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Community Radio and Social Change

By Jean Parker

Does media in armed conflict do more to save lives or do its actions and attitudes cost lives? This, was one of many questions posed by those who attended of the 2003 General Assembly of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, (AMARC), held in Katmandu, Nepal in February 2003.

AMARC, is a worldwide association of community radio stations and producers who understand the importance of community radio in development. The idea of radio being produced by members of the community for that community is used by free press advocates to involve ordinary people in creating and disseminating programs of relevance to them. as opposed to state-sponsored radio or corporate owned networks deciding what the listeners will hear.

Throughout the developing world, community radio has been used to provide information to farmers, women's groups, and other marginalized people. It is used to educate children and adults in remote locations, teach and preserve languages. Its ability to inform and educate populations without access to independent information is boundless.

The positive place of community radio in peace-building was also discussed along with its responsibility to provide accurate information for people in areas of armed conflict. Since most of the delegates came from places where war is a reality, this discussion was especially relevant.

The importance of radio as a medium for communicating with people in rural areas where there is no access to electricity and where most people don't read and write, was an important part of the discussion. Those technically minded, talked about alternative ways to bring power to their radio transmitters and how to stay on the air during emergency power cuts; others discussed the importance of using radio to inform people about accessing clean water and educating their girl children.

Other sessions addressed covering sensitive family issues in traditional conservative cultures so that education and positive change can take place. Matters of rape, HIV and sex education are not discussed openly in many cultures.

Community radio broadcasters have diverse experiences with government resistance depending on how open their governments are to such independent broadcasting. Countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh where the government has until now been unwilling to grant licenses for community radio stations are a contrast to Nepal and the Philippines where such broadcasts are integral components of many communities. However, even in these locations community radio faces a constant struggle with governments who claim security concerns with the broadcasters because of the close link to social change. But broadcasters say that in many places the community radio station is so popular there would certainly be security concerns if they were shut down. Still, community radio operates within the context of national governments.

One group in Bangladesh is addressing government mistrust by combining community radioactivity with amateur radio providing emergency communications during natural disasters. The strategy is working to convince the authorities that non-state radio can be responsible and benefit the community.

Most of the world hasn't the luxury of free expression. People depend on state sponsored radio for information and this is particularly dangerous in wartime. Entire populations are manipulated by state-run propaganda machines. People in these places desperately want their own independent media. The premise of community radio is that the airwaves belong to everyone and should be used to promote social change and development.

Progress is being made. The discussions and debates about how to sustain community radio in the face of increasing world hostility resulted in creative thinking. The use of "participatory listening groups," where many people gather in one location to hear a broadcast was highlighted as an important innovation. These are especially useful with Internet transmissions. Although the trend is toward low-powered FM radio stations, Internet usage is increasing.

Many broadcasters work under extreme conditions with little equipment, irregular access to electricity and in situations of war. Sometimes transmitters are destroyed by opposition groups or hostile governments. Strategies were discussed about how to notify influential colleagues when threats to media freedom occur.

Because of the meeting's location, most participants were from Asia and Africa. Women were strongly represented and it was proposed that the next AMARC meeting should be in the Middle East, where independent community radio is practically unheard of. 

Finally, concerns were raised about the danger that as community radio becomes more accepted around the world it could be co-opted by institutions seeking control of what goes on the air, and once again people would only hear what someone else wants them to hear.

Jean Parker is the co-founder and Director of Empowerment Productions, based in Denver Colorado, USA
E-mail: global3@concentric.net 

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