36 operators boycott policy consultation organised by I&B Ministry

Several civil society-run community radio stations across the country fell silent for several hours on Wednesday to protest the increase in licence fee.

On March 22, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology increased the annual fee from Rs.19,700 to Rs. 91,000. While the order came into effect in April, the operators came to know about it only when they received payment invoices.

“It is shocking that community radio stations, which are of, for and by communities, often in remote, rural and hilly areas, operating in marginalising and disadvantageous conditions, will now be required to pay as much as Rs. 91,000 a year as royalty/licence charges for operating a small FM station broadcasting in a range of 5-10 km with a 50-watt transmitter,” said Arti Jaiman, treasurer of Community Radio Forum, an organisation registered under the Indian Societies Act.

The government allowed community radios in 2006. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issues licences, along with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, which allocates the spectrum. There are 136 community radio stations; 36 of them are run by civil society organisations and the rest by Krishi Vigyan Kendras and educational institutions.

‘A mockery'

“This move is clearly a mockery of the government stance… that there are no licence fees for community radio,” Ms. Jaiman said, pressing for the withdrawal of the increase.

Ram Bhat, vice-president of the Forum, charged the Centre with deploying various strategies, through its Ministries, to suppress the freedom of media. Such a method was to arbitrarily and unreasonably raise the barriers to entry, causing the smaller players to drop out. The fee rise would exclude the genuine and grass roots communities from the concept, allowing instead rich NGOs, universities and private educational institutions to capture the licences.

The Forum, a member of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry's Screening Committee for Community Radio, decided to boycott a policy consultation organised by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for Wednesday and Thursday. All 36 functional community radio stations, which are members of the Forum, observed “Day of Silence” on Wednesday, announcing the fee hike, playing a protest song, and then switching off the transmitters.

“Further measures are being planned for a long and sustained campaign,” Ms. Jaiman said. “Community broadcasters are determined not to give up this campaign until this hike is rolled back.”

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