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Time to free the radio

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan   | Photo Credit: V_V_KRISHNAN

The overwhelming response from readers to the reports, the editorial and opinion articles following the Supreme Court of India’s decision to strike down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, as unconstitutional in its entirety, is an affirmation of the idea of an interlocking public. The responses also proved that readers, as citizens, are concerned about the larger, legal and regulatory framework of our communication architecture. The constitutional guarantee of the freedom of expression is not the exclusive preserve of legal experts and professional journalists but a collective right that empowers and gives voice to every citizen of this country.

In this context, it is imperative to remind ourselves of one of the pending cases before the apex court that has the potential to redefine the entire information ecology. In October 2013, the first bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Chief Justice P. Sathasivam and Justice Ranjan Gogoi, issued notice to the Union Government on a Public Interest Litigation seeking permission for private FM and community radio stations to air news. In my column, “ >Liberating the radio?”(October 21, 2013), I recollected the open court observation by the Chief Justice: “You rightly mentioned that radio is accessible to everybody. There is no problem in case of TV channels. Only TV channels are allowed to broadcast news. Radio channels have access to every village, nook and corner. We will examine the issue. We will impose some conditions…. (before granting permission).”

No change

Unfortunately, there seems to be no change in government policy. In January 2014, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) reiterated the status quo in an interview to this newspaper. The official spokesperson’s response was truly in state-speak: “We are in discussion with all the stakeholders, but no decision has been taken as yet.”

It is reliably learnt that the government has informed the court that once it sets up monitoring mechanisms, it would have no objection to the broadcast of news. Many players working in the area of community radio feel that this a ploy to buy time. Vinod Pavarala, UNESCO Chair on Community Media, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts & Communication, University of Hyderabad, questions the viability of such a monitoring mechanism. He says: “The whole idea of capturing live streams of some 170 CR stations and 200 plus commercial stations seems to be a ridiculous exercise. The government will have to invest on setting up streaming technologies at the stations and then have dedicated personnel to listen in, like at the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre near Delhi, which already “monitors” television content. It beats me how the government is going to be able to employ monitors who understand Kutchi, Bundeli, and a variety of other languages in which CR stations currently broadcast.”

Prof. Pavarala also recollected the Ministry’s position as articulated at the recent National Sammelan of Community Radio. “There was no mention made of the possibility of permitting broadcast of independently produced news on community and commercial radio. In fact, MIB officials merely repeated their earlier “generous” offer to allow retransmission of AIR [All India Radio] news. If CR stations had to only rebroadcast AIR news, then the whole idea of independent, third-sector radio has no meaning,” he observed.

India stands alone

The non-governmental organisation, Common Cause, argues in its petition: “India is perhaps the only democratic country in the world where the dissemination of news and current affairs programmes on the radio remains a monopoly of the government-owned broadcaster. No other democratic country has similar curbs. None of the 14,000-plus radio stations in the United States, the 2,000-odd stations in Spain or the 1,000 plus stations each in Italy, France, Greece and Australia are barred from airing news and current affairs. In fact, many stations are solely news channels, including specialised ones for community radio.”

Why is it important to liberate broadcast news from government monopoly? What is the purpose of keeping broadcast alone under state control when the rest of the media ecology — 24X7 news channels and real time digital platforms are growing at an exponential speed? Why is the state scared of its own citizens articulating their views in their own media? There are theoretical answers that locate this paranoia of the state to the colonial imagination and the origins of a centralised radio during World War II.

When everyone’s words fly

It looks like the state is yet to understand the dynamics of community radio and its power to deepen our democratic institutions. How I wish the state listened to the Latin American broadcaster and author, José Ignacio Lopez Vigil. He expounded: “When radio fosters the participation of citizens and defends their interests; when it reflects the tastes of the majority and makes good humour and hope its main purpose; when it truly informs; when it helps resolve the thousand and one problems of daily life; when all ideas are debated in its programs and all opinions are respected; when cultural diversity is stimulated over commercial homogeneity; when women are main players in communication and not simply a pretty voice or a publicity gimmick; when no type of dictatorship is tolerated, not even the musical dictatorship of the big recording studios; when everyone's words fly without discrimination or censorship, that is community radio.” I hope the apex court would come up with a verdict, as invigorating as its judgment on Section 66A, before the next phase of roll-out of FM stations and community radios.

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