Is there a way out?

 by Ramon R. Tuazon
UNESCO Myanmar Office
Secretary General, Asian Media 
Information and Communication Centre

FOR decades, UNESCO has been promoting the concept of community media. I recall the first study I did for UNESCO in 1983 was on a community radio in Cebu City: DYLA Labor Radio.

The struggle of community media continues. COVID-19 pandemic infected an already sick community media with a virulent virus. Prior to COVID-19, community media are already facing life or death situation.

The culprits are interrelated —

  • emergence of online platforms;
  • declining advertising revenues (especially for printed newspapers) as advertising budgets shift to alternative platforms; 
  • changing attitudes and behavior of news consumers, i.e., their media diet has become more entertainment-dominated;
  • live streaming and over the top platforms as (preferred) alternatives; and,
  • the emergence of the so-called user-generated content.  

All these challenges are in the context of a hostile political setting in many so-called developed and developing countries.

Political economy inherently biased against small media

Some colleagues argue that we now have to let community media die a natural death. I beg to disagree.

What many do not realize is that the root cause of community media survival problem is the political economy which is inherently biased against small media.

To paraphrase a recent draft UNESCO document, media’s contribution to democracy and development is threatened by weakened financial models which lead to increasing levels of media capture by public and private actors.

For community media to survive, we should offer new political economic solutions as relying on the same “excessive” capitalist model will only make community media viability a lifetime mission.

Fighting chance: adopt new business models

Do community media have a fighting chance? I believe so. Here are some doables:

1. Community media should identify and adopt new business models.

It is not enough to be community-owned. Perhaps it is time to “experiment” with cooperative (community) media ownership.

Create a network of Public Service (Community) Media (PSM) nationwide. PSM are distinct from state-owned media (which have evolved from poorly-funded to poorly-edited mouthpieces, but has remained untrustworthy as they continue with their fake news production).

2. Diversify community media content and services

One way is to engage in production of multimedia teaching-learning materials for schools which are now in hybrid setting (part of community media channels should evolve into an educational channel or educational content service provider)

Another is to provide customized content for local business enterprises and offer production skills and media platforms to community development projects (some supported by bilateral and multilateral agencies).

Development messages (content) should be distinguished from news content, though. Since necessity is the mother of invention (and innovation), reinvent channels by adopting new technologies e.g., UNESCO Myanmar will introduce Mobile App as “broadcasting” channel for community radio projects which have no franchise because of the political crisis.

3. Selling video footages, supporting journalists

Prior to the February 2021 coup, a broadcast company in Myanmar augmented its income by selling video footages to international media and online revenues earned from their Facebook and YouTube platforms.

A positive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many media outlets’ digital audiences grew dramatically allowing bigger YouTube monetization and Facebook advertisements.

Another way is to directly support local journalists working in these local media houses.

In Indonesia, Dewan Pers or the Indonesian Press Council (IPC) entered into an agreement with the government to hire  local journalists as COVID-19 contact tracers.

The Council also provided a monthly grant of Rp 2,500,000  to selected journalists to write stories on how to deal with the pandemic. Journalists were recruited to write stories promoting “positive behavioral changes to countermeasure Covid-19 pandemic.” This project was intended to prevent or reduce media layoffs.

4. Economic incentives to media industry1

  • Elimination of import duty on paper as raw material for print production starting August 2020;
  • Elimination of tax on print media products (still under discussion with the Ministry of Finance and related institutions);
  • Government will cover electricity cost of mass media companies for a 6-month period starting August 2020 (under discussion);
  • Government suspended Social Security Card payment obligation for mass media companies for 12 months starting in August 2020; and,
  • The government is reviewing the elimination of payment of Radio Broadcasting Permit and Broadcasting Permit Fees as well as cuts in bandwidth rental prices.

5. Options to support community media

The UNESCO Issue Brief, Journalism, Press Freedom and COVID-192 summarizes options to support (community) media in these challenging times:

  • Technology companies and other private actors – through donations, sharing of advertising revenue, support for innovation;
  • Governments – through inclusion in economic rescue packages, tax relief, subsidies, donations, or stimulus packages;
  • Guarantees of editorial independence and a plurality of media must be part of the package. Government contribution to media viability needs to be structured to avoid the phenomenon of “media capture”, and the professional standards of journalism should be protected against interference

Supporting Media Viability Responses to Post Covid-19 Crisis is a recent joint initiative of UNESCO and WAN-IFRA, in conjunction with other stakeholders3. Among the expected outputs is documentation of good practices on innovative revenue-generation and how to secure support to media viability. A comprehensive program on media viability is expected to be completed next year.

6. Boosting media, information literacy

Promoting and strengthening community media should be complemented by efforts to institutionalize media and information literacy (MIL).

The common understanding is that MIL empowers individuals to be discerning media and information users (consumers) and responsible and ethnical media and information producers. In addition of these objectives, MIL should create understanding and appreciation of the importance of journalism in democracy.

MIL should transform the public from apathetic individuals unmindful of threats and attacks against journalists and media houses into engaged (and enraged) individuals who actively exercise their media rights and freedoms and committed to defend freedom of expression and right to information.

7. Local media must give voice to the voiceless

The essence of community media is to give a voice to the voiceless, in particular underserved and marginalized individuals and groups. UNESCO is committed to supporting community media until there are no longer any muted voices — across cultures, beliefs, gender, and economic status.

LET ME end with a quote from the UNESCO Issue Brief, Journalism, Press Freedom and COVID-19.

More than ever, we need facts.

More than ever, we need press freedom.

Now is NOT the time to MASK TRUTH.

(Tuazon, who is also president of the Asian Institute
of Journalism, wrote this article for the
Cebu Citizens-Press Council during the
celebration of its 2021 Press Freedom Week.)
1  Dialogue between Myanmar Press Council and Indonesian Press Council, 18 November 2020
2 https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/unesco_covid_brief_en.pdf
3Global Forum for Media Development; International Federation of Journalists; AMARC
World Economic Forum; World Federation of Advertisers; Innovation research group; 
The European Union, Council of Europe; CIMA, Luminate, OSF media programme, BBC Media Action, Reuters Institute; Free Press Unlimited, DW Akademie, Thomson-Reuters Foundation, the IAMCR Media Sector Development Working Group, IGF Dynamic Coalition on the Sustainability of Journalism and News Media, and  Media Ownership Monitor, Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Media Development Investment Fund.