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    Volume 9 Issue 15| April 9, 2010|

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A Voice from the Margins

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

The tiny village of Bhanupur lies in the middle of nowhere -- it is located in a char or sand bar in the vast river Jamuna. There is no school, no qualified doctor, and the nearest police station is 24 kilometres away. But Bhanupur is unique in Bangladesh -- it has a voice.

Bhanupur has had its very own radio station for two years. Local electrician and radio aficionado Tariqul Islam started up the short distance FM radio station as a hobby -- and so far the response from the neighbours has been wildly enthusiastic.

"People love it," says Tariqul. "We play a mix of popular songs. But more importantly we also have local news, and broadcasts about immunisation etc. When someone loses a cow, we are on the air with the description."

The station is the pride of Bhanupur. It is also illegal. The law does not allow non-commercial individuals or groups to operate radio. Only large for-profit enterprises have been allowed licenses to operate FM band stations. That could be about to change with the government poised to issue the first licenses under the Community Radio Installation, Broadcast and Operation Policy 2008.

"These are exciting times for those of us who have been working for years to make Community Radio a reality in Bangladesh," says AHM Bazlur Rahman, CEO of Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC). "This is potentially a powerful tool for the people in the remote rural areas."

Community Radio -- for the community, of the community and by the community -- has been gaining popularity in the world of development and social communication. Lack of a voice often leads to marginalisation, which in turn leads to poverty and deprivation. Sustainable development experts say a frequently missing 'guidepost' in development work is local voice. Community radios could provide profound new opportunities for more inclusive sustainable development in a country like Bangladesh.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organsation (UNESCO) has been at the forefront of the push to implement the community radio programme in Bangladesh. "The aim of UNESCO's community radio programme is to address crucial social issues at a community level, such as poverty and social exclusion, empower marginalised rural groups and catalyse democratic processes and development efforts," said Dr. Malama Meleisea, country director of UNESCO from February 2007 to March 2010, in an interview with the Star. "The strength of Community Radio is that unlike the mainstream media, it facilitates a two-way information flow - media to people and vice versa."

Economists like Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs have stressed the importance of having a free, independent and pluralistic media that will not only provide access to information but also contribute to transparency and good governance. Community broadcasting, in this broader context, is now seen by many development experts as a vital tool to empower the poorest people and communities.

Marginalised communities, especially those in remote rural areas, are ignored by commercial media, which tend to focus on urban centres. Community media in contrast provide a platform where the voiceless are able to exercise their right to freedom of expression and access to information.

In Bangladesh, the possibilities are limitless. In places where there is no electricity, or the supply is erratic, a battery operated FM radio could be the only viable source of entertainment and information. Tariqul Islam's ham radio in Bhanupur advises farmers where to take their chickens if they get cholera, how much it would cost to buy the medicine, and how much the bus fare would be. "When someone has a few extra watermelons he wants to sell, we let our listeners know. We also announce weddings, births and deaths."

Community radio could be used to raise awareness about health issues. It could be used to tell people about diseases, their prevention and immunisation dates. Another area where community radio could be extremely useful is disaster preparedness and warning. "I come from the coastal Bhola area," says AHM Bazlur Rahman, of BNNRC. "I saw the devastation wrought by cyclones and floods. I was thinking of how we could warn people in advance and prepare them in order to minimise loss of life and property. Then it struck me, that community radio could be the answer."

The hard work of development workers and rights activists paid off with momentum building for an institutional framework for community radio stations. The breakthrough came when the caretaker government approved the Community Radio Installation, Broadcast and Operation Policy 2008. The importance of community radio was mentioned in the latest Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), and the information minister reiterated a commitment towards it in spelling out the government's concept of Digital Bangladesh.

"We will have a meeting of the National Regulatory Committee on Radio very soon where the final approval for licenses will be given," said a senior official of the Ministry of Information requesting anonymity. "We got around 200 applications for licenses in 2008. After scrutiny, around 116 were sent for security clearance. Out of these, 27 have been put on a shortlist."

The slow pace of the licensing process has made many applicants impatient, while some provisions of the Community Radio Policy have come in for criticism from experts. The Policy mandates that apart from government organisations, only NGOs with at least five years' experience of working in poverty alleviation or media/ICT will be eligible for a license. Many experts feel this is unnecessarily restrictive and will deter community-based non-profit organisations that might want to venture into community broadcasting in a dedicated way. The requirement of obtaining security clearance from Directorate of Federal Intelligence (DGFI), National Security Intelligence and the Special Branch, as well as the requirement of getting a monthly report from the Officer in Charge of the local police station may also discourage community participation.

In spite of the challenges ahead, the mood remains upbeat among rights activists and development workers. The airwaves will finally belong to the people, and the voices of the marginalised and the poor can at last be heard.

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