Why the Arab world needs community radio
Social media and satellite television played a crucial role in the Arab uprisings, but Daoud Kuttab argues community radio must be embraced to effect positive change in the region.
Despite ongoing debates about cause and effect, the protest movements that began in Tunisia and spread throughout the Arab world have had one clear vehicle: freedom of assembly and expression. The crowds of Arab youth that have assembled in cities, towns and villages have forced authoritarian rulers to recognise them, their right to protest the status quo and their right to demand change. While in some countries winning this right has been accomplished relatively easily and quickly, in other countries it has been difficult, dangerous and deadly. Yet protesters have continued to demand the right to voice their grievances against the powers that be.
While demands have largely been aired using traditional means like word of mouth, demonstrations, marches and sit-ins and broadcast via satellite television channels, we have also seen an explosion of creative ideas and creative solutions. From the use of colourful graffiti in Libya to new and social media in Egypt and Syria, young Arabs have made their voices heard through a variety of new platforms.
Yet one tool the majority of Arab protesters have not used is radio.
Like many other traditional media tools, radio has been declared dead numerous times only to see its revival and novel usage in new settings and contexts. But while the rest of the world, including many semi-closed regimes, has been tolerant of private and community radio, the Arab world, including some relatively open societies, has limited radio licences to government organisations or the elite business entities that circulate within their orbit.
There are historic reasons for this anti-radio policy. As radio was experiencing its golden age, the post-colonial Arab world witnessed repeated revolutions and coups in which military generals took over national radio stations along with presidential palaces. The first communiqué announcing a new ruler was usually broadcast over radio, and all other government organs quickly fell in line. These military dictators who took power by capturing the radio network would naturally oppose others using it to challenge their power. In the Arab world, the buildings that housed radio stations, and later television stations, often became the most heavily guarded pieces of real estate in the country. Media outlets were effectively turned into military installations with multiple forms of identification and body searches required for entrance.
The programming broadcast by these stations was also entirely controlled by central governments. A direct telephone line would connect the office of the radio or television director to the palace of the president or king. Even with the proliferation of satellite television and the internet in the 1990s and 2000s, radio licences remained limited to rulers’ most loyal and trusted friends. When private licences were granted, station owners were given clear instructions not to deal with politics and news. This system ensured that news coverage was sanitised of anything that might disturb or question the prevailing government narrative. The stark absence of local news ensured that the public’s attention was diverted from pressing social, economic and political issues in their communities.
This control over media sources was so entrenched that even when the Arab uprisings managed to unseat ruling powers, little was done to change the prevailing media structures. It became clear that changing rulers was easier than changing the media regulatory framework that had been built up over decades.
The millions of protesters in Tahrir Square, Alexandria and Suez who succeeded in creating geographical zones free of security and police control were unable to even think about—let alone work towards—creating an equivalent on local radio stations through which they could propagate their revolutionary vision. Transmitter equipment was nowhere to be found and electrical engineers were not called on to create simple transmission systems. Decades of government intimidation had clearly had its effect on the psyche of everyday Egyptians, Tunisians and Yemenis, leaving the airwaves uncontested by revolutionary voices.
Autocratic Arab rulers who enforced national unity by the power of the gun were certainly not interested in media that encouraged and empowered local communities to celebrate their specific ethnicity, language, culture or religion. To deny this basic communication capacity ensures that these populations remain forever ignorant, unable to educate themselves and therefore unable to fight for their rights.
Some powers wrongly claim that community-based media will exacerbate tensions between various ethnic and national communities, contribute to the break-up of countries and even spread civil war across the Middle East. The fact is that people living in the various countries that make up the Arab League are diverse in a multitude of ways. Instead of denying this diversity and forcing people of different backgrounds to conform to a single cultural and national identity, a more humane approach would be to allow these diverse flowers to bloom within their national garden. By embracing and empowering these different groups, the Arab world’s new rulers will be planting the seeds for stable governing bodies that will better withstand both internal and external threats. Community radio would therefore be a saviour for these new regimes rather than an obstacle.
