Campus radios or camp followers?
By Aurangzaib Khan
What do you get if you cross a campus transmission with community broadcast that eschews journalism? A hybrid that may serve the state regulatory authority’s interests but is likely to lose sight of its core academic purpose.
Whether the campus radios in Pakistani universities produce responsible radio-journalists or a crowd of complacent broadcasters, ala Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) and Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV), year after year depends largely on their news and information agenda. Judging from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (Pemra) conditions allowing campus radios in private and public sector universities that leave very little room for critical independent views, the scale may be tipped in favour of the latter.
A campus radio, by definition, is not a mouthpiece for the state but an academic tool free to pursue excellence in education and career. Or is it?
Pemra brands campus radio as community radio with an academic thrust. Based at journalism schools, the radio caters to educational needs of students while also accounting for information needs of the campus community. Nothing wrong with it, until one notices that “educational needs” mean no independent news and information — political, critical or controversial — produced by journalism students in the course of training for a profession that will require them to cover exactly that.
Among several Pemra parameters, one is that Â“the radio stations may broadcast local news and re-broadcast news and current affairs programmes of the national broadcasters i.e. the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation and Pakistan Television Corporation.”
The authority does not recognise that campus radio, as a tool to train journalism students, must produce its own independent news bulletins, current affairs programmes, interviews and discussions. More so, given that the stations are based in journalism schools and depend on students for content that aspires to professional excellence. By telling campus radios what to cover and not, Pemra negates a cardinal rule of journalism training: You can’t make a journalist indulge in self-censorship and expect her to excel in a profession that requires her to be truthful and objective.
“Not covering real politics is against standard international practice of journalism and journalism education where you are required to cover real issues,” says Adnan Rehmat, head of the local media support organisation Intermedia. “Journalism students should be able to produce content like talk shows, interviews and current affairs programmes for radio and TV as part of their academic activities.”
Pemra’s terms and conditions restrict production of such content. The authority grants a license to a university to establish and operate a non-commercial FM radio station of limited transmission capacity to cater to the academic needs of the students of the university, especially the department of journalism for what it calls “purely instructional programmes in education.”
News and current affairs come naturally to good journalism. But torn between the choice to keep a radio station or lose it by pushing the boundaries of the state-defined role of campus radios as opposed to being a source of independent information and training for journalists, the campus radios in Pakistan may be caught in a hard place between duty and dereliction.
“There are no restrictions on us from Pemra although there are rules and parameters within which we have to work,” says Dr Shahjehan Sayed, Chairperson Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Peshawar University where the country’s first campus radio is based. “The rules for campus radio should be more relaxed than a regular radio station. There should be freedom of expression and free flow of ideas. The radio should become an intellectual forum, generating debate and encouraging critical thinking.”
The governors in the provinces, appointed by the federal government, are chancellors of their respective universities that have campus radio stations. Their influence can go a long way in shaping the campus radio’s news and information policy. But this is where the Pemra comes in: Presumably to steer clear of political controversies, to protect national interest and eschew content that could spark conflict.
Universities in Pakistan have always been prone to politics, religious dogma and conflict, but should that keep authorities from giving students and academic institutions a fair chance to pursue higher professional standards and become centers of excellence by limiting the potential of professionals and the tools to train them?
Lack of established university practices like maintaining close contact with radio stations and business concerns who can solicit services of students for research, surveys and marketing trends is also an issue. There is no regular forum for taking in interns and fresh graduates from journalism schools or other professional institutions as in developed countries.
Â“Absence of mechanisms for institutional interaction with press clubs such as membership of press clubs and journalist unions’ mars journalism education in Pakistan,” says Rehmat. Â“In good universities, journalism students and schools cultivate close ties with such institutions and students become members quite early in their career. In Pakistan, media unions are not strong and nobody pays attention to journalism students.”
In order to broaden the news and information agenda of campus radio, media experts advise against treating the a radio station as a property of the journalism schools and Pemra.
In major public-sector universities that have campus radios, the stations have become battlegrounds for turf war between a possessive administration and the journalism schools. Although the use of a radio facility for a journalism school comes first, it needs not be restricted to that alone. It could involve staff and students from any and all disciplines of the university benefiting industry and community through diverse content.
Having a board of directors comprising chairpersons of different disciplines would encourage students from other departments such as international relations, political science, and economics etcetera to participate in campus radio activities and diversify its content. Similarly, it would add up to content if students from journalism schools report on activities of other departments.
“When we restrict a campus radio to journalism schools, we isolate the audience that is not the university alone but anyone living within the reach of the radio,” says Rehmat. “Students donÂ’t come from university campus alone but from all over the town and can bring their unique perspectives and stories from where they live. By restricting campus radio to campus activities alone, we isolate our listeners from outside and lose potential sources of news and information.”
Practical journalism at campus radio to complement theoretical knowledge is an argument with obvious merits. What is not clear though is how journalism schools mean to use this facility to produce good journalists, given the limits imposed by regulatory laws and the university administrations that tow the policy line.