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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