As in any revolution, there is action, anarchy but order emerges out of chaos. The booming numbers of stations in Thailand and Indonesia face legal and bureaucratic bottlenecks, but the momentum of the democratic and empowering medium of free media for communities have helped to build a strong network of activists, trainers and policy advocates for community radio in these two countries.
Roxanne Toh reported late last year in an Inter Press Service feature that the voice of community radio is getting louder across Asia, but so is the interference coming from governments that are wary about their growing strength.
Community radio ventures have thus mushroomed; often broadcasting from homemade transmitters and makeshift venues like unlit toilet cubicles to abandoned spaces. When the new constitution came into place in 1997, community radio stations began to tackle local issues, often taking critical views of the government. There are more than 150 community radio stations today, although they are operating as part of pilot efforts and not on full licenses.
Such strength has led governments to be careful of these grassroots efforts. The government is reluctant and thus delaying the establishment of independent regulatory bodies to institutionalise the presence of community radio and clarify the rules under which they can operate, says Kulachada Chaipipat, director for Thailand of the South-east Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA).
The Public Relations Department in Thailand issues the (broadcasting) licenses, says Supinya Klangnarong, of the non-government Campaign for Popular Media Reform. As an activist Supinya is sure that the popular desire for keeping the momentum alive is so high that the government’s reluctance cannot stop it now.
The grey area in which community radio finds itself forced to operate in Thailand makes it vulnerable to legal action and other harassment. The constitutional directive to have frequencies for the public is a sea change in Thailand since 1955 before which the military controlled the airwaves and licenses.
Community radio stations have trouble obtaining frequencies and their legal status still remains very shaky. The community radio stations have used the New Frequencies Act of 2000 to set up shop, which stipulates that 20 per cent of frequencies would be assigned to community broadcast. The government was trying to get a share in this ownership of the 20 per cent slot, which was solely meant for the public.
Uajit Virojtrairatt, who has helped communities in Thailand set up their radio stations, also pointed to a worrisome trend that the ‘command and control’ attitude of the government and bureaucracy has not really changed at the operational level.
The initial hesitation of communities in even setting up stations was overcome soon, and the grassroots communities are unstoppable in promoting this wave revolution.
Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. Ethnically, a highly diverse country, with more than 300 local languages, it has been facing a turmoil and unrest for about five years.
There is of course a silver lining in every cloud. Media opened up, with private radio stations being set up in many islands. The setting up of independent news and features agencies added to the potential for producing and sharing a different kind of content than was produced in the erstwhile ‘controlled-media’ regime. The industry grew by more than 30 per cent, from about 750 to over a 1,000 stations, with some 60 stations on the air in Jakarta alone, in just two years. While most stations are addressing local issues – especially – conflicts and covering them more realistically, the thrust is on promoting an atmosphere of peace, development and learning. Internews-sponsored programs reach 18 million people across the country, training over1700 radio journalists from more than 300 stations.
Convergence technologies are becoming the order of the day where cost and technical excellence have to match the diverse needs of the islands. Internet radio is becoming a popular option for many stations.
A UNESCO project in Indonesia seeks to expand 10 local radio stations within the UNESCO/Danida Local Radio Network with an Internet/radio component. Combining this activity with a community-radio/internet caf