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MEDIA-BANGLADESH: Making Waves Over Community Radio

Kalinga Seneviratne

DHAKA, May 21 2008 (IPS) - For 15 years the Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC) campaigned for the introduction of community radio in the country, only to be turned down by successive, democratically-elected governments.

Ironically, in March, it was a military-installed government that announced readiness to issue community radio licenses under a two-year pilot scheme.

After releasing the guidelines for the establishment and licensing of community radio stations on Mar. 12, the government formed three separate committees to process applications from community radio operators.

By the end of April some 178 applications had been received by the information ministry.

BNNRC’s chief executive officer Bazlur Rahman told IPS: ‘’We are now happy that the government is interested in assisting us to establish community radio here. We set up a help desk in our secretariat to assist those interested in applying for community radio licenses and we received a massive response from different organisations and institutions.’’

Rahman was selected this month as the NGO representative on the Central Monitoring Committee which is headed by the director-general of Bangladesh Betar, the state-owned national radio network. This committee will monitor community radio broadcasters once they go on air to see that they adhere to the rules.

While private FM radio has been functioning alongside the national Betar radio network for a while, none of these radio stations was dedicated to serving the grassroots communities and ethnic groups in the way that community radio can.

Community radio is defined as a radio station owned by a particular community, usually through a trust, foundation or association. Political parties and their affiliated organisations, such as student wings or unions, are not allowed to own community radio licenses, nor are international NGOs or foreign channels.

But the policy guidelines allow government research institutions and NGOs with a proven record of community development work for at least five years to own a community radio license. This has set off some debate and doubts about community control of the radio, especially in the countryside.

‘’Government has failed to manage radio. So how can state-run research institutions operating radio in small villages be independent of governments?’’ asks Shameem Reza, a mass communications lecturer at Dhaka University. ‘’The big question is what level of people’s participation would it entail and should we be encouraging the government to set up community radio?’’

Rahman is not overly worried. ‘’Giving community radio licenses to government research institutes or agencies is not a matter of concern for us,’’ he argues. ‘’Community radio can get a new dimension of quality programmes because if they can fulfill the criteria they will have much technical and managerial expertise to offer.’’

Bangladesh has a large number of NGOs operating in development work, including some large international ones like Grameen Bank and BRAC. Some community radio advocates, especially in the academia, fear that these large NGOs could dominate the community radio sector.

But, Rahman says that such fears are unfounded because, under the policy, NGOs, large or small, could have only one community radio license. ‘’So there is no scope for any NGO to monopolise community radio broadcasts,’’ he argues.

Requests from NGOs for large chunks of the licenses with the funds and capacity to run radio stations have not been entertained by the government.

Rahman, who was one of the two NGO representatives in the committee which drafted the community radio policy guidelines of the government, believes that at least 50 organisations will be able to run community radio in the first phase. To assist in this process, the BNNRC has set up a community radio academy and plans to run technical and production training courses soon.

Reza laments the fact that no media academic was involved in this process even though Bangladesh has a long history of media studies being taught at tertiary level. He believes that funding will be a critical issue when it comes to setting up community radio stations and NGOs with international donor support could end up dominating the sector.

‘’Policies are not clearly articulated on how community radio could be funded,’’ noted Reza. ’’Government has only given the monitoring committee guidelines but nothing on how to run a community radio station.’’

While NGOs have done a lot of good development work in the rural areas, ironically this could become a barrier for community control of community radio. Their access to both licenses and funding sources may help to define the community as their own beneficiaries.

‘’There are hundreds of NGOs in the countryside and the people will not be able to set up community radio independent of them,’’ argues Reza. ‘’NGO involvement will not ensure that community radio is the independent community voice.’’

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