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No Voice for the People

By 22 December 2010 No Comment

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Jamming the signals: The all-pervasive fear about the ‘security situation’ in the country was the most potent argument thrown by the government and political parties in opposition to the setting up of community radio stations.

The devastating floods that hit Pakistan elicited a variety of responses. The scale of the disaster meant that too much was happening at an unprecedented pace, and both the relief providers and recipients of aid were struggling to made their voices heard. Heartbreaking images of desperate people clinging to the underside of helicopters and clambering on relief trucks drove home the point that a better management of relief delivery operation was needed.

The visit of a team of the AMARC World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, invited by the Pakistan Press Foundation, was an attempt to help bring a method to the madness. The purpose was to hold a dialogue with the relevant quarters and convince them about the need to set up community radio stations for assistance in relief and rehabilitation. The mission was supported by BHN Foundation, Radio FMYY and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. The international team included experts from the UK, Japan and Indonesia.

They held a round-table conference in Karachi, where the concept was explained to journalists, NGOs and government representatives, as well as representatives of all the mainstream political parties.

The visitors explained the value of community radio as a disaster response mechanism that, if effectively put in place, graduates to a disaster risk reduction medium by serving as an early warning tool when it networks with the relevant organisations that issue alerts.

Examples were cited of how it had helped in the post-tsunami recovery and relief efforts in 2005, and recently how it aided rescue and reliefs efforts in Chile and Haiti. In the absence of other communications infrastructure, which had been destroyed by the natural calamity, these low-cost solutions provided the displaced persons a window not only to the outside world, but also to information about relief drops, medical aid camps etc.

This also avoided duplication of efforts by the various agencies involved in relief work, and helped smooth out the operations. However, before they met with officials of the various agencies in the government, they had quite a task convincing the participants of the round-table conference held in Karachi of the need for this medium.

Interestingly, a very clear divide and a closing of the ranks was witnessed at the forum. While for the journalists and the representatives of the NGOs, especially those working in the development sector, it proved to be a case of preaching to the converted, the idea elicited nothing but opposition from the representatives of the political parties and the government.

It was interesting, and alarming, to see them coming together to oppose something almost unanimously, citing similar fears and apprehensions of the medium being used to foment trouble between communities. The very medium that was supposed to empower communities was being perceived as a threat, and the vehemence was quite surprising for the team of AMARC, as well as the journalists present.

The all-pervasive fear about the ‘security situation’ in the country was the most potent argument thrown by the government and political parties in opposition to the setting up of community radio stations. Even the AMARC team could not help but comment on the fact that the heat generated by the topic clearly indicated that the value of the medium to serve as a disaster response tool was being overshadowed by the deep divisions within society.

The AMARC team asked the audience to consider the examples drawn from other regional countries also experiencing strife. The long-running Maoist insurgency in Nepal did not stymie the growth of community radio in the tiny Himalayan nation, and Bangladesh, a success story in so many other sectors, serves as a great model to follow. Our bigger western neighbour, India, was a bit slow to catch on, but the open debate carried out there in civil society and journalist forums have now allowed for this medium to take root there.

Owais Aslam Ali, secretary general Pakistan Press Foundation, whose organisation collaborated with AMARC on the needs assessment through visits to the flood-hit communities in Thatta District (Sindh), Muzaffargarh District (Punjab), and Charsadda/Nowshera (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), was happy over the general response elicited by the mission in meeting with officials, such as the Secretary Information Sindh, and the Minister of Information Qamar Zaman Kaira, as well as the secretary information and his team.

02Community Radio12-10According to him, even the officials of the National Disaster Management Authority agreed with the utility of community radio as a valuable tool for disaster response. However, he too expressed his frustration at the roadblocks encountered in the shape of PEMRA. There was no changing the mindset of the regulator, as the proliferation of the FM stations was cited as proof of the policy of openness and a media-enabling environment, as almost 160 FM licenses have been granted.

Their concern was that even if the licensing is opened, no one in the communities had the capacity to operate such radio stations. In Owais’ opinion, one has to now adopt a two-pronged approach. One will have to keep chipping away at the authorities so they can understand the importance of the medium, and also build the capacity of the communities at the same time.

