Friday, August 24, 2007

Voices of the Community

Voices of the Community

Communication rights are inextricable from independence. The voices of communities are a vital part of national and social development, and are intertwined with the ability of people to hold their leaders accountable. Unfortunately, sometimes these questions aren’t asked for fear of how they will affect media profits, especially in situations where media licensing by the government can be revoked without recourse. This is where community media play a crucial role because they are non-profit, owned by and operated for the community.

Before Merdeka, there were promising signs that media would develop in this way. Radio in Malaysia started up in a form which was echoed in later developments in what has been called community radio. It was open access, in that anyone who wanted to, could make a programme, and it was non-profit. Perhaps because nobody could see how a profit could be made out of this voice-box.

The BBC model and emerging US models of radio didn’t foreshadow the massive media conglomerates of today. The BBC itself was still uncertain of its status, whether it would proceed with government support, or be left to flounder in a free market.

So it is little wonder that we were unsure what to do with our own radio stations. It was decided, with little debate, that radio should come under the purview of a government department, with the primary aim of nation building. And so community media was stillborn.

Elsewhere, community radio developed its current form in the 1960s, with a focus on the resistance of Bolivian miners and their wives scraping together an existence in the face of exploitative mining companies.

Like a virus, the concept spread, encompassing most of Latin America, North America, Africa and Europe, and only now, is spreading in Asia.

Indeed, everywhere it has been poor and marginalised people – the victims of development – who have been at the forefront of the demands for community media.

In Malaysia, there are a few manifestations of community media. The most respectable is the Ipoh-based Ipoh Times, a community paper with a minimal cover charge. It was not established to make a profit, but to meet the needs of its community.

Likewise the DIY-zines of the underground music movement, designed to meet the needs of a community interested in political philosophy, music and the environment. Less respectable yet paradoxically more established, these zines have been around, as a genre, since the early 1990s.

Media technology, however, refuses to allow us to stagnate at this level.

It is in the last five years or less that we have seen a blossoming of interactive media, which could be construed as forms of community media in Malaysia. This media is taking on new, diverse forms almost daily. The blog, the podcast and YouTube postings are examples.

It may not be what Time thinks it is (i.e. "You" as it declared the 2006 newsmaker of the year to be), but it probably isn’t what anyone thinks it is. I prefer to think that Time should have put "Us" as the newsmaker of the year because one of the main differences about these new forms of media is that they are about conversations and dialogues.

The blog isn’t just about the person who writes the blog, but also about the community that springs up around it. This phenomenon is probably the largest outpouring of low-cost, low-maintenance media making ever.

Some of this is centred around individuals, the ultimate vanity publishing. It still has its limits in bringing people together, face-to-face, to solve communal problems. That doesn’t mean its bad.

But it does mean that for all our rhetoric about putting the needs of society before those of the individual, in media we seem to have things topsy-turvy.

This is exacerbated by the current tendency that blogs, podcasts and their ilk have, which is that they are confined to segments of Malaysian society that are already privileged, the urban middle classes, the affluent uppers. Development, even of our media, is leaving behind those already lagging.

Community media can help to slow this trend. Radio, in particular, requires few skills and can be very low cost. A community can start transmitting for less than RM20,000, with running costs limited to the electricity needed to keep the station going.

Community Radio Elsewhere

In Bihar, India, a young man started a station for around US$1 (about RM4). He was uneducated, but taught himself how to make a radio set through his work in an electrical shop. It was closed down by the authorities as it had no license.

In Southeast Asia, community radio has blossomed in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. These stations take up concerns that the larger stations cannot afford to champion. For example, in one station in southern Thailand, they have managed to improve the economic status of the rural community by cutting the number of buffaloes lost during the rainy season. The community station is an integral part of the search and rescue efforts.

In Mindanao, the Gen-Peace network of community stations are helping to build relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities and to empower the women in the community.

Further afield, Bush Radio has been seen as the "Mother of Community Radio in Africa". Initiated by the colourful Zane Ibrahim, the station is committed to safeguarding democracy, empowering the marginalised and helping to improve Cape Town. One of its most exciting projects is the Children’s Radio Workshop. Here, children as young as six make their own radio shows. Often children can get away with questions and topics that adults steer away from, and they have tackled issues from health to corruption.

Throughout South Africa, community radio is also at the forefront of HIV/AIDS awareness. One of the main problems faced by HIV sufferers is discrimination and marginalisation. By working with community radio stations, they are finding a voice, and helping to not only ameliorate the spread of the disease, but also its effects.

