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Community Radio Preparedness in Bangladesh: Progress and Scopes for Action

Author's name: 
S M Shameem Reza, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism , University of Dhaka
Dhaka, Bangladesh

Community Radio Preparedness in Bangladesh
Progress and Scopes for Action

Introduction
Radio frequencies are internationally recognized as the common heritage of humanity by the Torremolinis Treaty of the International Telecommunication Union and by the Article 33 of the international Telecommunication Convention. Like other democratic governments, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) is aware of its responsibility to administer this limited source, so that the frequencies are equitably distributed and targeted towards the wellbeing of people, particularly the poor and marginalized.

Bangladesh has experienced the success of Bangladesh Betar, sate-run radio in the country’s development initiatives, socio-cultural, political and economic growth and national integration. Over decades, radio has been playing a key role in family planning campaign, disaster preparedness and promotion of democratic values and practices including voter education. Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra’s contributions in the process of making of a nation have been appreciated historically.

There are however limitations in the operation and reach of mainstream radio to cater for the needs of various segments of population, particularly community people. In order to overcome the practical constraints faced by national broadcasting services, community radio stations (CRS) were established in different countries of the world, such as in Nepal, India and the Philippines. Key movements for community radio, carried out by NGOs and civil society groups in Bangladesh advocated for a model of community-based broadcasting which would help reduce poverty, eliminate social exclusion, empower the marginalized rural groups and encourage active participation of disadvantaged sections of population in implementing the development agenda. With a view to addressing crucial social issues at community level, GoB approved the “Community Radio Installation, Broadcast and Operation Policy 2008” (Bangladesh Gazette, 12 March 2008). This policy is one of the most comprehensively written community radio policies in Asia.

Community Radio for Change
As mentioned earlier, it is the responsibility of the state as well as the government concerned that the administration of the limited resources, such as those of the frequencies are distributed to the various sections of the society equitably. The distributions and management of such resources are materialized through the adoption of appropriate policies and effective implementation of the strategies. Processes of liberalization have made it imperative for GoB to take necessary policy steps to make a conducive media environment where the equitable growth of public service, commercial sector and community broadcasting are ensured. Bangladesh experience suggests that a greater consensus and political commitment are vital for a national broadcast policy to address the challenges of the above three tiers of broadcast media.

Agenda for Change
The Election Manifesto of Bangladesh Awami League (AL), which is widely known as “A Charter for Change” recognizes the freedom of media and information. The charter states that freedom of all types of mass media and flow of information will be ensured. Regarding CR, it clearly says, “Initiatives will be taken for community radio services, besides national radio network” (Article 19.1; Election Manifesto 2008, p. 17). The present democratically elected government has already taken measures to materialize the promises it made in relation to freedom of information and providing citizens the benefits of information and communication technologies. Right to Information Act (RTIA) 2009 came into effect with the gazette notification published by the government on the 6th of April 2009. This information law overrides inconsistent provisions in other laws which obstruct peoples’ right and access to public information. With a view to building an information and knowledge-based society, the government also passed the National ICT Policy 2009 in July 2009.

In order to achieve the goals of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) in Bangladesh radio can contribute effectively. CR, in particular can play not only supportive roles in achieving the targets, but also can contribute to creating new opportunities of development. CRS can broadcast programmes on issues which will have impact on activities relating to the eradication of extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, combating HIV/AIDS, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing international partnership for development.

Progress in Brief Broadcasting of community Radio Stations (CRS) is yet to start in Bangladesh. Installation and operation of the stations are depending on how the quickly the departments concerned responsible for providing clearance and distributions of frequencies have made their decisions about the short-listed applications. As far as we know, the MoI received around 200 applications for setting up CRS in different parts of the country, of which 116 were recommended by the National Regulatory Committee for necessary clearance. After necessary formalities have been completed, Ministry of Home has started giving clearance to MoI. We are now hoping that MoI will do the needful to finalize the process.

Box 1: Community Radio approval and progress so far

• To materialize CR Policy, MoI formed three committees – National Regulatory Committee, Technical Sub-Committee and Central Monitoring Committee. The committees were with specific ToR.

• Emphasis has been placed on the access to information and awareness building at the grass root level through community radio. [“Promoting Good Governance Matrix” in National Strategy for Accelerated Poverty Reduction – 2 FY 2009-11 (PRS 2), Steps towards Change].

• Minister, MoI informs that community radio will start soon at local (Upazila/Zila) levels [Question-answer session of the Bangladesh Parliament (star question No. 648; 8 October 2009)].

BNNRC demonstrated CRS for training purpose. So far, it has demonstrated twice – (BTRC) World Telecom Day 2009 and at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI).

• Center for e-Parliament Research (CEPR) has joined the CR movement. Collectively operated campaigns may be used in making bridges between people, parliament and government in Bangladesh.

• Promoting government services in the costal areas through community radio [“Costal Development Strategy and Priority Investment Programme” under National Costal Policy 2005, Ministry of Water Resources].

In response to a question raised by Mr. Zunaid Ahmed Polok, honourable MP from Natore-3 in a session of the Bangladesh Parliament (Thursday, 8 October, 2009), Mr. Abul Kalam Azad, Honourable Minister, MoI informs that the government is taking initiatives for introducing upazila/zila-based community radio. It now appears that Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) will be able to allocate frequencies to the CR initiators once MoI has issued final approval.

Major Challenges
Despite government policy guidelines and a number of steps taken, establishing CR still remains a challenge. According to Citizen Charter, MoI would be able to receive and process CR application in every six months, but the first round of applications received more than a year ago is still under process. Considering it as an outstanding challenge, government should act immediately, so that other obstacles, which are likely to hamper the growth of CR in Bangladesh can be dealt with.

