|February 17, 2004—In Timor-Leste, the voice of independence, news and future is broadcast by a handful of young people, who run community radio stations.
After the country’s infrastructure--including schools, clinics and houses--was destroyed in 1999 by the violence related to the vote for independence from Indonesia, most Timorese became refugees overnight. The international community poured in to help the country—economically, socially and politically.
A high illiteracy rate exacerbated two challenges facing what would become one of the newest and poorest countries in Asia:
- Getting the economy back on track and
- Maintaining the sense of community solidarity
With radio being the primary source for news and entertainment for the region, part of the Community Empowerment and Local Governance Project by the World Bank-administered Trust Fund for Timor-Leste focused on establishing community radio stations. For many remote communities, these eight new stations are their only way to engage in their new democracy and connect with the outside world.
“Community radios can empower poor people by fostering participation and giving them access to information and a channel for their aspirations,” explains Loty Salazar, Information Officer with the Bank’s East Asia and Pacific region, who led the Bank’s efforts to establish the radio stations.
These grassroots radio stations were envisioned as independent entities that would be owned by local communities and run by trained volunteers. The start-up funding has furnished the stations with broadcasting equipment, tape recorders and motorcycles. They continue to provide training for more than 100 volunteer reporters, managers and technicians.
Though faced with the usual challenges of sustainability and uncertain media regulations, the community radio stations continue to flourish especially among young people, who have since become skilled broadcasters.
"When the project called for volunteers, we didn’t expect the stations would primarily attract young people," says Salazar. Most volunteers are in their late teens or early twenties.
"They are very dedicated and take their jobs seriously. With continued encouragement and support from their communities, they may soon be broadcasting a much wider range of programs, including dramas and development documentaries," Salazar adds.
Apart from learning broadcasting skills, the stations have encouraged young people to become active in their communities. As volunteers seek out, research and report on events and topics, they get in contact with local officials and community leaders. They also can help promote transparency and local governance.
For example, in one village, when the treasurer of the development committee received money from a development fund, he kept it for himself. The village council invited him and a reporter to a meeting, and, in front of everybody, asked the treasurer to account for the money. The treasurer promised to return the funds and apologized to his community. The meeting was later broadcast on the radio.
The stations have also become fun places for young people to hang out, especially for young women, who are ready to take up the challenge of becoming capable technicians, broadcasters, interviewers and reporters.
“Timor-Leste is a very traditional society. Girls lead sheltered and protected lives, and are rarely allowed to be outside the house. But working on the radio has given them an opportunity to prove themselves, build their skills and increase their confidence. It is also a place and a type of work that their families approve of,” says Salazar.
Plans are underway to expand radio programming to engage youth in discussion about local interest, as well as educational and health programs. In addition, a new program—Leadership Capacity Building for Economic Development (LED)—is leveraging the success of the radios to engage youth groups and youth-at-risk in policy dialogues with their community leaders and government.
“We can only hope that the Timorese society, including the government, is prepared to allow the youth become an engine of growth and social innovation,” concludes Salazar.
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