The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was obliged to sell off its transmission facilities through private industry tender some years ago, thanks to legislation introduced by the U.K. government, then headed by the Conservative Party, which planned to use the proceeds to swell the coffers of the state. However, a citizens' media-watch group, Voice of the Listener and Viewer (www.vlv.org.uk), successfully argued that since the public had paid for the transmitters through license fees, the sale proceeds should be returned to the public broadcaster. The government gave in and the BBC was richer by 200 million pounds sterling.
This was one of the all-too-rare success stories shared at a recent workshop on 'Citizens' Media: Promoting Citizens' Participation in Broadcasting,' organised by the Asia-Pacific Institute For Broadcasting Development (AIBD), in collaboration with UNESCO and the World Radio and Television Council (WRTVC), in Kuala Lumpur.
The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (www.friends.ca) experience was another positive story presented at the workshop. Entirely financed through voluntary contributions from 60,000 Canadian families (to the tune of US$ 1.4 million per annum), the organisation's mission is to defend and enhance the quality and quantity of Canadian programming as 'the first audio-visual colony of the United States' struggles to withstand the cultural onslaught from across the border. According to spokesperson Ian Morrison, the FCB (otherwise known as Friends) undertakes a variety of activities in pursuit of its goal. For instance, it recently completed a series of widely reported public meetings on Canadian control of media and communications and released a new, professionally conducted opinion survey on Canadian culture in the context of Canada/U.S. relations.
Hello OB-Van, a 30-year-old participatory radio programme that is still going strong in Germany, attracting 300,000 listeners spread across the North Rhine region, was yet another inspiring example highlighted during the workshop. Named after the multi-purpose van that airs the show from a different location every week, the programme -- now also shown on national television once a month -- resembles an outdoor town-hall meeting, its presenters interacting with citizens in a public space on topics chosen by the audience (some 1500 subjects at last count).
These examples illustrate some of the ways in which and levels at which the interface between citizens and the media can and occasionally do take place in different parts of the world: intervention in policy, monitoring and advocacy, and meaningful participation in programmes.
The purpose of the Citizen's Media workshop, the first of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region, was to review the current situation regarding the place and role of citizens in relation to the media in general and broadcasting in particular, and to discuss the possibility of constructive dialogue between civil society, broadcasters and media regulatory authorities. As the organisers stressed, the issue of citizens' rights vis a vis the media has become critical in view of the extraordinary growth of mass media, the emergence of new media and the media's consequent, unprecedented position of influence in the world today.
As Javad Jabbar of Pakistan, chairperson of the South Asia Media Association, Karachi, said during the workshop, the media now wield enormous power and yet remain largely unaccountable, often in the name of freedom of expression. He presented a list outlining citizens' rights as well as responsibilities in this context, which was adopted as a draft charter by the 40 participants from 22 countries in the Asia Pacific region, Europe and North America. (See workshop recommendations below.)
According to VLV's 'Guidelines for the Promotion of Citizen Participation in Broadcasting,' circulated at the workshop, 'A strong relationship between the nation's broadcasters and its citizens provides one of the means for withstanding threats to national identity implicit in market pressures and in multinational media corporations' capacity to introduce globalisation and cultural homogenisation. The promotion of a constructive dialogue between citizens and broadcasters is therefore vital. The exact terms in which that dialogue will be conducted will vary from one society to another. The underlying principle, however, must be one of mutual trust: first, trust by the broadcasters that the public will understand the practical constraints under which the broadcaster operates ' and, secondly, trust by the public that the broadcaster will treat the dialogue seriously, not exploiting it as an opportunity to promote their public relations while failing to recognise any obligations towards accountability and good governance.'
It was clear from both presentations and discussions at the workshop that the situation of both the media and citizens in the many countries in the Asia-Pacific region -- with DIVerse political and media systems -- presented many challenges and some opportunities.
There is, of course, the familiar problem of public service broadcasters that are state controlled and thereby highly vulnerable to political pressure. As Kishali Pinto Jayawardena of Sri Lanka, deputy director of the Law and Society Trust, Colombo, said, the crucial relationship between broadcasters and citizens cannot be healthy as long as the broadcasting regime is subject to governmental control and interference. Structural reform of the domestic broadcasting regime (vis a vis the independence of the public broadcaster as well as the basis on which licenses of private broadcasters are issued) must be among the first objectives of a process aiming to promote civil society participation in broadcasting, she said.
In Sri Lanka, as in India, Supreme Court judgements have upheld not only citizens' right to freedom of expression but also the important principle that the airwaves/frequencies constitute public property and are to be used to benefit the public, with governments functioning primarily as trustees for the public. According to Jayawardena, it is up to citizens to use these progressive judgements to secure their rights and, especially, to ensure that media are independent and impartial.
The problem of democratic deficit is an even more fundamental challenge to citizens' participation in the media in the region. Isa Saharkhiz of Iran, editor-in-chief and manager of Aftab magazine, Tehran, underscored the importance of democracy to any kind of citizen involvement in the media, citing the example of his own country. According to him, the liberal policies introduced by the popularly elected, reformist government that came into power in 1997 led to an upsurge in media proliferation and journalistic activity. Not only did the new openness encourage journalists who had left the scene on account of censorship and political pressure to return to the profession, but scholars and specialists in various fields began to contribute to the media. In addition, once citizens had witnessed and experienced the reality of political freedom, they also began to participate in the media more actively as contributors, sources of information and opinion, and audiences.
