Letter from Milan: Let's hear it for a voice to the voiceless

Community radio is coming into its own.
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The Independent Culture
In radio, "alternative" does not mean "dumb". Last week, at the seventh international conference of the AMARC (Association of Community Radio Broadcasters) in Milan, 350 broadcasters from across the world met to celebrate the enormous expansion of radio - variously described as "free", "community", "educational", "popular", "democratic", "person- to-person" or "pirate". The theme of the conference was decidedly un-dumb: "Communication and Human Rights". The platform commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights to the media: freedom of communication itself seen not only as a medium of broadcast in support of other human rights, but as a right in itself.

The importance of this was clear in the testimonies of some of those attending from the southern hemisphere, particularly from Africa and Latin America, where many of AMARC's community radio stations and associates operate. Broadcasters like Lydia Amy Ajono from Ghana talked of the risks of raising issues of girls' emancipation, even their access to education, in their "Education for Life" series. Sometimes, it makes safer sense to discuss domestic violence or female circumcision in the context of soap operas.

Misael Avelino dos Santos from Brazil's Radio Favela discussed threats of a decidedly direct kind. Like the raid on the station a few months' ago, when police invaded for the third time in the station's 18-year history, seizing both workers and equipment. Radio Favela has twice won the United Nations World Prize for its participatory programmes against drug trafficking. It is housed in a slum where, in a population of 160,000, roughly 50 per cent of young people are selling, addicted or both.

One speaker, Susharita Aeshwar of India, spoke of radio's contribution to the demise of the nation state - nowhere more apt than in Europe, where not only airwaves but people now cross state frontiers without impediment. Another, Said Warsame Hesi of Somalia, lamented the lack of international support in bringing his country's civil war to a close, and spoke instead of the need to raise concepts of citizenship and participatory democracy to bring common sense and interest to bear on the factions vying for power.

There is a project, ponderously called "Civic Education for Peace and Good Government in Somalia", which aims to supply state and regional radio with "packages", ready-made tapes of magazines and soaps, allowing a community a voice on air. There are countries, after all, where to obtain a licence or even a power supply is difficult.

What community radio does best is to give a voice to the voiceless, for example the 28 distinct language groups reached by the National Indigenous Media Association of Australia. At the AMARC conference itself the spoken languages were French, English and Spanish. It became clear that linguistic domination is also political domination. AMARC helps members where it can. It has community radios in every Latin American and Caribbean country, and these are neither "pirates" nor "illegals". What they are is unlicensed.

"Community radio" has as many definitions as "human rights". Illegality, like torture itself, is a moveable concept. The two can be synchronised wherever broadcast journalists are persecuted for doing their job. As telecommunications shrink the world, that responsibility has to be shared. Chernobyl was widely misreported by both national and commercial stations, which inspired the Oceanian delegation in Milan to suggest that ecology should be incorporated on the human-rights agenda.

Marcello Lorrai, of Italy's Radio Popolare ,who hosted the conference, concluded: "We exist not to provide a belated commentary on what everyone else has already reported. It's not even a case of affording a different slant or analysis ... The important thing is to be there providing the news that the rest of the media may then be shamed into reporting. It gives community radio enthusiasts a real kick to double up on using foreign correspondents from national media, who then become known as ours. Lorenzo Cremonesi, who covers Israel for the Corriere della Sera, says he's much better known as 'the man from Radio Popolare' - a local community radio station."

Community radio will not remain on the periphery if the mainstream broadcasters continue to marginalise themselves. Now there's a thought for James Boyle and others to conjure with, as they jack their schedules down another notch.