Helping to build bridges between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka, the Kothmale community-based radio station has helped to lessen the mutual suspicion between the communities. Within the community, nobody benefits from the violence. But politicians, the business community, even journalists, can benefit from an unstable political environment. Farmers and their families tend to be victims of violence, even when they are also perpetrators. By discussing common concerns, common losses, they are able to help rebuild their community, together. And build a common, violence-free future.

This reiterates lessons learned elsewhere in both the developing and the developed world – that the clearest antidote to racial violence is a diverse and independent media.

But community radio isn’t confined to the developing world. The US is just concluding a new round of bidding for community radio licences. Britain opened up its airwaves, and is now home to over 100 non-profit, community-owned stations.

In Sydney, Skid Row has pioneeredcommunity broadcasting by and for the Aboriginal community, first generation Asian and Middle Eastern migrants, women and others. It started out broadcasting to a jail and is now almost 25 years old.

In Malaysia, there are clear roles that community radio could play. Community radio could help to empower both urban poor and rural communities, who often find themselves isolated from the commercial concerns of the national stations.

The role of community media in poverty eradication has been demonstrated in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, linked strongly to tackling corruption. It can also help to encourage more civic consciousness.

Take for example, issues to do with crime. A community radio could issue appeals to the local community to step forward with information, and being owned by and run for the community, it is more likely to elicit a response.

Obviously, community media can’t solve all our problems. But it can help to redress the balance between the information-rich and the information-poor in our society.

When we shouted Merdeka, we believed that Independence would change our nation; that we would start working for ourselves and our people.

These beliefs – that we would build a socially and economically just society – are enshrined not only in the Rukun Negara but also in Vision 2020.

As far as the media is concerned, this makes our course clear. We need to start emulating our neighbours and friends across the developing world in building a vibrant community media sector. The first step of which is liberalising licences for not-for-profit stations and allowing small stations access to the airwaves.

Sonia Randhawa is former executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism, Malaysia which runs an online community-based radio station. She conducts training in radio broadcasting for communities, and is deputy president of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, Asia-Pacific.

Source: Sonia Randhawa, The Sun, Friday, August 24, 2007
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History of Local Media

History of Local Media

Very much like the rest of the developing world, the advent of the printing presses and the mass media in then Malaya was brought about by European colonialism.

The first newspaper that was published in what is now known as Malaysia was the English-language Government Gazette, which was later christened as the Prince of Wales Island Gazette (PWIG).

The PWIG began publication on March 1, 1806 on the island of Penang, then a residency called Prince of Wales Island under the control of the British East India Company. Owned by an Indian entrepreneur, A.B. Bone, the PWIG was a commercial newspaper aimed not at the locals but at the colonialists and expatriates.

In the early 1800s, there was no law in the Straits Settlements governing the issuance of newspaper licences. The governor of Penang, however, found it imperative to issue a licence to Bone. Curiously, Bone himself made a request that the PIWG be censored by the government prior to publication.

Hence, it could be argued that this practice marked the beginning of the connection between the state and the press, and also of state intervention in the affairs of the media.

The PWIG endured for 21 years, its final edition being published on July 21, 1827. During that period, a few other newspapers, including non-English language ones, emerged but these normally stopped publication as quickly as they appeared.

Virtually all of the early newspapers, English language or vernacular, were published in the three Straits Settlement states of Singapore, Malacca and Penang.

There are reasons for the lack of newspapers published for the locals and in the Malay language during this period. Firstly, the poor economic status of the local, particularly Malay, community made it uneconomical for any commercially motivated publisher to start a paper in the Malay language.

And secondly, formal education was still non-existent for most people, which meant that literate people were very small in number and therefore made for a constrained market.

Indeed, it was not until 1876 that the first Malay weekly, Jawi Peranakan, was published in Singapore. The Jawi Peranakan and a few other Malay publications such as Al-Imam (1906-08), Utusan Melayu (1907-21), and Lembaga Melayu (1914-31) substantially helped to provide intellectual, political and religious leadership in the Malay community by highlighting issues regarding the development of the Malay community.

At about the same time, Singai Warthamani, the first Tamil newspaper published in British Malaya in 1875, joined subsequent publications by concentrating on social issues that concerned the Indian community, particularly issues that revolved around rubber estates.

In Sarawak, the publication of the Sarawak Gazette in 1870 marked the beginning of the history of the press in the state. In 1908, another newspaper, Sarawak Government Gazette, emerged. The first Malay newspaper, Fajar Sarawak, was published in 1930, and Chinese language newspapers Shen Won Kie Min Sing Pao and Xi Min Ri Bao were published in 1913 and 1927 respectively.

