India is host to about 170 community radio stations spread across the length and breadth of the country. The movement for community broadcasting had its roots in the late 1990s when activists and community members worked together to leverage a crucial 1995 Supreme Court judgment declaring airwaves to be public property. After a decade of sustained advocacy, the government opened up community broadcasting to educational institutions in 2003-04. Two years later, on November 16, 2006, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting released guidelines on community radio – opening up the airwaves to non-profit organizations and Krishi Vigyan Kendras, in addition to educational institutions.
By 2008, several non-profit organizations and many more educational institutions were broadcasting under a community radio license. As per the policy guidelines, this license was to be valid for a period of five years only. However, the guidelines had no mention of a procedure or mechanism by way of which existing radio stations could seek extension or renewal of their licenses.
In 2013-14, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to recommend mechanisms through which existing and potential community radio stations could renew their licenses. TRAI put up a Consultation paper dated May 21, 2014 to seek views from stakeholders. Several civil society organizations, individuals, representative associations and broadcasting radio stations provided their views following which TRAI organized an Open House Discussion on July 3. Finally, after considering views of various stakeholders, >TRAI released its recommendations on community radio on August 29 . It is only the second time that TRAI has made recommendations on community radio, the previous one being in 2004.
While TRAI produced these recommendations primarily to look at the question of license renewal, it has also assumed the advisory role of giving recommendations on whether community radio should be allowed to broadcast news and current affairs, guidelines for establishment of community radio in emergency areas and advertisement duration and rates for community radio.
TRAI has made relatively conservative and unsurprising recommendations, mostly voicing what the political class has already expressed at various fora since the new government was formed in May. On the critical issue of news and current affairs, TRAI has recommended that Community Radio stations should be allowed to re-broadcast news from All India Radio and also translate the news into local language/dialect without distorting the content. On the issue of license renewal, TRAI has recommended that incumbent stations can be given renewal for a period of five years, after which extension would be subject to self-evaluation reports that could be verified. TRAI has also recommended an e-governance enabled single window mechanism for applicants since the current process is overly cumbersome and bureaucratic. Finally, TRAI has recommended that the current advertisement duration of five minutes per hour of broadcast be continued. However, it has recommended that the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) should not insist that its rates for community radio be the lowest or exclusive.
News and current affairs on FM has been a prickly topic of discussion for both the regulator and the Ministry. Commercial FM and community radio are the only two sectors in the media that are not allowed news, and incidentally also are the only two private (i.e. non-State) sectors that are analogue terrestrial service providers. TRAI has reasoned that there is scope for misuse and misleading information may be broadcast in the guise of local news. Moreover since commercial FM is not allowed to broadcast news, TRAI has reasoned that it would be unfair to allow community radio to broadcast news. TRAI has said that the provision for self-generated news can be reviewed once Ministry of I& B sets up an operational monitoring system.
Notwithstanding the thinly guised contempt for community radio (after all would anyone ask these questions of private commercial radio or television channels?), this reasoning is deeply flawed. Firstly, this recommendation betrays a lack of trust in communities. If communities can be trusted to operate a FM transmitter and broadcast a wide range of programmes for so many years without any monitoring system, then it is baffling how the same communities may ‘misuse’ or provide ‘misleading information in the guise of local news’. It is obvious that any such transgressions would be subject to the law of the land.
Secondly, TRAI is being a bit too optimistic about the online internet-based monitoring system set up by I&B Ministry. TRAI is referring to the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre. MIB plans to make it mandatory for every community radio to have an Internet connection so that the audio broadcast is simultaneously streamed online. This stream of audio will be monitored in the EMMC office in Delhi. There are many community radio stations that are struggling to find a reliable supply of electricity, let alone broadband internet, to upload audio feed. Further, community radio stations broadcast in a bewildering and impressive variety of local languages and dialects. It is highly unlikely that the EMMC staff will be able to follow and understand what is being broadcast by all these stations. Finally, these programmes are being broadcast on a local FM transmitter. By the time someone from EMMC realizes that there is something objectionable, it would be too late. Thus, the monitoring system is in effect post-facto and can only (in the best of circumstances) be used to provide warnings etc. In no way can the monitoring system prevent misuse.
Thirdly, TRAI has denied community radio the right to broadcast news, because commercial radio does not have it either. Rather than recommending that both sectors be allowed to broadcast news (thus creating a level playing field), TRAI has endorsed the government’s position that both be disallowed news. Not only is this recommendation unfair to community radio it is also unfair to commercial radio.
The right to freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right enshrined under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. The free flow of opinion, and to express one’s ideas is a universally declared and recognized human right. By denying community radio stations the right to broadcast news, the government is also effectively denying its citizens the right to hear news, views and ideas. To deny these rights by anticipating misuse is to unreasonably exceed the restrictions provided in the Constitution. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a PIL filed by Common Cause questioning the restriction on broadcast of news by commercial and community radio stations.
TRAI has concluded correctly, albeit on limited evidence, that many of the operational community radio stations are not able to mobilize the five minutes of advertising that they are allowed per hour of broadcast time. In such a scenario, the regulator said, there is no need for increasing the duration of advertisements. While this recommendation is perfectly logical, it signals the need for radically rethinking how community radio stations can be sustainable. Even limited evidence collected by TRAI is indicative that advertising is not generating revenues for community radio. Community radios tend to broadcast (in most cases) to low-income audiences. The content of these radios tend to be development oriented and generally unfriendly or irrelevant to products, lifestyles etc. For this reason, advertisers do not find community radio stations to be attractive options – even if community radio stations offer rock-bottom low rates and/or may have massive listenership in terms of numbers. While community radio has various objectives, profiteering or promoting the market is definitely not one of them. This internal contradiction not only reveals the inability of advertising as a model, but the need to rethink various other ways in which community radio can sustain itself.
The TRAI recommendations serve as a timely reminder to the various ills that plague and prevent the equitable growth of the community radio sector. One hopes that all stakeholders, including all citizens who believe in their right to free flow of ideas and opinions in the public sphere, will come together to promote a more equitable and just pathway for this sector in India.
(Vinod Pavarala is UNESCO Chair on Community Media at University of Hyderabad. Ram Bhat is the founder of Maraa, a Bangalore-based media and arts collective.)