The late Zane Ibrahim, community radio pioneer in South Africa, had famously said, “Community radio is 90% about community and 10% about radio.” Something to that effect, anyway. After the recently concluded National Sammelan of Community Radios in India in New Delhi, one begins to wonder if, after a decade of community radio in India, Ibrahim’s telling phrase should be reworded for India to say, “60% government, 30% community, and 10% radio.” One can quibble over these randomly assigned percentages, but you get the idea.
The stately Vigyan Bhawan auditorium, the venue of the annual convention hosted by the Government of India, resounded to applause every time a government official from one of the ministries mentioned financial support to CR in exchange for transmission of content related to the mandates of the respective ministries. This, after the Union Minister of Information & Broadcasting, Mr. Arun Jaitley made a rather auspicious beginning by checking all the right boxes in his inaugural speech – the 1995 airwaves judgment of the Supreme Court, freedom of expression, voices of the people – and after the new Joint Secretary, Ms. R. Jaya had to clarify to the eager participants seeking state patronage that it was not government radio, but people’s radio. Ironically, it took a state official to remind us of our blurring vision!
The Sammelan as a whole, however, left one with a distinct impression that the present government sees community radio as an ideal low-cost, last-mile delivery platform for the many government schemes such as Swachch Bharat, Beti Bachao, and Jan Dhan Yojana, all of which had sessions allocated to them at the event. There was an interesting moment at the Sammelan when one of the participants brought up the issue of broadcasting the Prime Minister’s radio show, Mann ki Baat over the community radio stations across the country. A doubt was expressed whether, in light of the ban on broadcasting political content on community radio, it is appropriate for stations to air the PM’s show. The Ministry officials present as well as many station representatives objected to the characterization of the prime minister’s broadcast as ‘political’. A senior bureaucrat suggested that the Ministry had issued a ‘strong advisory’ to all community radio stations to carry the broadcast.
So the moot point for me would be: is community radio being seen as an extension of the government? During the years when activists and advocates had argued for a third sector of broadcasting in India, it was very clear that it was to be independent of the government and the market, and be an autonomous voice for local communities as an expression of their issues, problems, languages, cultures and identities. If community radio were to function merely as All India Radio, doling out information that would rally people around ‘national’ development goals and mould them into ‘good’ citizens through top-down, expert-driven communication, the years of struggle for an independent space would have been in vain. This is the reason why many of us responded with dismay when the Ministry ‘generously’ offered the right to re-broadcast AIR news on community radio stations instead of the right to produce and transmit independent news content.
The government, of course, has a role to play in community radio, that of providing an enabling environment and a progressive, regulatory framework. Some of us have also supported public funding of community radio, administered within an autonomous structure and not as is being done through a scheme of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). The troubling aspect of state funding is that whether it is through preferential advertising or funding for content production by interested ministries, it has the effect of reducing community radio to a supplicant in a complex patron-client relationship. Combined with the increasing NGO-ization of community radio in India, negotiating an acceptable relationship with the state is a key challenge for the sector as a whole. No one denies that financial sustainability is a significant stumbling block globally for promoting a truly independent community radio. But, our efforts to find a way around it should always be illuminated by Zane Ibrahim’s sage advice about the primacy of the community, and not to let it become an arm of the government.