The situation changed dramatically in 2000, following the judicial clamp-down on the independent, pro-reforms media, which led to the shutting down of 20 newspapers and magazines within 40 hours. Since then more than 100 publications have been closed, and a large number of journalists, including senior editors and publishers, have been prosecuted and imprisoned. Self-censorship has naturally increased, and many journalists have quit the profession. The bottom line, according to Saharkhiz, is that democracy and freedom of expression are 'absolute prerequisites for meaningful, dynamic media activity and the promotion of citizens' participation in broadcasting.'
A different note of caution was sounded by Atmakusumah Astraatmadja of Indonesia, executive director of the Soetomo Press Institute, Jakarta. According to him, the advent of democracy in 1998 was catalysed by an unprecedented growth of media - both print and broadcast -- in his country, too. However, he pointed out, the termination of an authoritarian national regime does not necessarily end all pressures on the media. For instance, threats still come through local governments using legal measures based on a 50-year-old 'emergency law.' They also exist in the form of violent protests against and threats to journalists and media outlets from members of various organisations, including some representing religious communities or movements. Such censorship by mob, or street censorship - increasingly common in India, too -- is clearly not the kind of citizen participation the workshop was designed to encourage.
On a happier note, community media clearly represent an important avenue for citizens' participation in broadcasting. As Steve Buckley, president of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), put it, 'community-based, independent media with social rather than commercial objectives' provide a necessary alternative to the two dominant, often opposing, media forms prevalent across the world: public and private. According to him, at present country-level legislative and regulatory frameworks, and associated spectrum planning, remain the most persistent obstacles to the establishment and growth of this third option, although recent developments in several parts of the world indicate a trend towards the opening up of the airwaves.
Unlike the situation in India, where the government is only now -- slowly and hesitantly -- formulating policy to make the dream of community radio a reality, and Sri Lanka, where community broadcasting has not yet been effectively delinked from the state broadcasting system, in Nepal community radio has slowly but surely come into its own since the introduction of parliamentary democracy, with seven stations already on air.
The country appears to be surging ahead with FM radio, too, with 53 independent channels run by DIVerse groups, ranging from commercial enterprises to non-governmental organisations. According to Manisha Aryal, executive director of the Antenna Foundation, Kathmandu (a production house which buys time on Radio Nepal for its programmes and also provides uncensored versions to other stations), even commercial stations are beginning to include public interest programming in their schedules.
In another inspiring story of citizen participation, Aryal spoke of the 900 Listeners' Clubs spread across the country, each with memberships of up to a dozen teenagers and young adults, most of them male. The Foundation provides them with audio-tapes of programmes, which are played at village fairs, in long-distance buses, and so on, and they return the favour by remaining in regular communication and, especially, sending feedback about the programmes and their reception by various audiences.
Clearly there are many lessons in all these experiences for countries across the region. In addition there are a few others that may need to be taken on board in this context. One such lesson is, surely, that 'citizens' do not constitute a homogenous category.
Take, for example, the popular television programmes based on 'audience participation.' Diversity does not appear to be a criterion for the selection of participants, at least in India. As a result, 'the people' in the studios are hardly representative of the multiple classes, castes, ethnic and religious communities, languages and educational levels that make up the Indian population - nor, for that matter, is there much variation in their geographical location, with 'national' programmes remaining largely Delhi-centric. What is more, the air-time provided to 'ordinary people' in the studio is usually just a fraction of that allotted to celebrity or specialist participants.
Further, in the era of mass media as the new opiate of the middle classes, when even news programmes and channels have succumbed to the infotainment imperative, little attention is paid to the DIVersity of interests and concerns that exists even within the urban middle classes. It is not surprising, therefore, that even programmes apparently open to public participation currently reflect little DIVersity in content or perspective.
Another important lesson is that citizens' participation in media matters cannot be secured through lip service or token gestures.
Take, for example, recent developments in media policy in India. In April, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which is now the designated regulator for the broadcast sector as well, issued two consultation papers, ostensibly to seek inputs from 'stakeholders.' The first, dated 14 April, related to the second phase of private FM radio broadcasting, and the second, dated 20 April, to various issues concerning broadcasting and the distribution of television channels. Both were posted on the TRAI website. Neither was widely publicised.
Chapter 5 of the 64-page former document lists 19 issues for consideration; yet the deadline for comments was up in just three weeks, on 7 May. Chapter 7 of the 99-page second document also highlights for discussion a number of issues relating to the controversial Conditional Access System, competition in and pricing of cable services, advertisements on television, and customer service.
Towards the end of the month the website announced a series of open house discussions in three cities (Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai) between 7 and 15 May 'to seek inputs from the public in formulating policy in the following areas of broadcasting: FM Radio, Cable and Broadcasting Services, and Unified Licensing.' The 'public hearings,' which were to be held in city hotels, were not well publicised either.
In any case it is not clear what could be achieved through one-day consultations in three metropolises, each comprising a one-hour session on FM radio and a one and a half hour one on Cable and Broadcasting Services. Only Delhi and Mumbai were treated to a second day of deliberations, this time on Unified Licensing (two and a half hours) and Limits on the Number of Tariff Plans (one hour). In addition to these limitations, the announcement heralding the open houses included a caveat: 'In view of the large number of persons likely to attend (the Consultation on Broadcasting and Cable Services) and in order to make the Consultation meaningful, admission to this Consultation would be restricted to those who have been sent invitations.' So much for citizen participation.
However, if there is one message that emerged from this preliminary Citizens' Media workshop it is a positive one, calling for public action to assert and activate citizens' right to be acknowledged as stakeholders in the media, to influence media policy, to shape media content and to be represented in the media. For this, civil society first needs to recognise that media and culture are matters of public interest about which citizens must be both concerned and proactive. As Buckley put it, 'It is increasingly important that we, as citizens, articulate a broader perspective (on media) and build coalitions for the defence of culture and linguistic DIVersity, for progressive communications reform, and for the extension of communication rights.'