February 13 has been declared World Radio Day by UNESCO. In addition to traditional public statements and protocol activities, there are some concrete things that can be done to help make the world a better place to live in with the help of radio.
Radio is a fabulous media, an instrument that allows people to communicate without paying for it. Not everyone can afford to buy a newspaper or access one in a village. Not only is radio free (except for the battery cost) and accessible, but the information transmitted by radio can be understood by all citizens, rich or poor, learned or illiterate.
Radio allows people in all locations and places to consume its content. People can hear radio while driving, others follow radio at home and recently, radio has become accessible to owners of cell phones -- almost every person over 14.
Not only can one hear soothing music that helps through traffic jams or follow the latest local news on the radio; it has become an instrument of public discourse. Independent radio stations allow serious and necessary discussions on current affairs. Talk radio, if done right, can be one of the most effective democratic tools.
Economically, radio, especially citizen-owned and operated community radio, is credited by the World Bank and other international experts for being directly responsible for poverty reduction. Community radio has helped improve the lot of people and their quality of life.
In the Arab world, unfortunately, radio has been government monopoly for many years. The Arab Spring has allowed people to have access to radio waves, often with little or no restrictions by the new governing powers. In countries like Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, radio has become a communication tool for people after decades of being a mouthpiece of the ruling powers.
Even in countries like Egypt and Syria, where FM broadcast is still not allotted to independent broadcasters, dozens of independent media activists have established their own radio stations using the opportunities that the Internet provides. Some are also using satellite broadcasts to share news, music and discussions.
With smartphones being able to access Internet, anyone with an advanced mobile phone can enjoy independent radio broadcasting.
Radio stations enjoy success in spite of governments, not because of governments. It is reasonable to understand the need to regulate an infinite number of stations that can be made available on the FM dial. Such regulation, however, should be easily available to local communities, without restrictions, bureaucracy and with no or small fees.
Jordan began to privatise the airwaves in 2003 with a temporary law. This law is inadequate and ineffective in encouraging the proliferation of radio throughout the country. Among its undemocratic details is a clause giving licensing of a radio station to an entire Cabinet, with a provision that the Cabinet can reject a completed and technically approved application without giving a reason.
The excessively high broadcast and telecommunications fees must be greatly reduced and civil society owned radio should be encouraged, rather than delayed.
While radio is and should be made even more available, the public as well as regulators must not allow radio announcers to use the microphone to spout out hate speeches.
The best way to celebrate Radio Day is to enact enabling laws and create guidelines and regulations that make the ownership of radio readily available to individuals or groups. Nothing can say democracy, freedom of expression and accountability more than a freely available and interactive radio culture.
Arabs have been denied for too long of the opportunities that independent radio can provide.