In order to make a socio-economic assessment of the area where the proposed CRS will be established and to know about the readiness and community engagement, BNNRC with the help of Free Voice has completed a baseline study. This recently completed study (2009) identified some challenges, which include:

a) Experiences of some CR initiators may not be sufficient enough for operating CRS;
b) Initially, most of the organizations will require technical support or assistance from expert organizations;
c) It will take some time for the organizations to make people interested in CR as they are not yet fully aware of the benefits of community broadcasting;
d) In rural areas, people in general do not have access to radio in terms of their participation.
There are some limitations in the CRS policy itself, such as the provisions of advertisements, composition and responsibilities of Administrative Committee and Management Committee. There is also a need of developing a monitoring and evaluation framework. Sustainability of CRS after phasing out NGO or donor support may remain a challenge (Reza 2008). However, once CR will come into operation, needs will be reassessed and lapses both in the policy and management will be identified for remedy.

Preparedness of Key Actors
We have already mentioned the actions taken so far by the ministries and departments concerned of GoB, which are responsible to taking measures to arrange permission for enabling the broadcasting of CRS. MoI is going to conduct a comprehensive strategy on CR, which will be supported by UNICEF Bangladesh.

Civil society initiatives have been crucial over the last one decade or more in carrying out advocacy movements as well as building awareness of the benefits of CRS. Some of them conducted primary needs assessments with limited scopes, while others have been active in preparing an operational framework of CRS.

As mentioned earlier one of the NGOs have already conducted a large-scale baseline survey. It also established a Community Radio Academy (CRA) for maintaining standard of CR. CRA would contribute to the capacity building, research and development and technical cooperation of CR initiators.

Scope for Action
Taking into account the challenges to the intended development of CR and capitalizing on the readiness of the government, civil society organization (CRS) and community people the space for actions can be divided some three broader categories:

1. Capacity Building
2. Technical Cooperation
3. Research and Development
4. Policy and Enabling Environment
5. Cross-cutting issues
6. Campaign and Advocacy

Box 2: Areas for forward looking strategies

Areas Themes/issues to be taken care of
Capacity building CRS management, financial management, programme content, programme exchange, programme genres, national media and communication policies, strategic use of radio as a medium and channel of communication.
Technical Cooperation CR technology, ICT

Research and Development CR operation and performance monitoring and evaluation, needs assessments, baseline surveys, setting up and running training academy, audience research and feedback mechanism.
Policy and Enabling Environment Making a monitoring and evaluation framework and creating Community Radio Development Trust Fund.
Cross-cutting Issues, policies and code of conduct in CR broadcasting and operation relating to women, ethnic groups and children, for example.
Campaign and Advocacy Building awareness, identifying policy recommendations, making code of conduct, editorial guideline, advocacy planning, lobbying, dialogues and consultations after the pilot phase.

Way forward

Much have been discussed and written on the local and national implications of CR since the public discourses emerged in 1998 as a result of an application to MoI seeking permission to establish a CRS. CSOs have been able to convince the government policy makers that CR would be one of the most useful tools in supporting national, local and community-based development initiatives. Community broadcasting would encourage the participation of women and marginalized, for example. CRS would work as a people-oriented media to promote indigenous knowledge and local culture, explain development services and economic opportunities, and contribute to consensus building on environmental sustainability.

CRS’s contribution will be pivotal in bringing about changes in power relations between the community people and the government. It would help bring together the components of culture, communication and development at local level. CR’s roles would be instrumental in enabling local people to participate raise their voices on issues affecting their lives. Among other issues, CR can bridge the gap between the local supply and demand sides of public information. In fact, CR has the most potential in making the demand side aware of the use and benefits of using RTIA, which will, in turn, put pressure on supply side to act more efficiently. Transmission of CRS will be FM-based, which is cost effective and user-friendly. This will make CR a cheaper medium of technology. It can again promote the National ICT Policy at local level to inform community people for utilizing the infrastructures and facilities of new media and ICTs.

CR will bring about a qualitative change in the broadcast policies of the country. Introducing community broadcasting will be a significant step towards decentralizing our media system. CR will not be able to get into the competitions of media market immediately, but it will no doubt, add values to the plurality and diversity in a democratic media environment. CR is not going to be a substitute for our mainstream and national broadcasting system, rather the next logical extension of traditional broadcast media based on the concept of community participation in governance and development.

References

1. Awami League (2008) Election Manifesto 2008, Dhaka: Bangladesh Awami League.

2. Bangladesh Gazette (2008, March 18) Community Radio installation, Operation and Broadcasting Policy 2008, Dhaka: Bangladesh Government Press.

3. BNNRC (2007). Bangladesh on the way to open up Community Radio: Draft Concept Paper, Policy and Application Form, Dhaka: BNNRC.

4. BNNRC (2009) Community Radio Preparedness in Bangladesh: dissemination of baseline study findings for a way forward, Dhaka: BNNRC.

5. Ministry of Information (MoI) Bangladesh, Citizen Charter.
[www.moi.gov.bd/CC/Citizen_Charter_MOI.doc]

6. Reza, S. (2008) Mobilizing Communities for Community Radio in Bangladesh: Prospects and Challenges, Paper presented at the Regional Conference “Peoples’ Voices, Peoples’ Participation and Community Radio, organized by AMIC, UNB & BNNRC, Dhaka, 4th May 2008.

7. MMC (2008). Community Radio Sthapon, Somprochar o Porichalona Neetimala – 2008: Ekti Mullayan o Prashongik Alochona (Community Radio Installation, Broadcast and Operation Policy 2008) in ‘Muktoprokash’, Year 1, No. 2, March 2008, Dhaka.

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