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'Community radio stations crucial in times of crises'


22 September 2009

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Media’s role during crisis is not just about getting the message across but also strengthening accountability linkages between government and citizenry, says Ashish Sen, Trustee, Voices, a development communications NGO. Indian government needs to encourage community media for disaster preparedness and mitigation, he adds.

As drought, earthquakes and floods threaten the global landscape, I’m reminded about the two buzz words that increasingly make waves: climate change.

ashish.jpg
Image credits: i4d/ Ashish Sen

Two weeks ago, West Java was rocked by an earthquake that was 7.2 on the Richter scale. A few months ago Cyclone Alia had inundated and cut off some of Bangladesh’s mangrove forests and islands in the Bay of Bengal.

While the magnitude of these “natural” disasters vary, their frequency has not only set off alarm bells but emphasised that it's time to  smell the coffee and go back to the future.

No, I’m not referring to Kalyug, Biblical or Nostradamus like predictions (although the events would certainly underline the writing if not the relevance of all three) - but something far more plebian like community radio.

Preventing damages

A choice between drought and earthquake is akin to a choice between a rock and a hard place.

Neither is desirable. But as the perils of climate change hit the headlines with alarming regularity, we are also reminded about the costs of technology that are required to rein in the damage.

But are these costs and technologies the only options? Not so – as a recent UNESCO global consultation sharply brought into focus.

In fact, as the President of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) Steve Buckley pointed out, media’s role during these times of crisis is not just about getting the message across.

It is about people taking a lead in getting their voices heard and strengthening accountability linkages between government and citizenry. What is more, these media are both accessible and affordable and demonstrate that they are for all seasons – not just in times of recession.

Community media making a difference

The proof of the pudding lies in the eating – and as Buckley’s data affirmed - there is no dearth of examples that showcase how community media is quietly, albeit consistently, making a difference.

"Rural community radio stations are working to assist farmers to maintain and increase their harvest"

In Northern Quebec, Inuit communication networks are providing advice on safety as hunting routes across sea ice become increasingly precarious.

In Mali, rural community radio stations are working to assist farmers adapt to changing seasonal patterns in order to maintain and increase their harvest.

In Bangladesh, coastal NGOs are building community radio stations and other communication tools to provide systems for early warning and disaster management in the face of floods and inundations that result from rising sea levels.

Sometimes, the disaster itself propels governments to encourage people to build their own communication systems for disaster preparedness and mitigation – as in the case of Senegal post the 2004 locust invasion.

However, these seem to be the exception. Remember, August 2008 when the River Kosi changed its course and wreaked havoc on areas around the Indo-Nepal border? Despite efforts, “mum” was the word as far as emergency radio was concerned.

Six months later a field visit to the area confirmed that substantial areas remained outside the long arm of relief. Areas like Lachmeenya, Sathanpatti and Raghavpoor continued to comprise hearts of darkness as electricity remained elusive for the most part.

In contrast, the Aceh Radio reconstruction Network (ARRnet) that came up post the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia demonstrated the power of a community media network.

Ultimately comprising a network of 46 community radio stations, it addressed not only emergency, but reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Over the years, the network helped to also build community life and also engaged local governments in their activities. Community practitioners in West Java are now exploring a similar initiative.

"With community radio the scale of the Tsunami disaster would have been much less"

Similarly, the Dalit women of Pastapur who run India’s first community radio station have emphasised the importance of “samma” and “sajja” (marginalised varieties of grain) and showcased the co-relation between voice and food security.

In early  2005, Naveen Chawla who was then Information and Broadcasting Secretary, Government of India, observed that if the country had community radio the scale of the Tsunami disaster would have been much less.

Four years later, and about two and a half years after community radio became a reality in India, less than a sprinkling of community radio stations dot the Indian landscape.

Why? It’s much more than demand and supply. It’s about not realising the writing on the wall. So, when will we wake up and smell the coffee?

Ashish Sen is a Trustee at Voices, a development communications NGO and Vice-President, AMARC, an International Network of Radio Broadcasters and Activists.

 
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