Losing community radio stations will mean losing a critical communication link with vulnerable populations. It is in this context that the efforts made by community radio across the Asia-Pacific (AP) region to combat the current pandemic against formidable odds deserve a big round of applause. In a bid to strengthen their efforts, AMARC Asia-Pacific devised and initiated a community radio campaign against COVID-19.
The campaign was launched on April 22, 2020, with two overarching objectives of providing information and access.
Information: The first aim was to make available scripts which could be used for short public service announcements. These scripts comprise specific information about the pandemic and how to take adequate safeguards against its spread. Relevant information is packaged into two categories of scripts. The first category includes announcements that address general information pertinent to the dos and don’ts and safeguards such as washing hands, maintaining physical distance, etc.
The second category comprises messages which are primarily targeted at vulnerable communities such as women in special conditions such as expectant mothers, local farmers whose production cycle and marketing have been gravely affected, and issues related to mental stress, anxiety and depression. We have observed from experience that an increasing number of people are feeling overwhelmed by a sense of anxiety during the pandemic. Community radios can, to a certain extent, act as a therapist.
Access: The campaign’s second objective is to serve as a platform from where community radio stations can access professionally researched and validated information to create more announcements and programs. Serving as a kind of resource pool for community radio stations, the platform has been the result of a collaborative partnership between AMARC-AP and national and regional offices of WHO, UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, FAO as well as other like-minded institutions.
Possibilities and constraints: While it is still premature to determine the effectiveness of the campaign, it is hoped that the results will help the community radio sector to determine and put in place standard operating procedures (SOPs) during times of crisis for the sector. These assume pivotal importance given to how the pandemic has impacted the shape of community broadcasting. For instance, the pandemic has clearly changed production procedures and operations. Because of social distancing norms, it is difficult for the community radio reporter to frequent the stations as they used to in the past. Accordingly, aspects such as distance broadcasting, decentralized production and remote broadcasting have assumed pivotal importance.
The pandemic has also underlined the need to revise policies and practices pertinent to social inclusion and gender equity. As with every disaster, the consequences of this pandemic have been more devastating for marginalized and vulnerable sections. Policies and practices will need to give due cognizance to these sections and their needs.
Finally, the campaign is an effort to underline the importance of independent broadcasting and to strengthen it. Across the world, the pandemic has seen attacks on freedom of expression, right to information and the right to question. As Michelle Bachelet, Head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently pointed out, laws on “fake news” and online media have been used by countries to curb “legitimate speech, especially public debate, criticism of government policy and suppress freedom of expression.” Apart from impinging on fundamental rights, these curbs also affect the smooth functioning of the sector. As it is, many community radios in South Asia continue to operate under a proxy representation. Restrictions on content and transmission power, complicated license procedures and challenges of funding remain issues that continue to impede the sustainability of the sector. If anything, the COVID- 19 pandemic has made these challenges even more daunting.