Indigenous Media: Bold Is Beautiful

When the disenfranchised of the world see that they, too, can be bold and beautiful, a positive self-image is created.

Switch on cable television in Tansen, a small town in the hills of central Nepal, and what do you get? If you are watching on Saturday afternoons you might see the town´s weekly news bulletin, a comedy skit publicising diarrhoea treatment, or a programme on a recent Buddhist festival. You have tuned into Ratna Cable TV (RCTV), Nepal´s (and possibly the region´s) only community tv station.

In the face of the threat of media disenfranchisement many of the world´s people have come up with a simple solution: produce it yourself. The idea seems improbable merely because ´we´ (academics, journalists and politicians) have been brought up on models of a monolithic ´Media´ founded on the strictly regulated legal frameworks of the Western nation state and cannot believe the audacity of those who have tackled the media industry head-on. But once one begins to look, examples of what anthropologists may call ´indigenous media´ appear to be a near-universal phenomenon, rather than isolated examples of resistance to the hegemony of the state or transnational media.

There is space here to cite only a few examples. Yanomamo Indians in the Amazon produce videos to publicise environmental destruction by miners. Black trade unions in apartheid-era South Africa made audio cassettes of underground meetings to distribute to supporters. Australian Aborigines own and run satellite tv stations to broadcast programmes in their own languages. British football fans produce fanzines to celebrate their teams and pressure club owners to protect the interests of fans. In Nepal, RCTV makes news programmes that reflect the community´s own concerns and interests rather than that of the Kathmandu-based national media.

Media commentators interested in the disequilibrium in the media balance of power have tended to focus on the threat from a spatially, economically and politically distant ´Global Media´. But, as the above examples show, indigenous producers are usually motivated by concerns that are closer to home. It is at the level of the nation or local community that interest and motivation appears to be most easily sustainable. It is also of crucial importance that the distribution system needed for these media is relatively low cost and require no access to the delivery systems monopolised by the state or transnational media. The varied forms that indigenous media take probably explains why the phenomenon itself has, until comparatively recently, been overlooked, but what unites all indigenous media is that they are self-produced by those whose voices are absent from the established mass media.

It is important to draw the distinction between indigenous media which uses modem forms of production and ´traditional´ folk media such as dance, song and story-telling. As one anthropologist stated after an encounter with a minority language video production crew in Papua New Guinea, it is precisely because of the appropriation of modem technology that indigenous media is potentially so powerful. When the disenfranchised of the world see that they, too, can be bold and beautiful, a positive self-image is created–one that may be difficult to dilute. The local base of indigenous media also allows for a vigorous dialogue to take place between consumers and producers of information, a dialogue lacking in the remote world of mainstream media.

Bazaar Bias
Inevitably, there are problems with indigenous media, and Tansen´s local tv station can be taken as an example. The genesis of Ratna Cable TV goes back to a cable tv distribution system which grew out of the radio repair shop of Buddha Ratna Shakya and his family. Local broadcasts began in 1992, and RCTV´s mix of local news, information and entertainment quickly became popular with the audience, which, at around 6,000 people, is almost a third of the town´s population.

Soon enough came the Nepali government´s order to cease broadcasting. With the backing of the municipality and mayor, Mr Shakya defied the order until the issue was resolved with the metamorphosis of the broadcasting arm of the company into Communication for Development Palpa, an NGO officially sanctioned by Kathmandu.

But bureaucratic wrangling of this sort is peripheral to the larger issue of finance which determines the sustainability of any such media. RCTV gets some revenue through the installation of cable tv to homeowners, the business from which the organisation grew, but the organisation still has to depend on donations of hardware and software from outside agencies. Once identified, indigenous media groups form an obvious target for the receipt of aid, but it needs to be questioned whether external funding threatens their greatest asset– independence.

Important issues are: who has editorial control, and, in the case of an expensive media like cable tv, who watches? In Tansen, RCTV´s constituency is largely urban and middle-class. The geographical limits of the cable network, and the fact that the volunteer cameramen are unlikely to venture into Tansen´s rural hinterland, has led to a distinct bazaar bias which is recognised and regretted by the producers themselves.

RCTV relies heavily on volunteers to produce its programmes and spend a considerable time filming news stories. There has been a decline in the number of volunteers, now that the enthusiasm of the initial years has waned. Broadcast time has been reduced to just one hour every Saturday from the earlier two hours, and a sizeable portion of the week´s programming is taken up, not with locally produced programmes as was the case initially, but with Hindi 'religious operas' and Nepali film songs.

These are popular with the audience and cost nothing in terms of time and labour, but are typical of mainstream programming by Nepal TV and Doordarshan.

Finally, RCTV has tried to steer clear of controversy by adopting a strategy of not covering overtly party political events. However, its seemingly expedient policy of simply focussing attention on civic events has given the ruling Congress party politicians of Tansen Municipality extensive coverage and accusations of bias are occasionally, if rather mutedly, levelled at the organisation by other political parties.

Unhappy and Marginalised
To those commentators who despair in the face of transnational media´s encroachment into almost every corner of the world, the tv phenomenon in Tansen shows that ´ordinary´ people are quite capable of resisting this media and may not be willing to passively accept what they are given. But, equally, it shows that indigenous media producers should not be romanticised, becoming the late 20 century´s equivalent of Rousseau´s noble savage, albeit wielding a camcorder instead of a spear. The operators of RCTV are certainly not an oppressed minority!

In Nepal, however, the political landscape is moulded by the obsessions of the print and electronic media with national politics and the morals and mores of the Kathmandu social scene around which these dramas are played out. The majority of the country´s population may view this media marginalisation irrelevant compared to the daily struggle for survival. But to the educated, articulate and increasingly wealthy middle classes of Nepal´s provincial towns, this marginalisation is acutely felt simply because it is apparent in the intimacy of their sitting rooms whenever they turn on NTV and radio or read a newspaper.

This marginalisation has been addressed in Tansen through compromise–fashioning a local medium to redress the perceived national media imbalance. In other South Asian communities, indeed throughout both the industrialised and developing world, the contradiction between the improving economic conditions and stagnant political power of the middle class may instead lead towards the cheap fixes of populist politics, scapegoating of minorities, or, at the very least, disillusionment with parliamentary democracy.

Indigenous media do not necessarily deal in Utopian ideals of equality or aim in every case to be socially inclusive, but they are always, as Deborah Spitulnik, an American anthropologist working on indigenous media, has pointed out in a recent review of media research, 'extremely potent arenas of political struggle.' And it may be that that struggle is sometimes better played out in the virtual world of television than on the street.

~ M. Wilmore´s research in Tansen is funded by the University of London and the Royal Anthropological Institute.

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