Mar 28 2013

Broadcasters get push in Cairo

Published by at 11:30 am under Articles,Media Activism

Following appeared in The Jordan Times

By Daoud Kuttab

Maghdis was living in the US when the Qadhafi regime fell in Libya. A linguist by profession, Maghdis had established an NGO to help his community of Imazighen.

Muammar Qadhafi had banned his people from using their language. With Qadhafi gone, Maghdis decided to return to the white mountains south of Tripoli to establish a local community radio station that will broadcast in the ethnic Imazighen language.

In the Yemeni capital Sanaa, the Sakkafs have been putting out a quality English language newspaper, The Yemen Times. Then the revolution provided a unique opportunity. The children of the late Abdel Aziz Sakkaf, whose exposés on torture in Yemen is suspected to have got him killed — the incident is still unresolved — wanted to start an independent Arabic language radio station.

In Tunis, Salah Fourty has been campaigning for decades to establish a radio station. He set up the Tunisian audiovisual union last century, but was never able to go on air under the authoritarian regime of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.

The above individuals and many more emerged as some of the unknown heroes of the Arab Spring. Maghdis’ effort in Libya was very simple.

He simply went to the local city council with a piece of paper and got approval.

Local carpenters chipped in to help with free studio furniture, a local computer company contributed a PC and with a small grant from Swedish Development, Awal Radio was on the air, thanks in part to the high power antenna tower once used by Qadhafi.

Getting on air in Tunisia and Yemen was not as easy. The law does not allow it in Yemen and even after the revolution, the annual fee for a radio transmitter of $60,000 is beyond the reach of Fourty’s company.

With help from Italian activists, a transmitter was smuggled into the Tunisian capital disguised as part of the election-monitoring equipment. Tunis 6 was soon broadcasting.

In Yemen, Yemen Times editor Nadia Sakkaf and her husband, Khair Ensour, succeeded in getting pieces of a transmitter into Yemen and then assembled the transmitter on site.

The minister of information appointed after the ouster of president Ali Abdullah Saleh turned a blind eye to whatever they were doing on air.

Three months after they began pirate broadcasting, the Yemeni Cabinet “recognised” existing radio stations and vowed to pass an audiovisual law regulating the sector.

In Palestine, the online news agency Palestine News Network wanted to open a radio station in the southern town of Dahriya.

Unable to get approval for an FM licence, it began online radio station.

A few months later, the agency was able to erect speakers and connect them to the online radio station.

Within months, half a dozen stores and the local bus garage had set up speakers, and the morning online show was being heard by people in the street.

The one thing all these stories have in common is newfound courage and creativity aimed at breaking a once ironclad government monopoly that restricted radio broadcasting to governments and a handful of commercial stations — mouthpieces of Arab governments.

Owners of these radio stations, along with nearly 100 radio practitioners, met in Cairo last week in a conference organised by the Amman based Community Media Network and the UK-based Community Media Solutions.

Along with UNESCO’s and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters’ representatives, the Egyptian Journalist Union and with funding from SIDA and the British Foreign Commonwealth office, they discussed ways to spread this “virus” to others in the Middle East and North Africa.

They learned more about the legal obstacles that have been in place in Arab countries since the 1950s, mostly as a result of revolutions and military coups that were aided by taking over national radio stations.

Young participants from 10 Arab countries also attended workshops that discussed how to set up a community radio station and how to sustain it.

They even heard from a radio engineer how to create a transmitter and an antenna using technically available material. Successful case studies were presented and participants exchanged ideas and experiences.

A Cairo Declaration was issued at the end of the conference, reflecting on the government-imposed obstacles and calling for a reversal of these laws and regulations, and the opening of channels for community broadcasting.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (to which most Arab countries are signatories) was quoted, as well as numerous international, Arab and African resolutions and conventions that specifically call for opening up the airwaves.

The declaration also called for symbolic licence fees and capacity building to help support this important sector that has been proved, around the world, to improve a community’s economic and social status, especially in remote areas.

Young, courageous and entrepreneurial Arab broadcasters are not waiting for government change. Thanks to their newfound courage and the opportunities offered by technological breakthroughs, young broadcasters are going on air to express their voices and those of their communities.

The sooner governments catch up with this development the healthier societies and our region is.

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