Community radio enthusiasts and activists feel that they might just end up being solely a mouthpiece of the government instead of raising issues pertaining to the interests and needs of specific communities
The Supreme Court has asked the government to consider permitting private FM channels and community radio stations to air current affairs and news programmes on the basis of information available in public domain.
A bench of Chief Justice JS Khehar, Justice NV Ramana and Justice DY Chandrachud has said that it might not be feasible to give a free hand to private radio station to broadcast their own news as it might create “havoc” in sensitive areas like the north east and Jammu and Kashmir but they should be permitted to take the contents of newspapers and TV channels to broadcast them.
The bench also questioned the government on why AIR news should be forced on private radio stations and why they could not air contents of newspapers and TV channels as they were already being regulated by the center. The court was making this observation with regard to the recent order from the Information and Broadcasting ministry which said that community radio stations will be prohibited from airing their own news bulletins and should only broadcast news sourced exclusively from All India Radio.
The order, dated January 19, was rolled out just three days after a Supreme Court bench heard a writ petition filed by NGO Common Cause on the ban on news broadcast by private FM channels and community radio. The apex court had given four weeks time to the government to explain its orders passed between 2008 and 2013 stopping news and current affairs broadcasts on radio.
The government, in turn, has justified its decision to ban private FM and community radio stations from broadcasting news and current affairs programmes on the ground that granting permission could endanger national security and public order.
Expectedly, the order caused a furore among community radio enthusiasts and activists, since getting to broadcast original news bulletins has been their long-standing demand. They feel that after the order is implemented, community radio stations might just end up being solely a mouthpiece of the government instead of raising issues pertaining to the interests and needs of specific communities.
Dr Vipul Mudgal, Director of Common Cause, believes that communities could do wonders if they are allowed to and not suspected. He says that the government needs to trust the communities instead of presupposing things. “The moment you centralise community radio, you nullify the whole idea behind it,” says Mudgal.
He further adds that it should be left to the communities to decide what’s best for them and the state can always issue guidelines, monitor the stations and impose valid restrictions, if needed. “It’s one thing that you allow them to do their own current affairs and discuss the issues that matter to them. And it’s quite another to expect them to do what the All India Radio programmes are already doing,” Mudgal points out.
Asked why the government does not want community radio stations to enjoy the kind of freedom they deserve, Mudgal says that the government appeared to be scared purely on the basis of hypothetical situations. He says: “It is their misinformation and misconceptions about the concept of community radio that has lead to such an order and it’s high time that the state should start respecting the communities and let them be the masters of their destiny. The government should stop being so thin-skinned that they stop accepting any form of soft descent.”
Though the press has been given a power under Article 19 (1), for freedom of speech and expression, this right is not unlimited. It is not absolute. It can be checked by the State for reasonable restriction, as mentioned in clause 2 of article 19.
The suggestion of not letting private FM channels and community radio stations broadcast news was made only to protect the interest of the country; however Supreme Court asked the state to form some guidelines by which the same is allowed. The government has to consider some mechanism by which it allows private players to enter the market without putting the state’s integrity at stake.
All these guidelines formed by the state are made keeping in mind the constitution of the country. The integrity of the state has to be taken into consideration while formulating any guideline which gives right to citizens and the press.
—As told by Advocate Shailendra Singh
Let’s go back in flashback to a Supreme Court Judgment of 1995. In its historic judgment, the apex court had said that Air Waves are a public property and they should only be used in the interest of the public.
This leads us to an important question as to whether air waves are really being used for public interest in the true sense or not? If News channels are to be considered, sensational journalism has become commonplace, so when there is no restrictions on the content they telecast, why is Community Radio facing such a step-motherly behaviour?
Air Waves are mostly purchased and controlled by either the State or large media houses, often backed by corporate organisations, which are way more powerful than the communities using community radio for the interest of their people.
Archana Kapoor is a community radio enthusiast and runs Radio Mewat. She thinks that the Supreme Court should go back to its 1995 judgment and open the space for public good. “Once the Supreme Court has said that air waves are public property, why does the government need to ban news on community radio and FM channels,” questions Kapoor. She also wonders that when there is no monitoring or control on the content telecast by news channels, why is something which is in the hand of the community being targeted?
Speaking to India Legal, she emphasises that the communities and community radio stations have never resisted being monitored and it is the government’s flaw that there is no regulatory framework or monitoring system to keep a watch on what’s being broadcast. She also highlights that community radio owners are often faced with taunts from the Ministry about the fact that the private players spend crores of rupees to get bandwidths while they have to pay just Rupees 19,500 to get a license. This could possibly be one of the many reasons behind the negligent attitude of the government towards community radio stations.
Kapoor is also aghast at the kind of content that one listens to on private FM channels these days. She says: “They carry all kind of irreverent stuff such as sexual innuendos, slapstick comedy, political satires but still there is no ban on their content, whereas community radio stations, which are restrictive in their own policy and are only confined to serious issues like development, positive stories about local heroes, disseminating information about government schemes and raise concerns of the community, have to face such a step-motherly attitude from the establishment.”
She further adds: “On one hand, our Prime Minister is talking about making radio more interactive and on the other, community radio stations and private FM channels are still not being allowed to air their original news stories.” Kapoor said that community radio stations are never comfortable in broadcasting news items which they don’t believe in and has a stern belief that community radio stations are only answerable to the community.
The order from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry says: “Private FM channels and community radio stations shall not broadcast any programmes which relate to news and current affairs and are otherwise political in nature.” Kapoor disagrees and feels that news and current affairs are an integral part of any democracy even internationally and as far as the political nature of the news is concerned, she thinks that politics is a part of everybody’s daily life. “How can one not talk politics in a healthy democracy? When you are telling people to go out and vote, isn’t it political in nature? Everything has to do with politics at the end of it. Even Gram Panchayats are political bodies and if you can talk about them on radio, then isn’t it political?”
While on one hand, the government is increasing the number of AIR substations, on the other, they are asking community radio stations to air the same bulletins. Since the AIR bulletins are already available even in the remotest parts of the country, the advice seems pointless. The move may lead to disempowering of community radio from being an effective media tool to raise the issues of communities. For the village democracy, community radio is a desperate need and its role in developing countries has time and again been welcomed by the UNESCO.
India’s neighbour Nepal has far more number of community radio stations which have proven to be of immense help during the times of natural disasters and calamities. Had India been host to more community radio stations, a lot of lives could have been saved during the earthquake in Uttarakhand and other natural disasters that have hit the nation in the past.
At present, 281 private FM channels are operational in 84 cities and the government has decided to e-auction 839 more channels in 294 cities. But community radio stations are just a handful in number. The center has so far granted permission for 519 community radio stations, out of which 201 are operational. Even out of these 201, most of the community radio stations are run by educational institutions which are vetted by the government, thus leaving only a miniscule number of community radio stations being run by NGOs. Why is the government of such a large and vibrant democracy scared of a few NGOs?
Centralising community radio seems monolith. The government says it is difficult to monitor community radio, but the fact of the matter is that every community radio station is mandated to save up to 90 days of recording which could be easily inspected. If communities are asking for their share, what’s wrong in it? Even if community radio stations fail to abide by the guidelines, they can always be monitored, corrected and penalised. Imposing restrictions without even giving them a chance would only silence the voice of the poor and marginalised, thus creating a spiral of silence around the issues which various communities have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.