Community media are avenues owned, operated and accessed by communities, and serve as forces that democratise media landscapes. South Asia is home to some of the most vulnerable sections of the world’s population, glaring socio-economic inequalities, intra-state conflicts, among other issues. In a region that boasts of plurality of ethnicities, languages, cultures, religions, political systems and ways of life, community media serve as sites for negotiating identities, free expression and preservation of pluralism. The region’s experiences with community media reflects this diversity, as well. These range from community radio sectors that have adopted diverse trajectories to community video initiatives that tap into new audio-visual technologies, community newspapers to other hybrid grassroot experiments drawing on the potential of the mobile phone and the internet.
India is home to about 170 community radio stations today, majority of which are run by educational institutions, is grappling with a Community Radio Policy that is over a decade old. Despite having the oldest community radio policy in the South Asian region, the growth of the sector in India has much room for improvement. Bureaucratic procedures, the formidable setting-up costs, and the demands of building people’s capacities for broadcasting, among other things, have been thwarting the growth of community radio in the country. The country is also home to community video initiatives like Video Volunteers, SEWA Video, Deccan Development Society’s Video by Women and others, that capture stories and lived experiences of communities on film. Digital initiatives like the award-winning CGNetSwara and Gram Vaani exploit the democratising power of the mobile phone and internet.
Nepal’s tryst with community radio presents a picture that contrasts with that of India’s. The country’s community radio sector thrived in the midst of the decade-long intra-state conflict that the Himalayan nation grappled with between 1996 and 2006. Today, the country has over 200 community radio stations on air, but the absence of a policy dedicated to the community radio sector is rather conspicuous.
Sri Lanka’s legacy of community radio dates to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when international organisations like the DANIDA and UNESCO set up initial experiments in the country. However, these initiatives remain community-based broadcasting experiments, with the state Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation refusing to allow for independent community broadcasting. Recent attempts in Sri Lanka to promote independent community radio broadcasting, internet radio initiatives and short-lived experiments promoted by organisations like the World Bank are perhaps testimonies to a growing desire for community media avenues in the island-nation.
Bangladesh, with 15 CR stations on air and 15 more in the pipeline, has been treading a cautious path. In a country that has been in the news for exploitative labour conditions, the focus on poverty and development extends itself to the community radio sector as well. By virtue of being prone to natural disasters, the community radio sector is also seen as a site for addressing issues of disaster mitigation and management by the country’s CR Policy. In addition to this, the Bangladesh Network for NGOs in Radio and Communication (BNNRC) has now mooted the idea of community television in the country.
The other countries in the region have had limited trysts with community media. The Himalayan country of Bhutan is now experimenting with one campus radio station. A feasibility study to understand the need for community radio in the country has also been conducted. There have been conversations in the Maldives, about possibilities for opening up the community radio sector. Pakistan, though home to pirate radios on the North West Frontier Province and a few campus station run by the universities and colleges, has seen no real effort to embrace community radio in its spirit. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has seen community radio initiatives brought in by Internews, in the midst of the occupation of the country by the United States and NATO forces.
South Asia’s experiences with community media have only begun, and the road ahead is replete with the promise of pluralism and diverse possibilities.
SANCOM will advocate, exchange information, share capacities and document policy changes occurring in the member countries.