Mumbai is currently awash with intriguing hoardings and other roadside advertisements heralding the imminent arrival of a new kid on the local media block. "Create your newspaper at your doorstep. Speak to us." "Speak up. We are coming to your home to listen." "Open your door to us. Speak to us." "Speak up. It's in your DNA." "DNA - the newspaper you are creating."
Could this be the beginning of citizens' involvement in shaping the media in India? Or is it yet another marketing gimmick by a media organisation that merely creates an illusion of participation and influence? Does the anticipated launch of Daily News and Analysis (DNA) have anything to do with the growing global trend towards citizens' media activism?
Going by the tenor of the ads, as well as the antecedents of some of its promoters, this seems unlikely. Indeed, with three new papers expected to soon hit the newstands in India's commercial and entertainment capital, which is also the country's biggest advertisement market, the primary goal of the coming print media battle will obviously be to corner as big a share of that large ad pie as possible. Readers will, of course, come handy in this process - especially readers with plenty of spending power. But the chances are that they will be viewed and wooed as consumers rather than as citizens.
That is not quite what citizen participation in media matters is all about. Citizens' new-found or heightened interest in the media is based on the understanding that, in today's world, the mass media are increasingly playing the role once played by family, community, religion and formal education: not only disseminating information and knowledge, but also shaping values and norms, moulding attitudes and behaviour, and influencing the very process of living. The idea is that people, therefore, have a stake in the media and must be heard on issues concerning media content and policy.
Audiences, long presumed to be passive consumers, are beginning to turn active in many parts of the world, seeking recognition as citizens who have a right to be heard on all issues relating to the media. They appear to be particularly keen to have their say about broadcast media, possibly because of the omnipresence, power and influence of television in particular, and the fact that public service broadcasting (PSB) has long been an accepted, if increasingly threatened, concept and practice in most countries. Citizens are getting involved in media matters not only at the level of content or programming, but also with regard to various determinants of policy, such as institutional structure, funding and regulation.
For example, thousands of people are expected to converge in St. Louis in the United States this month for the National Conference for Media Reform 2005, as more and more citizens of the USA begin to comprehend the impact of what local activists describe as the country's "broken media system." The last such major event was held in 2003 in Madison, Wisconsin, in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission's decision to relax the regulation of ownership in media industries. That was a groundbreaking forum that drew over 1700 participants, many of them "ordinary" citizens.
According to Hanna Sassaman of the Prometheus Radio Project, which had challenged the FCC's proposed new rules in court, "Thousands of Americans are telling the Commission and everyone who will listen that consolidation is bad for their communities and families. It is of paramount importance that the FCC use that testimony to inform new ownership rules that will preserve and protect America's diverse, local voices."
A small coalition of groups working behind the scenes have helped to keep media reform on the political map of the US since 2003. Determined to restore diversity, independence, accountability and democracy in the US media, many of these groups have combined policy work in Washington with grassroots activism and outreach across the country to give shape to a movement sparked by concerned citizens.
In the United Kingdom, the pioneering London-based organisation, Voice of the Listener and Viewer (VLV), launched a campaign called "Broadcasting Matters 2005" earlier this year to ensure that citizens have a say in determining the future of British broadcasting, in general, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), in particular. According to VLV, "The BBC and other British broadcasters will face more upheaval in the next five years than at any time in their history." The aim of the campaign is "to raise awareness of the vital role that broadcasting plays in British life and democracy, and of the threats to the quality of radio and television that now exist." It includes a series of public events designed to enable as wide a range of people as possible to influence the future of the BBC, as well as public service broadcasting as a whole.
Similarly, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (a.k.a. Friends), a non-profit, independent watchdog group voluntarily financed by 60,000 Canadian families, has recently been involved in efforts to ensure that the proposed additional funding for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in the federal budget would be used to fulfil the demand from the citizenry for more regional programming. "The Broadcasting Act calls on the CBC to 'reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions,'" commented Noreen Golfman of Friends in a February 2005 article headlined, 'It's not a Toronto Broadcasting Corporation.' "... The CBC should chart a new course, live up to its legal mandate and take advantage of the incredible wealth of talent in communities across the land."
In Germany, a political decision against an increase in the broadcast license fee, which had been recommended by an independent commission, provoked several institutions of civil society to rise in support of public service broadcasting. In Germany, as in the U.K., public broadcasting is supported by citizens in the form of a license fee, which supplements revenue from advertising. The Deutsche Kulturrat, the main association of cultural institutions and people working in the field of culture, appealed to politicians not to interfere with the established, legal process of determining the fee amount. The Initiativkreis, an organisation representing German listeners and viewers, convened a conference to highlight the importance of public service broadcasting for the country's culture and stress the need to fund it adequately.
