Negotiating Communication Rights: Case Studies from India


Pradip Ninan Thomas

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    For Ammama with Love

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    List of Abbreviations

    ADGAdditional Director General
    AIDSAcquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome
    AIRAll India Radio
    ALFAlternative Law Forum
    AMARCWorld Association of Community Radio Broadcasters
    APCAssociation for Progressive Communications
    AFSPAArmed Forces Special Powers Act
    BSPBahujan Samaj Party
    BJPBhartiya Janata Party
    BDOBlock Development Officer
    BECILBroadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited
    BOSSBharat Operating Systems Solutions
    BPLBelow Poverty Line
    BRAIBiotechnology Regulatory Authority of India
    BBCBritish Broadcasting Corporation
    BSABusiness Software Alliance
    BtBacillus thuringiensis
    C-DACCentre for Development of Advanced Computing
    CEMCultural Environment Movement
    CEMARDCentre for Protection of Minorities and Against Racism and Discrimination
    CGNetChhattisgarh People's News Site
    CICCentral Information Commission
    CISCentre for Internet & Society
    CJCitizen Journalism
    CMCCommunity Media Centre
    CRFCommunity Radio Forum
    CRCommunication Rights
    CRISCommunication Rights in the Information Society campaign
    CPI-MCommunist Party of India—Marxist
    CSOCivil Society Organisation
    CSPGCivil Society Plenary Group
    CSRChild Sex Ratio
    DAVPDirectorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity
    DDSDeccan Development Society
    DMKDravida Munnetra Kazhagam
    ELCOTElectronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu Limited
    ENILEntertainment Network India Limited
    ERPEffective Radiated Power
    EEDEvangelischer Entwicklungsdienst
    FOIAFreedom of Information Act
    FOSSFree and Open Source Software
    FOSSCOMFOSS Community Network India
    FMFrequency Modulation
    GATTGeneral Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
    GDPGross Development Project
    GGPGlobal Governance Project
    GMGenetically Modified
    GMMPGlobal Media Monitoring Project
    GNUGNU's not Unix
    GPSGlobal Positioning System
    GOPAGrant of Permission Agreement
    HIVHuman Immunodeficiency Virus
    HULHindustan Unilever
    IIPMIndian Institute of Planning Management
    IWMIndian Women's Movement
    I&BInformation & Broadcasting
    IT-BPOInformation Technology–Business Process Outsourcing
    ICANNInternet Consortium for Assigned Names & Numbers
    ICCPRInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
    IDPInternally Displaced People
    INGOInternational Non-governmental Organisation
    IPLIndian Premier League
    ITUInternational Telecommunication Union
    ITU-DInternational Telecommunications Union–Development Sector
    KLKhabar Lahariya
    KMVSKutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan
    MAGPMahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel
    MAHYCOMaharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited
    MAITManufacturer's Association for Information Technology
    MBPLMusic Broadcast Private Limited
    MKSSMazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan
    MBCMost Backward Community
    MNCMulti National Corporation
    MLAMember of the Legislative Assembly
    MPMember of Parliament
    NASSCOMNational Association of Software and Services Company
    NCANational Commission for Women
    NBANarmada Bachao Andolan
    NDTVNew Delhi Television
    NEERINational Environmental Engineering Research Institute
    NICNational Informatics Centre
    NOCNo Objection Certificate
    NWMINetwork of Women in Media, India
    NGONon-governmental Organisation
    NREGANational Rural Employment Guarantee Act
    NSMNew Social Movement
    NWICONew World Information and Communication Order
    NWIONew World Information Order
    OASOrganisation of American States
    OBCOther Backward Caste
    PACPublic Affairs Centre
    PARDPeople's Association for Rural Development
    PUCLPeople's Union for Civil Liberties
    PCCPeople's Communication Charter
    PCRPlatform for Communication Rights
    PDSPublic Distribution System
    PRPanchayati Raj
    RJDRashtriya Janata Dal
    RMTResource Mobilisation Theory
    RTIRight to Information
    SEWASelf Employed Women's Association
    SACFAStanding Advisory Committee on Frequency Allocation
    SECState Election Commission
    SEZSpecial Economic Zone
    SJCSchool of Journalism & Communication
    SDISlum/Shack Dweller's International
    SMSShort Message Service
    SPACESociety for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment
    STEPSSTEPS Women's Development Organisation
    TNPCBTamil Nadu Pollution Control Board
    TOITimes of India
    TRAITelecommunications Regulatory Authority of India
    TRFThe Restoring Force
    TRIPSTrade Related Intellectual Property Rights
    TRPTarget Rating Point
    UIAIUnique Identity Authority of India
    UDHRUniversal Declaration of Human Rights
    UNDPUnited Nations Development Programme
    UNESCOUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
    UNHCRUnited Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
    UNICEFUnited Nations Children's Fund
    UKUnited Kingdom
    UPUttar Pradesh
    UTCUnited Theological College
    UQUniversity of Queensland
    VOTVoice of Tibet
    WACCWorld Association for Christian Communications
    WFCRWorld Forum for Communication Rights
    WIPOWorld Intellectual Property Organisation
    WPFCWorld Press Freedom Committee
    WPCWireless Planning & Coordination Wing
    WSISWorld Summit on the Information Society
    WTOWorld Trade Organization


