By FN DHAKA, Bangladesh, 19 May 2006
APCNews met up with Al Alegre of the APC member FMA in Dhaka, Bangladesh earlier this year. Although the Dhaka meeting tackled information and communication technologies (ICTs) as means to achieve social justice, Alegre had a story about media to tell. This article looks into communication rights, Philippine style.
“Generally, the Filipino media is free, but very commercial,” says Al Alegre of the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA). "It’s market-driven so it’s up to public interest organisations – churches or NGOs or women’s groups – to set up community media projects."
In terms of other options, there are only a very few formally constituted community radio stations. They’re not very visible. Commercial radio has regional affiliates, some function as community radio, although privately owned, he explains.
The Foundation for Media Alternatives is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) set up in 1987. The FMA has six full-time, and a few project staff and consultants. It is located in Quezon City, Metro Manila.
Founded in the aftermath the People Power revolution its mission was to open up spaces for free expression. "There were then a lot of sequestered, crony TV stations. Our focus has been communications, editing," he explains.
Since about 1996 the FMA has gone into "various ICT stuff", as Alegre puts it. "We’re still doing a lot with policy, development, advocacy for the public interest. We’re even going to handle the Philippines ICT policy portal for APC."
Alegre says his own interests include communication rights. FMA is a member of crisinfo.org and is currently finishing the first Philippine Communication Rights Report, of which a summary is available online.
APCNews: What are some of your findings?
"It’s uneven. We have one of the freest and freewheeling media. There’s no state censorship. But ironically, we’re number two to Iraq in terms of journalists getting killed over the past year or two. Due to the structure of the economy, local warlords, politicians and goons take advantage of the situation. Recently, there has been a slide towards authoritarianism under Arroyo," he says.
In the case of telecommunications, it’s deregulated but there are players clearly dominating the market. As Alegre reminds us, Manila is considered to be the SMS (text messaging on cellphones) capital of the world, in terms of the volume of messages exchanged per capita.
"That’s indicative of the way a technology like SMS, which is cheap, can be used. But there is, behind that, still a duopoly. Two market players have significant market power in the sector. It has led to new policy discussions on looking at the competition policy which is appropriate to rein in the power of the big telcos," says he.
APCNews: In a word, how seriously should the not-for-profit sector take the media?
"Media is an enabling space. It’s a public interest issue area, which NGOs are not traditionally equipped to handle. It’s connected with ICT policy and communication rights campaigns. We need to get civil society to look at this as a public-interest issue. In terms of freedom of expression, of democratisation and true communication rights of people," he expresses.
Alegre argues in favour of alternative communication models. "I don’t see media just as mass media. There are communicative channels and tools that civil society and development actors can use to pursue the developmental agenda.”
“Take for example, in the IPR (intellectual property regime) issue. It has been framed by those acutely affected by pharmaceuticals and seeds. Not enough work has been done on the knowledge side of ICTs, the patents and licenses. We’d like to get into that," Alegre argues, referring to proprietary rights on resources or creations. These regimes have and still do deprive a large proportion of the people in need, from access to adequate medicine.
Communication rights also need to "embed" its analysis in a political analysis of who owns, controls, manages resources and communications, he notes.
"It has been a trend recently, because aside from the Nepals and the Burmas of the world, there are more insidious ways in which the market players have seized political power ‘legitimately’, like in Thailand.
Communication rights is beyond just freedom of expression. It looks at how the environment affects everyone’s freedom," he stresses.
Photo: Al Alegre from the FMA.
Photo by Frederick Noronha, April 2006, Dhaka, Bangladesh.