‘Ban on broadcasting news should be lifted’, says Prof. Vinod Pavarala

Edited _vinod-pavarala-300x199 (1)It is important to revisit the policy to make Community Radio more progressive and enabling, as the new policy will be based on the learnings from the past, says Vinod Pavarala, UNESCO chair on Community Media.

OneWorld: In the past eight years since the last revision of the Community Radio policy, do you think the Community Radio policy is in a desperate need for revision under the present circumstances and what should be the focus of this revision?

Prof. Vinod Pavarala: ​The major achievement of the last revision of the policy in 2006 was only to widen the ambit of Community Radio to its true character by including NGOs among those who are eligible to apply for a licence.

Policy making is always an incremental process, based on learning’s of the past. In that sense, it is time to revisit the policy to make it more progressive and enabling, especially addressing four key issues.

First, the most important change, in my mind, would be to lift the ban on broadcasting of news.  This is in complete contradiction of India’s professed principles of and constitutional provisions for freedom of expression. No where else in the world is news prohibited on Community Radio. News and information are the lifeblood of any community-based media. We should trust the existing laws and safeguards and permit communities to broadcast news on Community Radio, thus making it a truly democratic medium.

Second, the policy should make a special mention of reaching out to areas under-served by mainstream media, and facilitate the issuing of licenses to organizations working in the more marginalized regions of the country.

Third, while the current Policy Guidelines provide for the possibility of transmitter power higher than the permissible 100 W ERP, it has never been actively considered. The policy must be changed to provide for this option for Community Radio Stations that are sought to be established in hilly/mountainous terrain or in desert regions with scattered human settlements.

Fourth, it may be worthwhile to consider campus (educational) Community Radio Stations as a sub-category of the Community Radio license, with a more flexible content mandate.  The developmental content that is mandated for Community Radio in general may be made optional in case of stations run primarily by young people in educational institutions to allow for more dynamism and creativity in programming.  Of course, stations run by campuses may still choose to devote their broadcast time to community development issues.

OneWorld: What is your view on the recommendations made by TRAI on the licence renewal procedures of Community Radio Stations where in GOPA renewals would be extended for a period of five years after an initial period of five years?

Prof. Pavarala: I think the TRAI recommendations on license renewal procedures are very acceptable. The first renewal for a period of 5 years is to be done almost automatically unless there is any evidence of violation of the terms and conditions of the initial license. This is quite fair.

TRAI’s suggestion is that the second renewal (after 10 years of the station’s existence) be based on some kind of performance evaluation. This is also reasonable, but the operative term in TRAI’s recommendation is ‘self-evaluation’. I hope the use of already existing toolkits and methodologies developed in the sector for self-assessment and peer review could be deemed satisfactory instead of re-inventing the wheel or diluting the spirit of Community Radio by imposing any kind of external evaluation.

OneWorld: Do you think that the recommendations made by TRAI regarding the re-broadcast of news from All India Radio (AIR) displays a lack of trust on Community Radio Stations?

Prof. Pavarala: It seems like that. The recommendation to allow re-broadcasting of AIR news completely misses the point of Community Radio. It is not merely about well-meaning people broadcasting for the people, but it is about members of a given community communicating with each other in a horizontal process.

Community Radio globally is seen as occupying an independent third space, away from the state and the market channels. That very definition of Community Radio is undermined if it only parrots official news.​

Communities broadcasting (mostly local) news cannot possibly do more damage to public opinion than the multiplicity of private news media outlets (including foreign ones) that are currently allowed to broadcast.​

In fact, permitting independent production and broadcast of news by Community Radio will only enhance India’s democratic credentials and will help deepen media pluralism in the country.

OneWorld: In your views, how would the recommendation made by TRAI, regarding the relaxation of lowest rates provided by DAVP, add support to the sustainability factor of a Community Radio Stations?

Prof. Pavarala:​The Rs. 4 per second minimum rate prescribed by DAVP at present has become a millstone around the necks of Community Radio Stations, especially those that function in areas where there is not much of a market for advertising. ​TRAI has correctly recognized this issue and suggested that DAVP’s minimum rate be relaxed for Community Radio Stations.

I am not sure how much this will contribute to the sustainability of the Community Radio Stations, but it will enable many small traders and individuals in the listening area to buy time economically and thus participate in the Community Radio Station’s functioning.

OneWorld: The Authority has also recommended that MIB should establish an online ‘single window’ system that will re-engineer and integrate the entire Community Radio licensing process. Do you think this change would benefit the applicants and the stations and will the Wireless Planning & Coordination Wing (WPC) agree?

Prof. Pavarala: A single window for clearance of license applications is something that everyone in the sector has been suggesting for a very long time. Until now, in spite of MIB’s quick clearances, it requires applicants, to continue with the window analogy, to linger long at the WPC window, which is either shut on their faces or opens rarely.  ​Often it’s also difficult to tell which faces are lurking behind those closed windows. MIB and MICT need to sit down and figure out a way of integrating the various processes involved in the licensing to reduce the unreasonable times it presently takes to start a Community Radio Station in India.

Prof. Vinod Pavarala leads the UNESCO Chair on Community Media, a Professor of Communication at University of Hyderabad and he is also the founder member of the Community Radio Forum.