Communities, especially those outside the main metropolitan capitals of the Arab world, have largely been ignored by autocratic powers. Now that these totalitarian power structures are being replaced by democratically elected governments, one would hope that new leaders will change their policies towards these communities for the better. Allowing community radio to thrive costs governments nothing and produces amazing results in communities, and therefore in nations. Creating a welcoming administrative and legal environment for community radio in the Arab world should be a “no-brainer”—provided we have leaders that genuinely care about their communities.
Daoud Kuttab is director general of Community Media Network, a media NGO working with community radio throughout the Arab region. A longer version of this essay was originally published in Arab Media & Society and is reproduced here with the author’s and publishers’ permission.
The events of the Arab Spring (and previous events such as the revolutions of 1989) have shown that effective means of communicating are vital. In a country where people have heard only one perspective, anything that can break the monopoly is to be welcomed. As Orwell put it, 'In an age of universal deceit, to tell the truth is a subversive act'.
Community radio can both encourage an initial outpouring of democracy and, just as importantly, ensure that a diversity of opinions means that one autocratic regime is not just replaced by another.
In almost all other forms of mass communication, genuinely democratic voices are easily swamped by those with either the power or the money to drown out the competition[i]. As the focus of community radio is public service, rather than profit, responsible to – and frequently produced by – their listener base there do not have commercial advertisers’ aversion to upsetting authority – either political or cultural. As a result they are free to eschew the bland lowest common denominator approach that is so typical of commercial radio.
Community radio can indeed do the many wondrous things that Prop seems to trust it to do. It can also do more or less anything else. If proposition is trying to demonstrate that community radio, per se, supports democracy, then it needs to demonstrate how it does so more than, say, libraries or coffee shop discussion groups. It may be a public service that is responsible to the community but that does not mean that it cannot be infiltrated and controlled by the state like any other service.
Community radio relies on the power of its ideas and the thirst for those ideas among its audience. It accepts the notion that it is the exchange of information and views, freely given and received, that is more important than the ideas themselves.
It doesn’t require massive budgets and radio waves can be received on equipment that costs pennies; more importantly it can be shared.
For all of its pretensions of accessibility the devices used to access the Internet tend to be expensive and they also tend not to be shared – unlike radios[i].
To give some context to this, even paying Western prices, a small radio station can be started for as little as $10,000 with monthly costs of $1,000[ii]. Some of that, of course, relates to government issued licences, clearly this does not apply if the station is planning to be ignored by the authorities. These costs can be further reduced when the founders have a pre-existing knowledge of radio engineering or work with a partner organisation such as the BBC World Service or the various NGOs who specialise in the field[iii].
While it is inexpensive to set up and run this is relatively expensive for the community compared to commercial radio, which is free to the user and perfectly capable of promoting the ideas of the free market which have had a proven benefit to democratic structures the world over.
In addition to which, realistically, democratic participation will end up involving larger national bodies such as trades union, political parties and civil society organisations who need to operate on a nationwide basis but also have larger budgets.
Autocracy has, at its root, the premise that only one perspective, or group of perspectives is legitimate. Certain assumptions are unquestionable, certain rules inviolable and, more often than not, certain voices unchallengeable.
It’s all too easy for that state of affairs to be normalised. Community radio offers another voice. More to the point it offers many.
As well as the value of the messages themselves, the very fact that they are there and broadcast is a powerful statement against autocratic assumptions. The process of establishing and running a community radio station is, in and of itself, a powerful fillip for community cohesion.
Giving voices to communities supports them as groups in their own right; cohesive, engaged and worthy of respect. In doing so it can provide a focus which increases the homogeneity of those communities without requiring the approval of a central structure of control[i]. In addition to well known examples such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, radio stations across the Middle East And, especially, Africa have been key movers in the shift to democracy[ii].