    As I am writing this foreword (early December 2010) the need for the recognition of communication rights has rarely been so dramatically demonstrated. The reckless efforts of the US administration and others to stop global access to information in an overheated response to Wikileaks publications and the decision by companies such as Mastercard and Visa to refuse the facilitation of donations to an organisation that furthers transparency and democracy are ominous signals.

    At its core the acceptance of communication rights is a key element in the age-old discussion about whether states should be democratically organised and, if so, to what extent? Communication rights suggest that who govern accept that they are at the service of the governed and that this requires openness and dialogue. The difficulty is that throughout history, most governors had little trust in the people they made decisions for. From the times of Plato to contemporary governments, a dominant attitude has been to consider ordinary people unfit to make relevant public choices. Since most governments do not trust their people they decide to keep many things hidden from them. However, as US President Harry Truman once remarked, secrecy and democracy do not go together.

    In weak, representative democracies people outsource their power to specialists. In strong democracies people take their responsibilities for their actions back. In a strong democracy people are trusted to be the best judges of the quality of their lives. As Benjamin Barber wrote, a strong democracy ‘does not place endless faith in the capacity of individuals to govern themselves, but it affirms … with Theodore Roosevelt that the majority of the plain people will day in and day out make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller body of men will make in trying to govern them’ (Barber, 2003: 151). The development of strong democracies demands access to and participation in public communication without barriers.

    This implies that granting the freedom to people to communicate is decisive for the quality of a society's democratic governance.

    An important part of this freedom has already been codified in international law. Crucial now are solid procedures, institutions and practices for the implementation of standards and rules that the international community has adopted. But beyond the currently adopted legal provisions there is a pertinent omission: the right to be heard. This is arguably the most contested dimension of the debate on communication rights. It is understandably also a very challenging proposition since it addresses the heart of the contemporary (global) democratic deficit: the refusal to listen to what people have to say, to take their perspectives into account.

    This implies that both the governors and the governed accept that there are always multiple perspectives on any issue, that our own beloved perspective may have to be questioned and that we may have to listen to people who say things we do not want to hear.

    This cannot be forced by legislation. The law is too blunt an instrument to address what is basically a mind-set of openness, multiplicity and a high level of tolerance for uncertainty.

    Communication rights are for adults. They demand that the process of Enlightenment that sets in with the 18th century expectation that humankind can reach maturity and that has not yet been completed, is continued. Foucault wondered ‘whether we will ever reach mature adulthood’ (Waugh, 1992: 107). It is therefore critical to find such inspiring and capable guides as Pradip Thomas for the journey we are all part of.

    Professor CeesHamelink, Burg. Hogguerstraat 279 1064 CP Amsterdam
    Barber, B. (2003). Strong Democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
    Waugh, P. (1992). Postmodernism. London: Edward Arnold.


