 700 channels operational in India.
Policy guidelines for community radio are framed in terms of development of local communities. It is perhaps the only policy document where the government does not stop at regulatory compliance but also attempts to prescribe what kinds of programming should be broadcast.
Community radio cannot and should not be restricted to broadcasting government advertisements and information about government schemes. It is equally, if not more, important for these radio stations to engage with local governments and promote transparency, accountability. Further, the task of community radio is cut out when they are required to deal with caste, class and gender prejudices within their own communities.
(Ramnath Bhat is vice-president, Community Radio Forum, India.)