Once again, Proposition is conflating things that tend to go along with community development and those that cause it. The fact that vibrant and active communities, duly engaged in wider society, frequently set up institutions such as community radio in no way demonstrates that it encourages civic participation.
Experience suggests that the airwaves, unregulated, tend to attract pedagogues seeking followers more than democrats seeking the views of others. Particularly in areas of high sectarian divisions, technologies that propagate the views of every mullah with a mic are unlikely to help democracy in the middle east. Indeed the experience with the nearest equivalent in the US, talk radio, shows how fantastically divisive it can be.[i]
Community radio in areas that do not have a history of plurality and diversity of opinion would be likely to see the spread of radio stations pandering to the specific views of every shard and splinter of opinion, reinforcing that particular set of beliefs while ignoring all others – it is difficult to imagine a more toxic – and less democratic – option to encourage in the Arab world[ii].
The difficulty, as shown in the reference given in the previous paragraph, is that exactly the same ease of access applies to fanatics as to democrats – who may, frequently, be the same people. In the instance of Rwanda, extremists inciting violence (almost entirely Hutus) had acquired small scale radio equipment. The government couldn’t afford the jamming equipment (the US jamming flights would cost $8500 per hour) and sought assistance from the Americans. The UN objected as such actions were clearly sectarian. However, the wide use of Radio – initially funded by the West – which, in part at least had lead to the genocide then left a toxic legacy of fanatics dominating the airwaves, those involved were eventually convicted in 2003.[iii]
Dale, Alexander C., ‘Countering hate messages that lead to violence: The United Nations’s chapter VII authority to use radio jamming to halt incendiary broadcasts’, Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law, Vol 11. 2001.
Opposition is letting state-sanctioned media off the hook fantastically lightly. Just staying within the Arab world, the number of broadcasters that sully the name of journalism by acting as apologists for butchers and torturers is astonishing. One example of this – selected utterly at random from an embarrassment of riches – was the state media’s declaration of historic victories by both Milosovich and Saddam Hussein after both had received drubbings from Western allies[i]. There is at least a chance that a broadcaster won’t be just a voice for the state if it isn’t funded or run by the president or one of his closest allies or appointees.
[i] Ash, Timothy Garton, Facts are Subversive. The Strange Toppling of Slobodan Milošević. Atlantic Books. 2009. This account is one of many, many others that highlight the importance of the control of media centres in democratic shift. However, it highlights the Serbian state media’s proclamation of Milošević’s ‘victories’ against the west but also the impact of this when, fallowing the dictator’s fall, it was the seizure of the state TV and Radio stations, rather than parliament or the presidential palace, that denoted victory.
Proposition is right to point out the role that has traditionally been filled by relatively small scale radio – providing a relatively cheap method of getting in touch with anybody willing to listen. However, that has, effectively, been rendered redundant by Internet technology. The power of Facebook, Youtube and other sites to disseminate ideas and information as well as phone texting has not only matched that role but surpassed it.
With no capital costs in an era of internet cafes and omnipresent cell phones, the free exchange of information through digital and portable technology has met exactly the needs and concerns Proposition highlights.[i]
Suggesting that community radio will somehow supplement or enhance that process it taking a step backwards; support for the relatively monolithic radio model runs all of the risks of empowering extremists already mentioned without even equalling the benefits of texting and social media[ii].
[i] Helling, Alex, ‘This House would use foreign aid funds to research and distribute software that allows bloggers and journalists in non democratic countries to evade censorship and conceal their online activities’, freespeechdebate.idebate.org, 18 May 2012.
For all of its potential, the idea that the Internet is a worldwide force is something of a Western conceit. That fact is doubly the case when discussing the social media sites that Op seems to think are such a panacea. These sites – and the Internet in general – are overwhelmingly white, Western and wealthy.