    The term Communication Rights (CR) refers to a corpus of rights that are integral to the democratisation of communication. Communication rights, as a concept, and as content has been debated, discussed and dare I say muddled over for close to 50 years. There have been occasions when there has been widespread interest in communication rights, as for instance, during the heady days of the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) debates at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in the late 1970s and more recently, during the Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) campaign linked to the UN sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Geneva and Tunis in 2003 and 2005, respectively. For the most part though, communication rights, while occasionally in the limelight, have remained in the background. Opinions have been split on whether or not this right requires a formal status in international and national legislations and conventions. In fact, until the mid-1990s, the formal institution of this right was taken for granted. However, in the light of an emerging consensus on the sheer impossibility of formalising this rather complex right, it was felt that opportunities for the operationalisation of this right were best explored in the context of existing communication rights, as for instance on language diversity and cultural diversity that pre-exists in international conventions. With hindsight, the formal institution of this right would have been difficult to operationalise for the simple reason that (a) it, or better, the litany of rights associated with the right to communication covers a multitude of sins—from copyright to media ownership, cultural diversity and other critical issues related to communication and culture. This smorgasbord or masala, is rather cumbersome and it would simply have been impossible to accommodate its diverse strands within a single legislation, and (b) even if it were to be formulated as a stand-alone right, its operationalisation would have been impossible given its threats to the status quo—to global and national media monopolies, copyright regimes and media governance institutions that have routinely ignored the need to democratise communications and who routinely and rather resolutely see no option to market-oriented solutions. Any limits to media ownership is definitely not an issue that Rupert Murdoch will warm to and the idea of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) as a critical foundation for the Information Society will not exactly excite the imaginations of the Microsofts of this world unless they see in such solutions a business opportunity. CR activists are committed to the making of an equitable communications order at global, national and local levels. As an observer of CR movements for nearly three decades, it is clear that it has led a charmed life—marginalised in the immediate post-MacBride period and resurrected during the CRIS campaign (2001–06) resulting in a traction that is visible in UN documents and civil society outputs—while remaining largely invisible but present in a thousand initiatives throughout the world aimed at improving the quality of access, participation, the shaping of media alternatives and cultural environments.

    And yet, in spite of what some would say has been a tortured existence, the CR movement has been shaped by a formidable array of scholars/activists who have nailed their masts on the CR door and who passionately believe that communication rights is an important aspect of human rights. Most of us live in globalised communication environments, in contexts in which our access to information and knowledge and its affordable uses have begun to impact on the quality of lives that we lead. In this context we need more cultural and media diversity not less, more transparency and accountability in the way global media laws are crafted rather than less, more voices than just that of the dominant actors. Foremost among scholars who have made a difference to communication rights are two extraordinary individuals. My late colleague and dear friend Michael Traber, who in many ways, played a pioneering role in shaping this area of research through ceaselessly advocating for communication rights, and Professor Cees Hamelink, who has been a global advocate for communication rights and whose stance on this issue as a public intellectual has been second to none. This book recognises the roles played by these two giants of the CR movement. The World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) has played an important role in globalising communication rights and their Centre for Communication Rights is the culmination of a ‘labour of love’. Philip Lee and the journal Media Development have, of course, played an instrumental role in globalising the CR cause. There are also many friends associated with the CRIS movement that I was involved with and who have made important contributions to communication rights inclusive of Sean O'Siochru and Bruce Girard along with Andrew Calabrese, Mark Raboy, Robert Hackett, Kaarle Nordenstreng and Claudia Padovani among very many others. I see this book as my contribution to a continuing conversation and I thank all those people who have worked in this area, for their ideas, ‘agonisms’ and for their commitment to the cause of communication rights.

    This book can be read as a sequel to—Political Economy of Communications in India: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Thomas, 2010). While that book primarily dealt with the structures that are an obstacle to the project of communication rights in India, this volume explores the ways in which communication as resistance is making a difference in people's lives. I would like to complete the circle by writing a book on the digital environment in India that provides the context and framework for both communications and communication rights in contemporary India.

    I have increasingly taken the view that for CR movements to make a difference, they simply have to be grounded respond to communication deficits faced by ordinary people. While I have been involved in global media advocacy focused on the reform of global media governance and believe that there is a place for advocacy related to initiatives such as global media governance, the possibilities for real change at local levels are far greater than at a global level. Global advocacy requires a shared identity for any given movement and resourcing in terms of finances and personnel. The CRIS campaign clearly revealed the limits to such a shared identity. Furthermore, it is not always possible for civil society organisations (CSOs) to lobby consistently at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) or for that matter at the World Trade Organization (WTO) precisely because budgets and other resources are limited. Given that CSOs involved in media-related movements have neither attained ‘critical mass’, such as, say, the environmental movement nor have been able to create larger alliances with non-media groups; opportunities to consistently deal with global media governance have strictly been limited. The CRIS campaign linked to the WSIS remains an exception to this rule, although, even in this case, the synergies did not include non-media groups. Civil society involvement in governance issues related to the Internet Consortium for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) may also be seen as an exception.

