HEARING THE UNHEARD

From forced Mann Ki Baat broadcasts to ban on politics, community radio in India is choking

The government insists that they stay away from politics and news, leaving them crippled in terms of content. The concluding part of our series on community radio.

India, with a population of 120 crore people, has 179 community radio stations, many of which are struggling to survive on shoe-string budgets. And they face constant government interference. The latest missive came from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry on April 30 ordering community radio stations to record and send their daily programming schedules to Delhi over email.

The order, which was seen as a brutal form of crackdown over community voices, after its action on the non governmental organisations, was reversed the very next day because of a fear of backlash from the activists who have been long fighting cases in the courts to free up community radio in India from the clutches of the government.

While the latest order may have been withdrawn, community radio is far from free in the country, 13 years after the government first opened itself to the idea of having community-run radio services. Even now, the community radio stations are required to maintain archives for three months and the government is free to ask them for programming of a certain day in case it receives a complaint.

However, an official at the I&B ministry claimed that not one complaint has been received in the history of community radios in India.

“The format is self correcting, if you violate community sentiments nobody will hear you,” said the official, requesting anonymity. “The government should be trying to promote, instead of curtailing, the freedom of community radios.”

Only dance and drama

The policy guidelines framed for community radio services bar stations from airing anything remotely political or news-like. The problem arises because the restriction has made the radio lose its relevance and importance for certain communities.

“The policy document is so loosely worded that it hangs like a sword over us all,” said Hemant Babu, director of Nomad Communication which manufactures transmitters and helps set up community radio stations across the country. “Anything could be political or newsworthy for the government when it tries to prosecute you and there’s no way of getting out of it.”

Shubhranshu Choudhary, who has won accolades for his work with community radio and citizen journalism in Chhattisgarh, agrees. “All that we have on community radio is government propaganda, dance and music,” he said. “Nothing remotely political or newsworthy can be transmitted. A farmer needs to know what’s happening around him and a fisherman cares about high-low tide more than he cares about what new scheme the government has come up with.”

The grouse of not being able to air news programmes is one of the few common things between community and commercial radio stations as they stand together to support a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court which argues that radio is the only media barred from broadcasting news in the country.

“India is perhaps the lone democracy where the dissemination of news and current affairs programmes on radio remains a monopoly of the government-owned broadcaster, Prasar Bharati Corporation, which owns and operates All India Radio/Akashvaani,” the petition by the NGO Common Cause stated.

Calling the different policies for community and commercial radio stations “discriminatory”, the petition argues for the government to allow political news as well since a lot of news like weather updates is already bundled under the banner of “information”.

Arm-twisting tactics

From attempts at monitoring to informal circulars advising these radios to run programmes on Prime Minister’s pet projects such as Mann Ki Baat and Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan, those who operate these services don’t view the recent decisions in a very positive light.

“These are not orders, these are ‘strong advisories’ for the broadcasters to do Mann Ki Baat and other programmes,” said Babu. “Many of our partners claim that they are forced to broadcast because otherwise their grants will be delayed and they would be arm-twisted further.”

The I&B official corroborated this. “Over time, the screening committee on community radios is being overruled by orders from the top,” he said. “From broadcasting government programmes to granting of licenses, nothing has ever worked on principle.”

Back door entry

Evidently, people like Shubhranshu Choudhary and Hemant Babu have been waiting for licenses to come their way while government departments have been getting licenses in complete violation of the guidelines.

The government of Madhya Pradesh’s tribal affairs department Vanya has at least two community radio stations listed under its name even though the policy document clearly bars any political or government arm from obtaining a license.

Similarly, religious groups have long been receiving licenses, despite the screening committee rejecting their applications. “In such cases, the government manages to overrule whatever we suggest,” said a member of the committee, on condition of anonymity. “There are many temples, churches and other religious organisations in India running community radios under the garb of being an NGO while we all know that they are not.”

Hemant Babu, who has applied for a license of starting a community radio in Maharashtra, said that his application has been pending for four years now. “We have fulfilled all the necessary conditions yet it’s turning out hard to obtain the permission,” he said. “On the other hand there are radios operating out of temples in Karnataka where saints and demigods sit and broadcast their messages to the community violating all guidelines.”

For the first part of our series on community radio, click here.

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