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What Is Community Media?
Community media is broadly described by Ellie Rennie (2006) as ‘community communication’. In principle, the term is not necessarily difficult to define because it can take so many forms, be applied by so many different groups, and address such a wide range of issues. However, the premise that community media is a facilitator for discussion and engagement of ordinary citizens has some inherent implications. The main conclusion is that community media are, for the most part, independent of market-based commercial and mainstream media outlets. This, in turn, allows different models of community media to offer either a broad open editorial policy or a more refined approach that adheres to the promotion of community participation. The key features of community media provide a clearer understanding of its definition as well as its depth and extent in terms of how it is shaped in the civic landscape (Rennie, 2006: 208).
The South African definition is that community media is either a geographical community or a community of interest. Ideally, community media are produced, managed, and owned by and about the community they serve, which may be a geographic community or a community of interest. “Community media is a two-way process in which communities participate as planners, producers and performers, and it is a means of community expression, not for the community.”
It seems easier to posit an ideal definition of community media than to extrapolate a definition from actual community-based media initiatives on the ground (McQuail, 1994). The media used is varied and, as with video, sometimes the media used itself challenges the notion of community participation. Forms of ownership and management vary, although they can be broadly defined as non-governmental and non-corporate. Levels of community participation are equally varied. The goals are quite different, though again the common goals are all for some aspect of community development.
The concept of community media means that in order for communities to be heard at the national level, they must first be heard at the grassroots level. The potential to communicate and receive communication must be fair, universal and strictly equal. Curran and Gurevitch (1991) state that the full concept of citizenship presupposes an informed participatory community of citizens, generally assuming an equal individual claim to hear and be heard, if we assume the right to communicate. Similarly, Freire (1990) observes that the less people are consulted, the less democratic a nation is.
Community broadcasting aims to promote debate, build consensus, and build solidarity for the promotion and protection of human rights, including peace and reconciliation, and the achievement of sustainable development (McQuail, 1994). Community broadcasting means both acquiring and disseminating information. It acts as a media for the flow of information to and from communities on the one hand, and to national and international levels on the other (McQuail, 1994). It provides access to needed external information as well as advocacy on issues of concern, with relevant policy-making levels informed by community-level experiences and solutions created there. More broadly, community broadcasting enables communities to participate more in national and international affairs. It has a dual role – a mirror (reflecting the public) and a window (allowing the outside world to view their own experiences).
Fraser, Colin and Sonica Restrepo Estrada (2001) argue that community media is a viable alternative to the profit-driven agenda of corporate media. They are driven by social goals rather than personal profit motives. Community media empower people rather than treat them as passive consumers, and they empower local knowledge rather than replace it with standard solutions. Ownership and control of community media are based on and accountable to the communities they serve and are developmentally appropriate approaches (Buckley, 2000). The nature and purpose of community media initiatives should be the most important determining factors. Resource shortages of any kind can be overcome through alternative strategies. Steve Buckley (2000) notes that democracy and communication are so intertwined that the presence or otherwise of certain forms of communication can be a measure of the boundaries within which democracy itself is developed or maintained.
Curran & Gurevitch (1991) state that the nature of community media is participatory and its purpose is developmental, “public and private dialogic processes that define who people are, what they want, and how to get it. Community participation is thus both a means to an end and is seen as an end in itself. The processes of media production, management and ownership are in themselves empowering, instilling critical analytical skills and confidence about the interpretations and solutions to be found. Therefore, the media chosen must be one that enables, strengthens and sustains community participation.
From the above considerations, it follows that the choice of media to be used in a local community is necessarily specific to that community. What works in one community may not work in another (Lesame, 2005). For example, gender and age are factors to consider when discussing sexuality, but the way they are considered varies between communities. Other considerations are the level of literacy, access to radio receivers in the community at large, and familiarity with symbolism and other visual devices used in audio-visual media. The choice of theatre, vernacular newspapers, radio or video – or any combination thereof – depends and should depend on both internal and external factors (Bessette, 2004).
Internally, the choice should be responsive to the development goals of the community concerned and based on what forms of communication already exist, especially if the community concerned has a history or tradition of educational music and dance. Externally, the choice should ensure the ease and effectiveness of influencing the national and international actors with whom the society wants to speak. For example, video is a powerful tool for raising awareness of human rights concerns, but it is also a tool that does not necessarily or usually allow explaining the complexities of a situation and thus may lead to simplistic interventions for resolution. Participatory community-based planning must take into account these internal and external considerations in order to implement vehicle selection.
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