    This book is divided into two sections. Section I deals with theory and Section II highlights case studies. The theory section is important not only because communication rights is as much about ‘reflection’ as it is about ‘action’, but also because I have tried to explore an Indian ‘tenor’ for communication rights. I strongly believe that while it is necessary to acknowledge all theorists who have contributed to the theorising of communication rights, it is also necessary to link local practices to local theorists and their theories in order to understand the ‘why’ of communication rights at local levels. The attainment of self-respect, for example, could well be more important for a Dalit involved in the Right to Information (RTI) movement than some vague extension of a human right. The case studies that illustrate the practices of communication rights in India are, in my way of thinking, equally important, precisely because each are grounded in context and reveal a complex political economy of practice. The case studies of CR movements in India include community radio, the FOSS, women and media, citizen journalism and the RTI movements. These are, by no means, the only movements in India involved in extending communication rights. One can certainly make a case for CR movements linked to the differently abled Dalit liberation and the environment among other movements. While each of the five movements highlighted in this book have contributed to the extension of access and enabled participation, the RTI movement's impact has been second to none. Its impact includes the revitalisation of grassroots democracy and the embedding of transparency and accountability in the national imaginary. The fact that it began at grassroots levels as a response to local needs is the key factor behind the success of this movement. I have taken the liberty to describe these five expressions of communication rights as movements despite the fact that not all of them can be considered ‘mature’ in terms of their movement characteristics. Mature movements can be studied in terms of their structures, strategies, collective action, identity and discourses (see Whittier, 2002) and from the perspective of both social movement and new social movement theories. In the case of the five movements described in this volume, the citizen journalism movement is just about beginning to take shape, the women and media movement has been around for a number of years, the community radio movement is being shaped as I write and the FOSS movement is strong in Kerala and is also coming to its own in other states in India. The RTI is, of course, the strongest of the CR movements in India and one can argue that it is second, in terms of extent and reach, to the nationalist movement in colonial India.


    I am thankful to the University of Queensland (UQ) and its School of Journalism & Communications (SJC) for granting me a sabbatical and supporting field work in India during the period—December 2009–March 2010, to colleagues at the SJC, Michael Bromley, Elske van de Fliert and Zala Volcic in particular, and to my students for sharing in my enthusiasm for communication rights.

    My work in India would have been impossible without inputs from so many wonderful human beings. And I would like to especially acknowledge the many people who willingly spared their time to enlighten me on issues and concerns related to CR movements. Fieldwork was an exciting experience that was made all that more enriching for the warmth of strangers. The Jain family, Ashim and Anu Jain and Gautam and Raj, all of whom I had not known earlier, very kindly invited me to spend time at their home and lunch in the company of Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey. It was an opportunity that I would not have missed for the world and it was a real privilege to meet and chat with both Aruna and Nikhil. Special thanks to Ashis and Munira Sen for invaluable conversations, and Ashis in particular for introducing me to the key people associated with the community radio movement in India and for inviting me to attend community radio workshops including the Asia-Pacific AMARC meeting that was held in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) in February 2010, and for accompanying me on a visit to the community radio station, Namma Dhwani. Ammu Joseph too was very helpful in opening doors for me. I am grateful for the resources and contacts that she shared, and for inviting me to Kozhikode to attend the public events associated with the eighth Network of Women and Media Conference also held in February 2010. Dr Lily for arranging my stay in Kozhikode and for a ‘dosai’ breakfast at her place. There are a number of people in Bengaluru whom I would like to thank, including Sunil Abraham, Pranesh and Nirmita at the Centre for Internet & Society (CIS) and Lawrence Liang from the Alternative Law Forum (ALF). The ALF has an excellent library that I did make full use of. V. Geetha in Chennai for a very stimulating conversation on feminism, women and the media. There are a number of people associated with the MSS Swaminathan Biocentre in Pondicherry (now Puducherry) that I would like to thank, including Mrs Mina Swaminathan who put me in touch with Rosario, Vimal and Thyagarajan. Gaurav Mishra from 20:20 Media for enlightening me on the citizen journalism movement in India. Rajan Varada and Iskra Panevska from UNESCO, New Delhi, and Rajan, in particular, for inviting me to attend the Public Sector Software workshop in Bengaluru. Gargi Sen from Magic Lantern Foundation and her colleagues for conversations and for a superb Bengali lunch. Vibodh Parthasarthi and his colleagues from Jamia Milia Islamia, who are doing important academic work on media policy and governance. The folks at Kriti, New Delhi, for the use of their resource centre. Jasmeen Patheja from Blank Noise. Sashi Kumar from SPACE in Trivandrum for conversations related to the FOSS movement. Sajan Venniyur from Radio Deutschwelle; James Rajasekeran from PARD; Varadesh Hireganga and Vineeth from the Manipal Institute of Communication; Raghu Mainali, a pioneer in the CR movement in Nepal; Esther Kar, my senior at the Madras Christian College and now Additional Director General, News Services Division at All India Radio; Arti Jaiman from Gurgaon Ki Awaaz; Nalini Rajan from the Asian College of Journalism; Vinod Pavarala and Vasuki Belawadi from the University of Hyderabad; Naghuveer Prakash from Radio Kalinjam; Vasanthi Hariprakash from NDTV, Bengaluru; Shanta, Triveni, Ramesh and Vasu from Namma Dhwani; M.K. Rao from the Wireless Planning & Coordination Wing (WPC); the freelance journalist and gender specialist Geeta Araimula; staff at Namma Dhwani; Evangeline and Sam Rajkumar at the United Theological College (UTC), among very many other people who were kind enough with their time and patience. Also Narasimhan from Coimbatore who introduced me to the intricacies of the traditional knowledge movement in India. Last but not least, my sincere thanks to P.V. Satheesh from the Deccan Development Society (DDS) who was in Brisbane in May 2010 attending the World Press Freedom Day hosted by the University of Queensland and with whom I had critical conversations related to food sovereignty, community radio and other issues. I acknowledge that this volume has been shaped by many conversations and is based on inputs from many people.