Javed Jabbar, a former minister for information and communications, who is known as the architect of PEMRA, says the law has become “violative of the spirit.” He laments the fact that there is no provision for issuing licenses for community radio. The organisation founded by him, Baanhn Beli, executed a successful – though slightly different – model while working in Tharparkar.

Its director, Younas Bandhani, who was present at the round-table conference, tried to allay the fears of the naysayers by citing the example of gender mainstreaming wherein the entire content is generated by the women of the community, who prepared the tapes that were then aired through Radio Mithi, an FM station, in the absence of community radio.

Javed Jabbar said the rules were clearly biased in favour of commercial entities, as they specifically mention that the applicants should be registered as joint stock companies, thus excluding the majority of public-interest organisations. He explained that it is not possible for organisations at the community level to fulfill these requirements. He called for allowing community radio stations to function within the monitoring framework of PEMRA, which should ensure that the content falls within the agreed parameters of a code of conduct. For this, however, a resolution of over broad terms like vulgarity and national interest will have to be defined so as not to compromise on freedom of expression.

Even at the round-table conference, it took some doing to explain to opponents the idea of how community radio is different from the plethora of FM stations that developed in the wake of the relaxation of government control over media and the entry of the private sector.

The commercial element drew a clear line of division between the two variants and perhaps the closest that comes to this concept are the campus radio stations, for which PEMRA gave out licenses. These radio stations have been working with varying degrees of success, for the past few years, in the Mass Communications departments at Peshawar, Punjab and Karachi universities, while the Media Studies department of SZABIST in Karachi has also set one up.

The success of these ventures, of course, has depended on the drive and initiative of the heads of the departments.

Many communication experts contend that radio is the medium of the future. This is what the decision- makers will be listening to as television loses its captive audience to the pressures of work. The portability, as well as the comparatively non-invasive nature of the medium means people can be delivered a message even while they go about their tasks, which is definitely a plus over media that engage the eyes as well as the ears.

This medium has been used in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes, adhering to the three basic principles of providing information, education and entertainment. It goes without saying then, that it toed the line of the service provider, be it the government or the ‘owner.’ This also meant that many voices remained unheard because of the set agenda, and here is where the concept of community radio came in.

Without going into the history of community radio, it must must be stated that its utility to serve many needs of the communities has been proven across the world. In over 110 countries, the experiment has proven to be a success. It has served to empower and educate the communities and has also played a vital role in conflict resolution and gender mainstreaming. It is a low-cost, low-technology solution for giving voice to the marginalised who are not able to elbow their way into the commercial channels.

Pakistan not only has all the makings of a society that needs to adopt community radio for its development, it also has all the imperatives – political and social, as well as environmental. Its geographical expanse, as well as the rich ethnic tapestry, which due to the machinations of vested interest has become soiled with suspicions and grudges, needs a medium that can address inter- as well as intra-community issues. Matters impacting the lives of communities, like health, sanitation, education and crop information for the farmers, weather and tidal information for the coastal communities can all be disseminated through this medium.

Other than these, the air waves are controlled either by the government-run media or commercial FM stations, within the ambit of ‘regulatory controls.’ Organisations such as Baanhn Beli and PILAR, (Pakistan Institute of Labour and Research), who had applied for licenses, were refused as the PEMRA law has no provision for community radio. Of course, this lacuna had no bearing on the operators of ‘pirated stations’ who have stepped into the vacuum. Mulla Fazlullah’s activities are a case in point – he was able to spew venom and foment trouble with impunity as he was totally outside the coverage of any regulations.

The driving home of this point, more than any of the benefits enumerated by the experts, brought political party representatives as well as advisors to the Sindh government round to agreeing to supporting the licensing of community radio on the floor of the assembly. It was agreed that a participatory approach can determine the content, and its preparation and airing, bringing opportunities of mainstreaming of the hitherto marginalised elements.

Like Owais Aslam Ali said, community radio is an idea whose time has come, and given the dire need to build some mechanisms to give voice to the marginalised and to reach out to them with the benefits of technology, many people hope this comes to pass.

Afia Salam is Pakistan's first female cricket journalist. She now writes on the environment and other social issues.


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