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Community radio coming out of the shadows in Asia

 InDepth News 21 June 2019

In the 1990s, pressured by the globalization push from the West, there was a great wave of media liberalization across Asia. Many governments reluctantly gave up control of the airwaves, first allowing private FM radio and later private television channels as well. A decade or more after this wave of media liberation swept Asia, many communication experts in the region are now arguing whether private commercialized media really allows freedom of expression and promotes cultural diversity. (1379 Words) - By Kalinga Seneviratne


It has mainly resulted in private radio licenses going to entrepreneurs who want to use the radio to promote their other business interests or political ambitions, and sometimes both. Thus a new wave of media liberalization is now sweeping Asia -- that is the spread of community radio.

This was acknowledged by the recent Asia Media Summit in Beijing when for the first time a plenary session on community radio was introduced under the title "Promoting'On-Air Diversity': A Case for Community Broadcasting".

While community radio expanded rapidly in Latin America and Africa in the 1990s, in Asia it was slow to take off. Asia's first foray into community radio Mahaveli Community Radio (MCR) in Sri Lanka has faced government indifference since its launch in the late 1980s. But Philippines Tambuli community radio, which was inspired by the MCR experiment, has expanded in the past decade and a half to over 30 stations. Nepal -- whose inspiration was Tambuli -- has seen a dramatic increase in community based radio in the past decade which has tempted some to call community radio the mainstream radio in the Himalayan republic.

In Thailand, where there is an estimated 6000 community radio stations that have sprung up since the 1997 constitution paved the way for peoples' radio, the community radio is credited for having mobilized the peasants and farmers' 'red shirt' movement to take on the traditional ruling elites in Bangkok that includes the monarchy and the military.

But, since the 'red shirt' rebellion was put down by the Thai military in mid-May with the loss of some 89 lives in the centre of Bangkok, the Thai government has started to crack down on community radio in Thailand, especially in the north-east of the country, the epicentre of the rebellion. In recent weeks, the army has raided and closed down many of the community radio stations, which are sympathetic to the 'red shirt' movement.

Community radio became quite popular with rural peasants and urban marginalized people like taxi drivers, and it mushroomed during the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who encouraged it because it gave a voice to his voter base. Since 2009, when the government finally came around to offering legality to the community radio sector, some 6000 applicants have applied for community radio frequencies.


A shinning example of the spread of community radio in Asia is Nepal, where there is an estimated 60 such stations across the country. Most of them were instrumental in mobilizing people to overthrow the monarchy and create a republic in 2006. But, its very success is threatening to undermine the sector.

"It was very tough at the beginning. It took the government 5 years to give us a license" recalled Raghu Mainali, Director of the Community Radio Support Centre in Kathmandu, in an interview given to this writer at a regional community radio conference in Bangalore earlier this year. "It was only after the 2006 democratic revolution that the government has opened up the airwaves."

Mainali laments that its very success (in helping to establish democracy in 2006) has also led to community radio being infiltrated by what he calls "undesirables". The problem has risen because community radio is not a category for granting of private radio licenses in Nepal, but non-profit organizations are allowed to apply for licenses.

"Because there is no categorization of community and commercial radio, not-for-profit organizations (applying for radio licenses) are loosely defined as community radio", explained Mainali. "After the success of the (democratization) movement all political leaders realize that community radio is a power. They also started to sometimes manipulate community radio or send their cadres to apply for licenses. Now we're in crossroads."


Indonesia, which has also seen a proliferation of so-called community radio stations in the country of 205 million people, is also facing a similar situation because there is no category for community radio licensing.

Since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, the 'Reformasi' era has given rise to a community radio boom across the vast country. Hundreds of community radio stations broadcast in the country, but without a proper license. In its initial stages, many NGOs (non-government organizations), set up community radio stations, often with the help of foreign funding agencies.

But, Bowo Usodo, President of the Community Radio Association of Indonesia argues that many of the NGO models have lost steam after foreign funds dried up.

"In the last few years community radio stations which are sustainable are those set up by citizens in one village. Only about 25 percent of the 800 or so community radio stations set up by NGOs is alive today," noted Usodo. "NGOs tried to build participatory model when there was money there. That attracted some NGO people for a while (but) many NGOs go there to learn how to set up participation".

While this foreign funded NGO model has been instrumental in setting up community radio in many countries in the past two decades, this has also been its drawback. These models have not paid much attention to generating local funding to sustain the project beyond its seed funding cycle.


Some stations have also fallen prey to a foreign agenda, where western funding agencies have supported projects to promote freedom of speech in countries, which have not had a liberal open democratic system. This has created friction with governments and hindered the localization of the community radio, especially in economic sustainability.

Western funding agencies must also realize that in the age of globalisation community radio could play a leading role in helping people to protect, nurture and develop their local cultural expressions -- such as music and poetry -- in the face of the international global media onslaught such as from MTV.

Such a role for community radio is also an issue of freedom of expression. For many rural, remote or marginalized communities community radio could provide a great service in providing education and overcoming the literacy barriers. Some of these communities don't always belong to ethnic minorities.

In Laos, the government has encouraged the setting up of such community radio in remote tribal areas -- with the help of UNDP -- to educated illiterate ethnic communities. In the Philippines, the Tambuli project has set up community radio in collaboration with local municipal councils and agricultural colleges in provincial towns.

This has created an economically sustainable community radio model drawing indirectly public funds to the radio, while a Community Media Council consisting of community members constitute the policy making body of the community radio station.

Tambuli community radio's founder Louie Tabing describes radio in the Philippines, which has one of the world's largest commercial radio networks the Manila Broadcasting Corporation which owns some 435 radio stations across the vast archipelago, as a system of 'PPPP' -- profit, propaganda, privilege or prestige and power. He argues what is lacking in this system is the other "P" -- the people.

"Most of the stations are owned by rich families, who are themselves political king pins or who have affiliations to political groupings," argues Tabing. "Programmes are often marked by sensationalism, irresponsible reporting, entertainment inanities, partisan political bias and an utter lack of depth. Most stations are located in the capital cities and they fight for turf and listener ratings. Happenings outside the cities are seldom reported.

"It is in the midst of these realities that the idea of small radio located in the remote areas was born in the Philippines," he added.

Today there over 50 community radio stations operating in the Philippines located outside the cities, using low powered transmitters and independent of government and commercial interests. The challenge is to make these commercially viable and it can't be addressed by funding dissident political groups to set up community radio to confront governments.

About the author: Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lankan born journalist, radio broadcaster, television documentary maker and an international communications analyst. He currently works as the Head of Research at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) in Singapore.


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Originally published by InDepth News. ©

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