Sri LankaA National Consultation on Community Radio in Sri Lanka was organized by the Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum (SDJF), with the support of Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia (CEMCA), New Delhi, and in partnership with the Ministry of Media and Information and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) on February 7, 2015 at SLBC, Colombo.

The purpose of the consultation was to revive the dialogue with key stakeholders on Sri Lanka’s community radio movement. It also strived to enable stakeholders identify key issues that affect the development of community radio in Sri Lanka and to identify ways and means for future engagements with policy makers.

The participants included civil society groups, academics and regional radio stations of the SLBC. The Secretary to the Ministry of Media and Information, Mr. Karunaratne Paranavithana; veteran Community Radio expert and the former Director of UNESCO’s International Programme for Development of Communication (IPDC), Mr. Wijayananda Jayaweera; and Programme Officer at CEMCA, Dr. Ankuran Dutta, New Delhi were among the participants.

Providing a background to the deliberations, Mr. Jayaweera said that the idea of community radio was introduced to Sri Lanka as far back as in 1979, when a community-based participatory radio programming service was established under a UNESCO/DANIDA project to facilitate the communication needs of those who had re-settled under the Mahaweli Development Scheme. Known as Mahaweli Community Radio, this venture was considered to be a unique community radio experience in Asia at the time, as, in almost every country, broadcasting was still a state monopoly.

Considerable research has underscored that the Mahaweli  Community Radio station made an impact among the settlers by providing them with a platform to voice their concerns and inculcating a culture of responsive administration among the Mahaweli authority. While UNESCO support came to an end in 1986, SLBC was expected to sustain the project through its own resources. UNESCO had made a recommendation that the government develop a policy to enable establishment of community radio stations that were owned and operated by communities. Unfortunately, it did not become a reality.

Addressing the inaugural session of the National Consultation on Community Radio, Mr. Karunaratne Paranavithana acknowledged that community radio has enormous potential within a post-conflict setting to cater to civil society. He further noted, “The government is very keen to explore a model in which a community radio sector, with all the required principles, can be innovated within the scope of Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation or the Ministry of Media.”

He assured that the existing government would take necessary steps to ensure that a scheme was launched to allocate frequencies for community broadcasting in Sri Lanka. The Ministry is keen to explore a model that can be installed under SLBC but developed for public participation through programmes by and for the people.

In answering a question raised by Ms. Samanmalee Swarnalatha, coordinator of the SARU community radio project, the Secretary to the Ministry of Media and Information assured that the SARU community radio association would receive a frequency in the near future.

Mr. Jayaweera noted that one of the reasons why UNESCO’s recommendation to introduce an enabling community radio policy in Sri Lanka did not materialize was the absence of an active civil society movement advocating for a policy to establish independent community radio stations. The attempts to retain full control of the community radio stations within the SLBC administration were stronger, notwithstanding SLBC’s inclination to view community radio merely as a financial burden to its coffers.

Even when there was an opportunity to grant independence to the Uva community radio service, established under a UNDP project, SLBC insisted that it be kept within the administrative powers of the State broadcaster, though by this time many other private radio broadcasters were allowed to own and operate radio stations.

Mr. Jayaweera’s recommendation to the Ministry of Media was to shift its focus. Instead of trying to revive the SLBC operated community radio stations, which are now defunct, SLBC should introduce an enabling community radio policy which would allow community owned and operated independent community radio stations to be set up. He was glad that the Secretary of the Ministry had promised to give a license to run the SARU radio programme service as an independent community radio station. He mentioned that similar pilot stations should be allowed in different parts of the country as an integral part of developing and testing a new community radio policy.

Dr Ankuran Dutta, Programme Officer of Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia, New Delhi delivered the keynote address on “Community Radio across South Asia: Understanding its Potential in Addressing Voice Poverty.” He described the present status of community radio in the countries of the South Asian region and argued that the community radio movement should be revived in Sri Lanka. He also suggested that educational institutions should be included under the purview of community broadcasting. However, he clarified that educational institutions should have accountability not only to the students, but also to the community where they were located.

Mr. M. C. Rasmin, Director of SDJF, emphasized that they were able to host a number of trainings on community radio. SDJF had also organized three national community radio conferences and an international conference in this regard. Although there were many challenges, SDJF was able to keep the dialogue around community radio alive.

The participants strongly noted that SLBC had in the past failed to ensure the independence of community radio and asserted that SLBC had not come up with any effective community radio programming models after the termination of the Mahaweli Community Radio Project. They argued that the best interests of the Sri Lankan people as well as SLBC would not be served if community radio operated under the State Broadcasting Corporation. They qualified their view by pointing out that community radio’s key principle was ownership, control and management by the community. They also suggested that the Ministry of Media should hold a stakeholder consultation to develop an enabling community radio policy based on the experiences of the South Asian region.

Mr. Wijayananda Jayaweera reiterated that community radio could provide an effective platform for participatory democratic discourse devoid of vested interests and partisan influence at the local levels. Therefore, a number of community radio stations, based on a code of practice, should be allowed as pilots, as a part of the process of policy development.

M C Rasmin
Sri Lanka Development Journalists Forum