At the same time, these and other organisations, including churches and labour unions, criticised German public broadcasters for shooting themselves in the foot by cutting down on cultural programmes serving various minorities while increasing popular programmes that appeal to the majority. They called upon broadcasters not to reduce such vital aspects of programming in a knee-jerk reaction to the government's controversial decision not to increase the license fee.
By contrast, in India, a recent, significant development involving the national broadcaster, Prasar Bharati (the umbrella organization overseeing Doordarshan's television network as well as All India Radio), has gone more or less unnoticed and certainly unchallenged so far. A parliamentary standing committee has reportedly asked what is supposed to be this country's public service broadcaster to reduce the airtime given to TV and radio programmes with social messages, on the ground that they fetch no revenue. The directive apparently came in response to submissions by both Doordarshan and AIR that they were obligated to devote thousands of hours to programmes that no private channel would touch because they were so unprofitable.
What exactly that will mean in practice remains to be seen. The public service mandate of Doordarshan, in particular, has already been eroded over the past couple of decades with the growing emphasis on commercially sponsored programmes.
An observation of the European Commission may be relevant in this context: "Public service broadcasting, although having a clear economic relevance, is not comparable to a public service in any other economic sector. There is no other service that at the same time has access to such a wide sector of the population, provides it with so much information and content, and by doing so conveys and influences both individual and public opinion." This being the case, decisions about the content of public service broadcasting surely cannot be made on the basis of commercial considerations alone.
According to Public broadcasting: Why? How? - a 2001 publication of the World Radio and Television Council and UNESCO - "Public service is the only raison d'etre of public broadcasting, which is neither commercial nor State-controlled. Clearly establishing the links between public broadcasters, citizens and democracy, the document emphasises that a public broadcaster "is the public's broadcasting organisation; it speaks to everyone as a citizen. Public broadcasters encourage access to and participation in public life. They develop knowledge, broaden horizons and enable people to better understand themselves by better understanding the world and others."
Further, it continues, "Public broadcasting is defined as a meeting place where all citizens are welcome and considered equals. It is an information and education tool, accessible to all and meant for all, whatever their social or economic status. Its mandate is not restricted to information and cultural development-public broadcasting must also appeal to the imagination, and entertain. But it does so with a concern for quality that distinguishes it from commercial broadcasting."
There is little doubt that PSB has a pivotal role to play in providing access to and participation in public life. According to a 2003 document emerging from the 32nd session of UNESCO's General Conference, "For the majority of the world population, comprising inhabitants of huge rural areas and illiterate people, radio and television remain the most available and widespread information and communications technologies (ICTs), with radio in the first place as primary communication medium." The document stresses the fact that public broadcasting is meant to serve the interests of people as citizens rather than as consumers, reaching all populations and specific groups and, thereby, contributing to social inclusion and strengthening of civil society.
How does all this square with the parliamentary panel's recent recommendations? Doordarshan and AIR may well have a legitimate case against being required, as they claim, to air 3000 hours of programming (across all their stations) on Republic Day, 2000 hours for Independence Day, etc. But can 2000 hours of programming on the environment, 4000 hours dedicated to consumer protection and 2300 hours on petroleum conservation be deemed a waste of public resources? What about the claimed 4000 hours of programmes for industrial workers and the 3800 hours allegedly devoted to the eradication of untouchability? The quality and effectiveness of the programmes - as conceived and executed -- may be questionable, and certainly they ought to be improved, but can the need for public service broadcasting to tackle such issues be denied? Do citizens get to have a say in the matter?
If so, who - since "citizens" do not constitute a homogenous category? Certainly, at the moment, diversity does not appear to be a criterion for the selection of participants for the popular radio and television programmes based on "audience participation" in India. As a result, "the people" in the studios are hardly representative of the multiple classes, castes, ethnic and religious communities, languages and educational levels that make up the Indian population. Nor, for that matter, is there much variation in their geographical location, with "national" programmes remaining largely limited to the capital city, barring rare forays into other news hot spots. What is more, the airtime provided to "ordinary people" in the studio is usually just a fraction of that allotted to celebrity or "expert" participants.
Further, in the era of mass media as the new opiate of the middle classes, when even news programmes and channels have succumbed to the infotainment imperative, little attention is paid to the diversity of interests and concerns that exists even within the urban middle classes, which constitute the target audience of most popular programmes. The same goes for the "man/woman in the street" interviewed by the print media in the name of soliciting public opinion on various issues. It is not surprising, therefore, that even content apparently open to public participation currently reflects little diversity in content or perspective.
In any case, citizens' involvement in media matters cannot be secured through lip service or token gestures. Unless policy initiatives are widely publicised in media that actually reach ordinary people, unless adequate time is provided for citizens to inform themselves of the implications and formulate their responses, unless debates and discussions are made truly accessible, and unless sufficient time and attention are devoted to the process, citizen participation is likely to remain a mirage.
