World Press Freedom Day 2012 was celebrated on 3 May in India, with UNESCO, the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD) and Sesame Workshop India Trust jointly organizing a conference titled ‘Rural Voices: Unheard to Empowered’. Held in Gurgaon at the IRRAD complex, the event drew over 150 participants from media organizations, professional bodies, development agencies, the government, NGOs, academia, and civil society organizations.
In his opening remarks, Mr Shigeru Aoyagi, Director and UNESCO Representative, emphasized that the conference’s title and theme paid tribute to the critical role played by community media in promoting democracy and good governance.
Since its institution by the UN General Assembly in 1993, World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) has been observed internationally on 3 May every year. The global theme for WPFD 2012 was ‘New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies’.
As a democracy, India must permit all social groups to practice free speech and expression. Community media remain the only means of expression and political participation for grassroots groups with no access to the mainstream media. Freedom of expression for community media is thus essential for empowering marginalized communities in rural and underdeveloped contexts. This was the core theme that the Gurgaon conference sought to address.
In his opening remarks, Mr Shigeru Aoyagi, Director and UNESCO Representative to India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka, emphasized that the conference’s title and theme paid tribute to the critical role played by community media in promoting democracy and good governance. Mr Aoyagi noted the particular efficacy of community radio as a development tool, and acknowledged that the Indian Community Radio Policy places community radio within the framework of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution (which enshrines the freedom of speech and expression). Quoting Amartya Sen’s statement that giving a voice to the voiceless is a form of development, he went on to outline some of the challenges that the community radio sector in India faces today – ranging from spectrum availability to licensing procedures, sustainability and content restrictions.
The various sessions of the conference highlighted the positive impact of participatory communication within rural communities, and showcased creative and successful alternative media models and practices. A wide range of alternative media were discussed – these included community radio, vernacular newspapers, wall paintings, posters, street theatre, comics and songs. The conference also reiterated the need for community inputs in the development process, and the need to identify communications resources for and policy gaps in rural development. As Ms Iskra Panevska, Advisor for Communication and Information for South Asia, UNESCO, observed: ‘By giving a voice a to rural people, development workers and local authorities we can help in policy acceptance processes, in mobilizing people for participation and action, and in disseminating new ideas, practices and technology. Most importantly, communication tools and resources can help overcome barriers of literacy, language, cultural differences and physical isolation.’
The policy environment governing community media operations in India was closely examined. A number of policy shortcomings were identified and brief recommendations made. Finally, the conference culminated in a session for stakeholders to prepare plans for collective action and cooperation. Participants’ responses indicated that they were optimistic about the plans developed and new partnerships forged at the conference. Ms Jane Schukoske, CEO of IRRAD had earlier remarked that the event had been conceived as a platform to ‘share innovative ideas, discuss policy, and plan together to enlarge media access for rural communities’. Quite evidently, each of these objectives had been successfully met.
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