News from the Bottom Up

First Published: Development Asia
No. 2, December 2008

Community media can address social problems, but need support from advertisers.

 By Red Batario

It’s called “community journalism” in Nepal and Thailand, “public journalism” in the Philippines and Indonesia, “development journalism” in India and Bangladesh. But the goal is the same: to give ordinary people a chance to speak on issues affecting their lives.

The results can make a difference. Look, for example, at what happened when journalist Leny Escaro wrote about Wilson Salibio, a 42-year-old farmer in the village of Sicsican on the western-central Philippines island of Palawan.  Escaro made five trips to the island over two months in order “to engage people in conversation and find out what they think about their future on the land they till, but do not own,” she said.

Her story, when it appeared in Bandillo ng Palawan, a weekly community newspaper, triggered lively debate among farmers, technicians, and local governments on how to address the plight of such farmers. The story also won Escaro the Bright Leaf award for best regional feature on agriculture in 2007.

It is an example of the emergence in Asia of a problem-solving kind of journalism. But this new type of journalism requires journalists willing to get deeply involved with communities, and it needs communities to support space for the ordinary voice to be heard.

As Kunda Dixit, a Nepali journalist, noted, “Journalism has to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, in trying to solve the crisis of global human survival.”

To be sure, there are many daunting development issues among poor communities across Asia that need to be spotlighted by journalists and Palawan in the Philippines is no exception. Escaro’s story appeared in Bandillo’s special section called “Tuturan,” which translates roughly as “meaningful message.” It is a forum for citizens, local governments, NGOs, academe, and business groups to air views on problems such as the shortage of rice, inadequate classrooms, mining issues, and the lack of jobs. Introduced in 2004, when the paper was having a hard time generating revenues, “Tuturan” soon gained a following. One early topic was the planned development of vast tracts of land for palm oil plantations. After public forums facilitated by Bandillo on the subject, Palaweños voted down the proposal. Importantly, the newspaper saw local advertising revenues rise by 10%, helping it to continue.

But another community newspaper, in the west central province of Iloilo, didn’t fare as well. In the upland municipality of Bingawan, the Visayas Examiner, a weekly, helped institutionalize a citizen-based public audit mechanism through local legislation after staying with the story and providing opportunities to discuss citizen participation in local governance.

It began with a project called “Pamangkot sang Banwa” (Report to the People) in which citizens presented important issues to candidates running for election, and in turn candidates pledged to report on progress on these issues within 100 days.

The newspaper became a debating chamber for issues such as traffic rerouting, flooding, pollution, lack of classrooms, environmental protection, and good governance. But, despite a growing subscription, the newspaper had to fold after five years due to lack of advertising revenues.  “Perhaps advertisers believe that only sex and gore sell, and that’s why they didn’t give us enough,” said the former editor, Ma. Diosa Labiste.  

In India, both community newspapers and the mainstream Times of India helped to expose inefficiency in government services. In Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, the Public Affairs Centre (PAC), an NGO, had introduced a Citizens’ Report Card system in 1994 through which people could evaluate the efficiency of local government service delivery, especially in water, garbage disposal and sewage systems.

Several community newspapers ran stories on the Report Card system and, as a result of citizens airing their views, several public authorities reviewed their offices’ performance.

When the Times of India, with a circulation of 2.4 million, adopted the community newspaper approach by running weekly features on the Report Card for two months, it proved a potent tool for increasing transparency and accountability in governance.

The Times reporter assigned to write about the PAC report card on hospitals did extensive reporting among the community. She talked not only to doctors, nurses and senior officials at public hospitals, but also with patients, their relatives, and with residents in the patients’ neighborhoods.

The stories, which ran on the front page, focused on the message that malpractice and corruption should not be tolerated in public hospitals. Within a few weeks of the stories being published, some high-ranking nurses in one public hospital were arrested on charges of corruption and negligence.

Even with the advent of online media, radio remains king in many of Asia’s rural communities. It is often the lone beacon of hope for people mired in poverty. Sometimes, radio can also act as a mediator in times of conflict.

In Indonesia, a community-based radio music program has played a role in reducing tension between conflicting parties. A program called “dangdut” of Radio Suara Persaudaraan Matraman (RSPM) network helped bring peace to squatter neighborhoods in Matraman, East Jakarta, that had been feuding since 1971, according to M. Satiri, who started the station five years ago.

 Soon after the music began airing, young people from both neighborhoods visited the station to request songs and stories about their home and lives — and began to understand each other better.  Now the station, which has become a regular meeting place for people from the two neighborhoods, has begun to include community news, which helps to forge a common identity. This example also shows the role of creative strategies when addressing community issues.

Community journalists also used radio to good effect after 3,000 families were relocated from the banks of the Mahaweli River in Kothmale, Sri Lanka, when a huge dam project began in 1989.  Most had lost their farms and needed help in rebuilding their lives. A handful of community journalists put up a small FM radio station that focused on self-employment, livelihood opportunities, and health issues. Starting with contributions to establish Kothmale Community Radio (KCR), they used the Internet to source news and other information. The station operated in fits and starts and, by 1991, could go on air only three times a week for three hours. Then the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization supported the innovative radio station with a $50,000 grant. By 2001, KCR was also getting local and national advertising support commercials and had become an information resource center.  Schoolchildren use the radio and the station’s Internet facility for class projects. In short, the station has become an important part of the community’s life.

These examples show how community journalists, mostly in South and Southeast Asia, are crafting innovative responses to meet development challenges in a rapidly-changing social and political landscape.  However, though many ventures have been planted, many still have to take root.

To be sustainable, one of the major challenges is persuading more advertisers to support stories that clearly articulate community concerns. Another is the ability of news organizations to market this brand of journalism as a way of reaching a wider audience and articulating more voices. For example, many have yet to tap the economic potential of overseas workers and migrants who would be interested to know more about what is happening in their home communities.

Most of the newspapers and radio stations that are developing this community approach are small, but much of their constituency — built around towns, villages, and neighborhoods – could be developed into a more solid support base.

But their experience also shows that journalists can be participants in the affairs of the community without losing their tradition of independence. And by enabling the public to learn from the experience of others, journalists may help many readers bring solutions to their own problems. 


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