    Using Bengaluru as my base served me well as I was able to take part in three extremely well organised conferences related to communication rights and meet a variety of CR and other activists from India. I would also like to place on record my thanks to my close friends in Chennai—Ramli, Sushil and Benny in particular, for introducing me to a study circle and to their conversations. Ramli was instrumental in gathering together the class of 1980–82 from the Madras Christian College, many of whom I had not met in years. Similarly meeting up with my dear friend Ramesh (Zamby) after a long gap and with Geeta, Ragani and my godson Pradip made my stay in Bengaluru all that more interesting. To connect where we left off more than a decade ago was simply magic—humanity at its best.

    My thankyous also to friends at SAGE India who have kept their faith in my writings. Special thanks to Elina Majumdar and her team for their encouragement and support.

    Finally, of course, family. A very special thanks to my brother Prem, my sister-in-law Beena and neice Shruthi in Chennai who have time and again demonstrated their knack of making my fieldwork ‘easy’. Beena's enthusiasm for fieldwork is matched by her ability to open doors and I am grateful for her support and confidence in my work over the years. AD72 has always been home and the bond that they have with me is made of a very special glue. Daddy, Mummy, Praveen, Preetha and

    Anna in Coimbatore for their support; Priya, Aji, Joel and Sarah in Delhi for making life in Delhi as comfortable as possible my wife Preetha and children Nitin and Prianka for tolerating my absence from Brisbane but also my work habits in Brisbane! My Aunt Molly and her always-welcoming home away from home in Ooty, Sneha and Mathew in Bengaluru. And my mother Anna—for her unreserved and unlimited love that only a mother can give. This book is for you Ammama.

    Pradip NinanThomas, Brisbane
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    About the Author

    Pradip Ninan Thomas is Associate Professor at the School of Journalism and Communications, University of Queensland, Australia. 1He is currently Joint Director at the Centre for Communication & Social Change, University of Queensland.

    Earlier, he was Research Director with the international media NGO, WACC. He has served on the editorial committee of a number of journals including Media Development, Journal of Creative Communications, Communication for Development and Social Change, Journalism and Communication Monographs and the International Journal of Press/Politics. He is also on the advisory board of a number of international institutes including the India Media Centre at the University of Westminster, London.

    He has co-edited several books, including, Who Owns the Media: Global trends and Local Resistance (2001), Intellectual Property Rights and Communication in Asia: Conflicting Trends (2006), Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Intellectual Property in the Twenty First Century: Perspectives from Southern Africa (2007) and has authored Political Economy of Communications in India: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (2010).

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