Palestinians took advantage of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from populated cities and the transitional period to capture their airwaves and provide local communities with radio and television programmes.
At times, some of the young entrepreneurs involved in this were forced to buy used transmitters from the Israeli black market. Most were used by Israeli army units that had been replaced by newer models.
The Palestinian National Authority was supportive, knowing that it would be useful if the Israelis one day decided to stop the approved official national radio and television. Actually this happened after Israel’s destruction of Palestine TV studios and Voice of Palestine towers.
The experience of Palestinian community media activists was reflected recently at a conference held in the Tunisian capital by AMARC, the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, along with Community Media Network, a non-governmental organisation, and regional and international freedom of expression organisations.
Palestine’s experience of capturing airwaves in a period of transition was of extreme interest to media activists from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. In those Arab Spring countries, opportunities for local community radio has increased exponentially as a result of the absence of a strong central government and because revolutionary forces demand that governments or even businesspeople doing business with governments no longer have a monopoly over the airwaves.
Experiences from Libya and Tunisia showed that several such radio stations have already started broadcasting. In the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, young activists used transmitters and towers of the Qadhafi regime to establish Shabab Libya FM.
In the new Libya, activists merely need the approval of local city councils to begin broadcasting. Plans are under way to establish similar community radio stations in other Libyan towns.
In Tunisia, activists, with the help of international supporters, used the transitional chaos to smuggle in radio transmitters. Tunis6 became thee country’s first community radio station. Another station, Sawt Al Manajeem, is coming up in the mining southern town of Qafsa.
Private radio stations are now allowed in Tunisia. Licence fees are huge at $60,000 a year. No provision exists for reduced or waived fees for nonprofit community radio stations.
Egyptian activists have for some time been broadcasting on the Internet. Stations such as Horytona and Hoqook are on the air using the Internet. There are plans to find ways to overcome government bans and to begin broadcasting using homemade transmitters.
In Yemen, a number of activists are also considering ways of going on the air using the transitional period as the best opportunity to capture the airwaves.
In most cases, airwaves captured during transitional periods remain after central governments take power. Some paperwork is all that is needed usually to legitimise existing stations, whereas any new requests after central powers take over are much more difficult to satisfy.
The Arab world suffered from lack of community radio because radio was the main instrument of power in the 1950s and 60s when most Arab leaders took power in military coups.
Community radio has proved to be a major instrument of local development, as well as a medium to express oneself freely.
Local media, which have been largely absent in previous decades, are becoming key to the new wave of revolutions.
Arab government and civil society activists are slowly learning the importance of community media. The Arab Spring and local activists demand decentralisation of power and freedom of expression for marginalised communities, especially outside the capitals.
The Palestine experience will no doubt be thoroughly tapped on as local, regional and international activists, NGOs and development agencies are looking to the Arab Spring beyond just political changes.