For example, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which oversees the telecommunications and broadcast industries in the country, has released a number of consultation papers on a variety of broadcast-related issues since December 2004. These significant policy developments have caused scarcely a ripple on the surface of Indian civil society. This is not surprising since they were reported and analysed, if at all, mainly in the business press or web-based media, which are accessible only to a small fraction of even the educated population of the country.
Civil society in India, which is vocal and vigorous on a wide range of important issues, has yet to intervene actively in media matters. Nor is it encouraged to. Although TRAI has established a worthy tradition of issuing regular press releases, posting all vital documents on its website, calling for comments from stakeholders, and even organising open house discussions on the subjects covered in its consultation papers, the process has not yet attracted substantial public participation.
This is partly because there is little public awareness of these developments and their significance, thanks to the limited coverage provided by the "mainstream" media, which appear to view them as issues exclusively concerning the government and the media industry, with little relevance to "the people" except in their role as consumers. The information gap is exacerbated by the fact that the deadline for feedback set by TRAI is extremely tight, leaving little time for news to trickle down to the public and generate informed responses. Further, the open house discussions are not adequately publicised and, in any case, are typically held only in two or, at the most, three cities, usually in luxury hotels.
But perhaps the most critical reason for the present non-involvement of the public is the fact that citizens are not yet seen - even by themselves -- as legitimate stakeholders, with every right to participate in discussions on the media, which constitute a vital and influential aspect of modern life. As a result, there is little attempt from any quarter to ensure that ordinary people, who constitute the bulk of media audiences, have a say in issues relating to the media, including policy.
Media activism in the country, such as it is, tends at present to be largely restricted to critiques of content in the "mainstream" media, and the creation and promotion of "alternative" media. Valuable as these efforts are, they are clearly no substitute for citizens' engagement with the media, especially at a time when the media landscape is in a state of flux and far-reaching media policies are in the process of being formulated. In the absence of citizen action on policy matters it is hardly surprising that it is, primarily, the broadcast industry that currently contributes comments on TRAI's consultation papers on various aspects of the electronic media and participates in its open house discussions.
India is not alone in lagging behind in terms of organised citizen action on the media front. A recent survey on the status of citizens' media organizations, or associations of viewers and listeners of electronic media, conducted on behalf of UNESCO by Javed Jabbar, founder of the Citizens' Media Commission of Pakistan, found "a vacuum in respect of associations of viewers and listeners of electronic media," especially in the developing world.
At the same time, the survey also discovered growing awareness in these countries about the pivotal role of the media -- especially the electronic media, the need to ensure genuine choice and alternative options within the broadcast sector, and the importance of public service broadcasting. In addition, it detected increased consciousness in many places of the need for regular interaction between citizens, on the one hand, and media professionals and decision-makers, on the other, on issues such as public service broadcasting.
According to the researchers, the general preference seems to be for a form of dialogue that goes beyond the conventional letter writing and the more trendy "phone-ins" that tend to be too brief and superficial to be meaningful and are, in any case, within the exclusive control of the media. However, at present interactions between citizens' organizations and media are primarily reactive and generally take the form of complaints and responses.
One way of fulfilling that need is, perhaps, to take advantage of the fact that courts in various parts of the world have upheld the notion of the airwaves as a public good. For example, in India, as well as Sri Lanka, Supreme Court judgements have clearly stated the important principle that the airwaves/frequencies constitute public property and are to be used to benefit the public, with governments functioning primarily as trustees for the public. In other words, the judges have ruled that the primary purpose of all broadcasting is to serve the public interest.
Judicial endorsement of the idea that the airwaves constitute a public good is a potentially powerful tool that has, so far, not been sufficiently highlighted, let alone effectively used, even by those in favour of democratising the media. The concept clearly needs to be invoked more widely and forcefully since it provides a sound, legitimate basis for citizens' involvement in matters concerning broadcasting. It is up to citizens to use these progressive judgements to secure their right to independent media that can create the public sphere so vital for democracy.
According to Jocelyn Hay, founder of VLV, "In democratic societies, two of the most influential determinants of national identity are the nature of civil society and the debate which goes on within it. A country's broadcasting services should provide part of the public sphere, the public forum for that debate to which individual citizens and institutions contribute their thinking on issues of general concern to the community. Their responsibility grows as radio and television become increasingly significant in the national life."
However, with the advent of media globalisation and the rising importance of the market in determining media content, the public sphere - in the real sense of the term -- has been shrinking rather than expanding.
In view of the growing influence of the media, and the accelerating pace of technological and other developments that impact the media, there is little doubt that the time is ripe for public action to assert and activate citizens' right to be acknowledged as stakeholders in the media, to influence media policy, to shape media content and to be represented in the media. It is certainly time for civil society to recognise that media and culture are matters of public interest about which citizens must be both concerned and proactive. Perhaps the parliamentary panel's recent observations can serve to trigger more debate and action on media issues by citizens here.