Protecting the spectrum for media freedom

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer and media watcher. He writes a blog on media and society. This article is adapted and expanded from the author’s panel remarks made during the OUR Media 6 international conference held in Sydney, Australia, from 9 to 13 April 2007 and was first published on Media Helping Media.

On May 3, the annual World Press Freedom Day will once again be observed worldwide, focusing public attention on a multitude of threats to freedom of expression through the mass media.

But amidst the extremely relevant and necessary slogans, we are unlikely to hear this slogan: Hands off our spectrum. Yet saving our spectrum is critical for ensuring media freedom.

The electro-magnetic spectrum has been called the ‘invisible wealth of nations’, and all broadcasting using the airwaves relies on the fair, equitable and sound management of this common property resource.

And as economic and cultural practices move more and more into the digital realm, the spectrum’s value is only set to increase.

But few people — even within the media profession and industry — appreciate our dependence on this finite resource. Out of sight does seem to push it out of most people’s minds.

Therein lurks a danger: what we don’t see and value can be quietly taken away, without many of us realising it.

Evolving into an information society requires that frequencies are allocated in a balanced way amongst community, commercial and public service media.

But that’s just what has not happened in a large number of countries — some developed and many developing ones among them.

An urgent priority
As the Communications Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) campaign has noted: “There is a need for a more democratic allocation of spectrum space to ensure that the public interest is given primacy and that public service and civil society use of the radio spectrum is adequately provided for in both the analog and the digital environment.”

Spectrum management reform is becoming an urgent priority as more countries move from analog to digital spectrum in broadcasting. Only a few countries in Asia have as yet announced a timeframe for this – such as Japan, Korea and Malaysia.

Many countries have not even addressed this issue — they are dealing with more basic concerns in broadcast regulation and policy formulation.

But over the next decade or so, every country will cross this bridge. When they do, it is important not to repeat the analog era’s many mistakes. Thus, the time to clean up our spectrum management is now.

A great deal needs to be done. Many developing countries in Asia have squandered their analog spectrum, assigning disproportionately large chunks for government and military use.

Of the balance, commercial media and telecommunications operators have received the lion’s share, leaving only a tiny part for use by the public (which must be shared between community radio, amateur radio and public access wireless broadband services).

In short, the public, who ultimately own this common property, have been edged out. Most of those who occupy the public spectrum don’t support the public interest.

With no tradition or precedent of rational, fair use of the analog spectrum, we run the risk of the digital spectrum inheriting these management anomalies.

Grudging liberalization
Many emerging economies in Asia have introduced broadcast liberalization during the past 10 to 15 years. However, this has at best been a patchy, half-hearted releasing of the previously full governmental control of the airwaves.

I call it ‘grudging liberalization’: the duopoly long enjoyed by governments and military was slightly eased to let in big money corporations — while keeping out practically everybody else.

South Asia has a dismal record in this respect. Nepal was the first to license community radio in 1997, and it was only in recent months that India finally adopted a national policy on community broadcasting.

All other South Asian countries licensed commercial FM channels but stubbornly excluded communities and civil society from broadcasting.

In my native Sri Lanka, successive governments have refused to issue broadcast licenses to communities or civil society groups. Meanwhile, a smokescreen of Mahaweli ‘community radio’ (MCR) has been used to cover this up for two decades.

MCR is anything but community: it is fully owned, managed and operated by the government’s radio station, where nothing remotely critical of the government in office is allowed.

Why keep communities out of broadcasting? Senior officials have privately cited fears of media misuse for ‘anti-social’ or political purposes. Strangely, such concerns don’t extend to profit making companies some of whose channels are openly aligned with political parties or nationalist groups.

Such a poor ‘report card’ for liberalization does not augur well for a better and fairer management of the digital spectrum.

In fact, it is probably wiser to defer going digital until we have sorted matters out in managing the analog spectrum.

Moving from analog to digital transmission will pose considerable challenges in large, developing countries in Asia — some moved from AM to FM radio broadcasting only a few years ago, and that entailed considerable effort.

For sure, everyone must move with the times, but advances in technology will not yield results unless policies and laws keep up.

Fundamental reforms needed
Already, TV content production has gone digital in many countries, but their final transmission still happens through analog systems. There is nothing wrong in such an ana-digi co-existence: it serves the broadcaster needs and audience interests in resource-starved situations.

We must undertake fundamental reforms in broadcast policy, law and regulation before embarking on the high-cost, tedious and slow process of moving the entire production and distribution process to digital.

And that’s another challenge for all of us who want to safeguard media freedom and promote the freedom of expression and cultural production.

Many courageous Asians who stand up for media freedom — often at considerable personal risk – often don’t realize the full extent to which the electro-magnetic spectrum has been mismanaged and abused by their respective governments.

Activist attention has been held by the more tangible, physical threats to media freedom: issues such as censorship, attacks on journalists and concentration of media ownership.

All these agitations are certainly necessary — but not sufficient on their own.

I like to suggest three steps for journalists, private media owners and free media activists:

  • Look forward to the transition from analog to digital spectrum: anticipate and prepare for this inevitable crossing.
  • Look sideways to see how we’re currently doing in the analog domain, and what problems need to be resolved.
  • Look back to reflect on the mistakes we’ve made along the way, and hopefully, learn from them.

The spectrum is invisible but threats to it are real and present. And make no mistake: our hard-won gains in the physical world of mass media can be undermined if the spectrum is divided among a handful of privileged users and political cronies by governments that are only its custodians, not owners.

We need to save our spectrum for the public good.