After the surrender of the Japanese military in Malaya in 1945, many of the newspapers that were outlawed during the Japanese Occupation, such as the Utusan Melayu, The Straits Times and the Malay Mail, made a comeback, while new ones, such as the Suara Rakyat, emerged.

This happened at a time when Malay nationalism was surging, especially provoked by the British proposal for a Malayan Union which was strongly opposed by many Malays. Malay language newspapers such as the Utusan Melayu, Majlis and Warta Negara played a key role in raising Malay consciousness regarding the controversial issue of the Malayan Union.

Four years into Merdeka, an incident occurred in the Malayan press that had far-reaching implications for the future of press freedom in the country. In 1961, a revived Utusan Melayu was entangled in a fight between its journalists and other workers, on one hand, and the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), on the other, over the important issue of press freedom.

The newspaper workers, under the leadership of its former chief editor Said Zahari, championed editorial independence while Umno insisted that the newspaper, which was highly influential within the Malay community should give full support to the party. A 93-day strike ensued which ended with Umno, given its majority shareholding power, taking over the newspaper.

The growth of the media industry in Malaysia was spurred by the New Economic Policy (NEP) following its implementation in 1970, and especially by the privatisation policy that was undertaken in the early 1980s by the Mahathir administration.

Consequently, a number of new titles of newspapers and magazines and new TV and radio stations made inroads into the media industry. Indeed, there was a quantitative growth in the industry.

Apart from government-run RTM’s TV1 and TV2 channels, Malaysians witnessed the birth of private TV station TV3 that started transmission on June 1, 1984, the first of its kind under the privatisation policy.

This was followed by 8TV, after it was revamped, which started broadcasting on Jan 8, 2004. ntv7 began transmission on April 7, 1998 and TV9 on April 22 last year.

Apart from these free-to-air-TV stations that come under the stable of conglomerate Media Prima, another major broadcasting player also appeared on the scene in the mid-1990s. Astro, a subscription-based direct broadcast satellite, or direct-to-home satellite, television and radio service began operation in 1996.

The government-run wire service, Bernama, also launched its own TV news channel in 1998 in an apparent attempt to provide news content for the growing broadcasting industry.

Over the years, as implied above, the media industry in Malaysia has witnessed a growing and troubling trend of media ownership concentration and consolidation, which was triggered by economic and, to some extent, political considerations.

Such a phenomenon prevails primarily because of the laws that govern the mainstream media, namely the Printing Presses and Publications Act for the press and the Communications and Multimedia Act for the broadcasting industry and the Internet, which invariably empower the ministers concerned to determine who can or cannot own and run the mainstream press and broadcasting stations.

This situation certainly has serious implications on press freedom and the media’s qualitative diversity because media ownership concentration tends to constrain the diversity of content and viewpoints in the mainstream newspapers and broadcasting stations, especially when most owners of these media organisations are associated with the ruling coalition or constitute their economic allies.

In other words, the parameters of freedom and space found in the mainstream media are directly or indirectly prescribed by the powers-that-be.

Such a media environment has also brought about a worrying culture of self-censorship within the journalistic fraternity. In this context, laws such as the Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act and the Internal Security Act also have a chilling effect on journalists.

It is, therefore, not surprising that many Malaysians have turned to the alternative and new media for new sources of information, news and views. This was most evident after the sacking of then deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, which triggered the call for reformasi.

At the height of the movement, many people sought alternative publications such as Harakah, Detik, Tamadun and Aliran Monthly, as well as websites and news portals such as Malaysiakini.

Although the movement has petered out over the years and many of the reformasi-motivated websites have since died a natural death, the yearning for better media still exists among certain quarters of society because some sections of the mainstream media still suffer from a credibility gap.

This explains, in part, the recent and growing popularity of websites, especially blogs, a few of which provide incisive political analyses as well as a certain degree of investigative journalism that is absent in the mainstream media.

Blogging has become a household term now, what with the recent skirmishes between the state and the ruling party on one side and bloggers such as Jeff Ooi, Ahirudin Attan, Nathaniel Tan and Raja Petra Kamarudin (of the increasingly popular website Malaysia Today) on the other.

The vibrancy and growth of blogs and websites is indicative that something is amiss within the mainstream media, and of the status of media freedom in the country.

While it is true that there are blogs and websites that are problematic or even scandalous in nature, placing certain obstacles or issuing threats against particular Net users is not really a panacea to the ailments that have inflicted the mass media in general.

If anything, this does not augur well for the pronounced policy of transparency, accountability and good governance.

Source: Dr Mustafa K Anuar, TheSun, Friday, August 24, 2007
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