One hundred km north of the birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini is the village of Madanpokhara. It is not easy to reach and is an hour's walk from the nearest road. Walking up through the small holdings you pass a school, temples, some teas shops and stores. At the top of the hill is a low white brick building with a tall red mast.
Radio Madan Pokhara broadcasts across a rural agricultural community in which few people have access to electricity or a telephone. Yet almost every household has a radio receiver and it is the principal means of local communication and discussion of local development.
There are two dominant media forms in the world today, differentiated by private and public. There are some good examples of public service broadcasting, but many state-owned media are not sufficiently independent of the government. Instead of truly serving the public interest, they remain the instruments of the government in power.
There is almost no country in the world today that is not, by one means or another, also reached by private commercial media, whether through the liberalisation of broadcast licensing or through the rapid growth of satellite services. In many countries, growing concentration of ownership has tended to reduce the diversity of private media.
A third form of community-based, independent media but with social rather than commercial objectives, has gradually emerged from civil society to find a place alongside the established public and private media in many countries.
Country-level legislative and regulatory frameworks remain obstacles, but the general trend is growth of new services and the opening up of the airwaves. The emergence of community media builds on growing recognition that core development goals like reducing poverty can be more effectively achieved by empowering and giving a voice to poor people themselves. In Nepal, the airwaves opened up gradually after the introduction of parliamentary democracy. Progress has been slow and somewhat difficult, for community radio as well as for democracy. But wherever it was established, it has become clear that community broadcasting can play a specific and crucial role in encouraging public participation, strengthening cultural and linguistic diversity and giving voice to poor and otherwise marginalised groups.
As international development agencies accept that the most effective approaches to poverty reduction are community-driven and empowerment oriented, the role and potential of community media has also begun to enter mainstream thinking. In the past two years, the UNDP and the World Bank have both recognised the vital importance of community media. Despite constraints, community broadcasting has grown to become a global movement reaching out to many of the poorest communities in even the most remote rural areas. In Asia, we are reaching a critical mass of support and interest. Nepal and the Philippines are established community radio countries. We have seen legal reform in the last two years in India, Indonesia and Thailand that promises to open the airwaves to community broadcasting. Progress is not as fast as we would like, but it is heading in the right direction with grassroots civil society campaigns for community broadcasting.
Last year, the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) held its eighth world conference in Kathmandu, the first time it was held in Asia. We recognised the growing interest in community broadcasting in Asia and agreed to establish a regional section with a coordinating office in Kathmandu. The priorities are straightforward: to raise awareness of the idea that citizens should have the right to own and operate their own community-based media. To lobby for political and legislative recognition of community broadcasting. To build community media skills and capacity among local civil society groups and networks. Regardless of the national media situation within countries, it is indisputable that there is intense competition between the view that media and cultural are commodities, the domain of private companies and market forces, and the idea that media and culture are matters of public interest about which citizens should be rightly concerned.
Enlightened governments should recognise that it is in their own national interest to move beyond the instrumentalist view of media that dates from the age of monopoly and instead embrace a vision of communication in the public interest with a diversity of public service broadcasting including community media.
Steve Buckley is the president of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)