Community Radio in East Timor:Promoting democracy

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It is East Timor, a country with no tradition of a free and independent media, there are now over 16 locally run not-for-profit community radio stations broadcasting to local communities. Since the vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999, the community radio sector in East Timor has developed at an astounding rate. There is at least one station in every district, and about five in the capital Dili.

Prior to 1999, there was only one station on air i.e. Radio Timor Kmanek (RTK) in Dili. There is now even a fledgling Community Radio Association, currently supported by Internews and UNESCO to represent community radio as a sector and lobby the government on media law, broadcast licensing and other issues. These stations were set up by local communities with support and training from a range of aid agencies including USAID/OTI, the Portuguese development NGO Inde, the Australian Union funded NGO Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad (APHEDA), the World Bank, UNESCO, the Japanese mission, Caritas Canada and the media training NGO Internews, along with other smaller project support from a broad range of NGOs.

In a country with only an estimated 60 per cent literacy rate and few are able to afford access to television, newspapers, telephone and no access to Internet outside Dili (and only at rates unaffordable to most of the population), community radio has been an essential form of communication between the capital and the districts, and for local news, information and education. Some of the more advanced radio stations such as the UNESCO supported station Lospalos in the remote east have become adept at using radio as a forum for education and community development, producing documentary series on gender, culture, children’s rights and oral history, in partnership with NGOs.

Current scenario
The community radio sector, however, is not without its problems, especially in sustainability. One such problem is electricity. Outside Dili the power supply is very unstable; some areas have been without power for over a year. This means stations have to rely on costly generator power, some stations have wind power and solar panels but this is rarely sufficient.

With low population density and chronic poverty, there is at present little opportunity for community radio to sustain itself through traditional forms of community radio income – individual and organisational membership, donations, and sponsorship are almost non-existent in Timor-Leste. Stations do earn income from community announcements through the coupon system, but NGO sponsored radio programmes and government public service announcements are likely to be the only other viable forms of independent income for this sector for some years ahead.

On a sectoral level, legislation is still being developed in the fields of media law, broadcast licensing and spectrum regulation. In concert with the government, Internews has been trying to develop community radio friendly media law and guarantee the independence of the community radio sector from government control. As with many other aspects of democracy in the world’s newest nation, there is still a steep learning curve ahead.

Excerpts from UNDP report on community radio in East Timor

Stakeholders in community radio
The Community Radio Centre (CRC), Internews, Intercooperacao Desenvolvimento (INDE), Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad (APHEDA), CARITAS Australia, UNESCO, USAID among others.

The radio stations

  • Radio Comunidade Tokodede (RCL): Set up by UNESCO in May 2000 to serve the information and educational needs of the people of Lautem District.
  • Radio Timor Kmanek (RTK): RTK was founded by the Catholic Church in 1994, and until recently was funded by Paix and Development, a Canadian NGO, by Radio Portugal until December 2000, and Caritas Australia.
  • Radio Comunidade Maliana (RCM): RCM was set up with support from USAID and UNESCO and first went to air in April 2000.
  • Radio Comunidade Tokodede (RCT): RCT first went to air in December 2001. It was set up by a former clandestine students group, the Grupo Juventude Liquica, with support from Usaid, Internews, and the Japanese mission.
  • Radio Rakambia (Dili): Radio Rakambia were set up in 2001 with assistance from APHEDA. Until recently they were one of the strongest community radio stations in Timor.
  • Radio Viqueque(Viqueque): The Dutch-based NGO ‘Friends of Viqueque’ established this station, which began broadcasting in July this year after about four years set up period.
  • Radio Falintil (Dili): Until 2000, Radio Falintil was a clandestine mobile broadcasting operation under Indonesian rule. USAID then funded the establishment of a permanent facility and again funded its move in 2002 with support from VOA.
  • Radio Loricu Lian (Dili): Radio Loricu Lian was set up by Sahe Institute for Liberation, Yayasan Hak, Fokupers and the student group RENETIL in 2001, when they made a number of experimental mobile transmissions. Equipment was first installed at Loriku Lian in November 2003 with support from Association of Men Against Violence.

Laws and regulations
The main communications regulatory body is ARCOM, established by decree in July 2003, but still in the set up process. ARCOM’s perceived roles will be in: frequency allocation and regulation, broadcasting licensing, issuing codes of conduct for broadcasting services. There is uncertainty for community radio in a number of key areas with ARCOM’s role, and the first is in the definition of licences-there are only two: public and private.

Another uncertainty is under Section 4 where the law states that ARCOM may issue a public tender or auction for a radio frequency permit. Another problem is licensing fees. No community radio can afford such fees. If a third category of licence was created for community radio, they could (and should) be exempted from fees.

There is also problem associated with the government’s proposed independent body for the administration of Community Empowered Project (CEP) radio assets appears to duplicate ARCOM’s role in regulating broadcast licensing. This would mean two regulatory bodies responsible to two different ministries, which would multiply the costs and effort in the spectrum and broadcast licensing process for community radio broadcasters.

The major problem however is that nothing has yet been finalised. While there are decree laws stipulating fines and imprisonment for breach of broadcast and spectrum licenses, currently the licensing arrangements for community radio are unclear. All are believed to be still operating under the old UNTAET mandate, and it is unclear if there is a provision to extend these temporary license agreements.

A group comprised of representatives from different sectors of the Timorese broadcasting sector, together with assistance from UNESCO and Internews has submitted a draft broadcast law before the Timorese parliament. This draft broadcast law submission contains a range of recommendations, including:

  • An Independent Broadcast Authority (separate from ARCOM), along with a set of recommendations regarding its role, composition, funding, a set of prescriptions for a licensing regime inclusive of community radio, and legal framework.
  • The establishment of a broadcasting association representative of all broadcasters, with prescriptions for its role, funding, legal framework, and a discussion of the future merging of ARKTL and the CRC.
  • The hand over of CEP station assets back to the community.
  • A community radio technical support unit managed by the broadcast association, in liaison with ARCOM.
  • A discussion of the importance of community radio to civic education and democracy building and a summary of the consultation process to have taken place so far in the community radio sector.


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