To associate a medium with a particular virtue is missing the point. Radio has been used for atrocity and tyranny (Rwanda would be an obvious example) just as much as the promotion and development of democracy. Equally the suggestion that community radio has a more significant role to play in this regard as opposed to, say, the BBC world Service, is ignoring the facts.
Particular media cannot be said to support democratic renewal any more than particular languages can. Equally, the revolutions of 1989 demonstrated the reality that taking control of the national radio station is, in some situations, more important than seizing the Presidential Palace. Neither the ‘community’ element nor the ‘radio’ aspect are innately democratic.
Different media have, undeniably, produced different types of social change – but they all have possibilities for democratic progress[i].
It is a platform, but it’s a platform with history – one that has allowed small or marginalised groups to have a voice. Of course a radio station won’t build democratic strength on its own but it is an important tool in normalising the concept that the voices of those communities have both worth and power.
Kuttab, Daoud, ‘Why the Arab world needs community radio’, FreeSpeechDebate, 19 September 2012, http://freespeechdebate.com/en/discuss/why-the-arab-world-needs-community-radio/
Ash, Timothy Garton, Facts are Subversive. The Strange Toppling of Slobodan Milošević. Atlantic Books. 2009.
Buckley, Steve, President, World Association for Community Radio Broadcasters. ‘Community Broadcasting: good practice in policy, law and regulation’, UNESCO, 2008. http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/WPFD2009/pdf/wpfd2008_steve+buckley+community+media+-+maputo+wpfd.pdf
Dale, Alexander C., ‘Countering hate messages that lead to violence: The United Nations’s chapter VII authority to use radio jamming to halt incendiary broadcasts’, Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law, Vol 11, 2001. http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1215&context=djcil
Helling, Alex, ‘This House would use foreign aid funds to research and distribute software that allows bloggers and journalists in non democratic countries to evade censorship and conceal their online activities’, freespeechdebate.idebate.org, 18 May 2012, http://idebate.org/debatabase/debates/freespeechdebate/house-would-use-foreign-aid-funds-research-distribute-software-evade-censorship
Hood, Michael, NPR CEO: Internet will replace broadcast radio in 5-10 years. Blatherwatch, 3 June 2010. http://blatherwatch.blogs.com/talk_radio/2010/06/npr-ceo-internet-will-replace-broadcast-radio-in-510-years.html
Mtimbe, Lumko et al., What is Community Radio?, AMARC (World Association of Community Radio) booklet. 1998. http://www.amarc.org/documents/manuals/What_is_CR_english.pdf
Noriega, Chin A, and Iribarren, Francisco Javier, ‘Quantifying Hate Speech on Commercial Talk Radio’, Chicano Studies Research Center, November 2011, http://www.chicano.ucla.edu/files/WP1QuantifyingHateSpeech_0.pdf
Plunkett, John, ‘Community radio: A rare success story’. Guardian.co.uk. 9 March 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/organgrinder/2009/mar/09/community-radio-ofcom-plunkett-blog
‘Expenses to expect’, Prometheus Radio Project. http://prometheusradio.org/startup_costs
Sedra, Mark, ‘Revolution 2.0: democracy promotion in the age of social media’, The Globe and Mail. 2 February 2011. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/revolution-20-democracy-promotion-in-the-age-of-social-media/article564610/
Siddharth, ‘Riding the radio wave; Community radio in South-East Asia’, Culture360.org, 18 February 2010. http://culture360.org/magazine/riding-the-radio-wave-%E2%80%93-community-radio-in-south-asia/
Smith, Russell, ‘The impact of hate media in Rwanda’, BBC News, 3 December 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3257748.stm
‘Community Radio’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_radio accessed 3 January 2013
Wisner, Frank G., ‘Memorandum for deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs, national security council, Department of Defense, 5 May 1994, http://www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/International_security_affairs/africa/us_jamming_of_radio_rwanda_1994.pdf