Sun, 09 Mar 2003

A long, winding road for community radio

Fitri Wulandari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

A radio station for villagers on the slopes of Mt. Merapi, a radio station for farmers in the Lembang highlands, West Java, and other community radio stations now can come out loud with the endorsement of the new broadcasting law last year.

After being branded as 'illegal radio' and raided once they aired, community radio is finally recognized as a broadcasting institution in the country.

"It's very relieving. We can operate now without being afraid of being closed down by the government," Ali Pangestu, coordinator of the Indonesian Community Radios Network (JRKI), told The Jakarta Post.

Community radio is basically a radio station which is owned and run by a community. It is independent, non-commercial and serves the interests of people in its community.

The programs usually offer entertainment, practical information or religious or cultural programs.

A community radio station on the slopes of Mt. Merapi would give information on how to avoid danger when the volcano erupts. Or a radio for farmers in Lembang would give tips on agriculture or cattle husbandry.

Normally, it has a limited transmission power of around 20 watts, which results in limited coverage of around 20 square kilometers.

In the Broadcasting Law No 32/2002, which was passed on Nov. 28, 2002 to replace Community Broadcasting Law No 24/1997, TV and radio has been included along with public, commercial and subscription broadcasting.

Within months of the endorsement, community stations have mushroomed. Although there has been no data reported on how many community stations there are in the country, the law has sparked the establishment of community stations in many areas in the country.

The Voice of Farmers Radio Network (JRSP), in West Java, has about 400 community stations as members. JRKI, Ali said, has about 150 member stations throughout the country, including West Java Community Radio Network (JRK Jabar) and Yogyakarta Community Radio Network (JRK Yogyakarta).

In many countries, community stations are not new. According to Kombinasi bulletin, there are now 8,000 stations in the U.S. categorized as community stations, grassroots radio, and campus radio.

In The Philippines, the government not only gives licenses but goes as far as funding about 40 community stations.

Although the law to accommodate community radio is three- months old, some community stations have existed for years, including Radio Abilawa in Cipendeuy district, Subang, West Java, The Voice of Farmers Radio in Klaten, Central Java, and Radio Angkringan in Yogyakarta.

"Radio is the most effective media, particularly for remote villages where information is scarce," Sri Aryani of Combine Resource Institute (CRI), a non-governmental organization working on community information networks in the country.

And there is a growing need from people for this type of media as information on their community is not accommodated by the mainstream broadcast media.

"Community radio will enrich culture, information and knowledge for the community because what they need is actually information about their community. It is unstoppable," Atmakusumah Astraatmadja from the Indonesian Press Council said.

The repressive New Order administration was not very fond of this media, saying it would spark racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, which might lead to national disintegration.

The fear has proved baseless. Radio Abilawa in Subang, West Java, for instance, managed to stop a long-standing feud in Cipendeuy district.

The United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says community radio can help democracy proceed as it opens chances for wider public participation. It is also a catalyst for development in urban and rural areas.

The law, however, does not end problems faced by community stations. Among others is radio frequency.

As of now, the government has yet to allocate radio frequencies for both commercial and community stations.

"At present, radio stations just pick up any channel frequency which has not been taken," Ali said.

'Radio frequency sweeping' is sometimes conducted by the Ministry of Communications and Information and stations are raided. Such a case happened in February, with rural station Trendi Niaga in Pangalengan, West Java.

"Regional administrations should urge and facilitate communities to have community radio. After all, they are protected by the law. On the other hand, the stations should get proper frequency licenses and other requirements," Atmakusumah said.

Atmakusumah urged the government to speed up the establishment of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI), which will function as a regulatory body, including allocating frequencies and licenses.

Sustainability of community radio is another crucial problem. Unlike commercial radio, community radio cannot rely on commercial advertising for income, as stipulated by the law.

"The most common way is community fees, selling song card requests or broadcasting community notices," Ali explained.

Ali said community radio operators were gearing up to organize themselves professionally.

"It's good we have a legal foundation now. But there is still a long way to go. Lots of work to be done."