IN understanding how much damage can be done by failing to crack down on the wide dissemination of divisive speech, the case of militant leader Fazlullah is instructive. He was amongst the first extremists to turn to FM radio to cast the shadow of fear over parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, so much so that he became popularly known as Mullah Radio. It was only after his group virtually took over Swat and imposed upon it an extremist version of religion that the Pakistan Army was moved to push it out in 2009. But the problem of hate speech being broadcast by FM radio remains; diverse militant and/or extremist outfits continue to use the medium to spread their divisive views. Indeed, the bloody battle fought in the Khyber Agency between the Lashkar-i-Islam and Ansar-ul-Islam occurred in part over the illegal FM channels each group broadcast.
Given this background, it is a step in the right direction that about a dozen unlicensed FM radio channels have been shut down, and their equipment seized in Swabi district over the past few days. They were being used to air programmes concerning different religious schools of thought of a nature that made the authorities fear breakdowns in law and order. However, the state needs to bolster this crackdown on illegal radio stations by creating incentives for legal, licensed channels that produce superior and non-controversial programming. The further one is from the urban and settled areas, the lower the penetration of FM programming — even though a sizeable audience is clearly available. Lowering licence fees and making it possible to apply for an FM radio licence — instead of having to wait for Pemra to announce an auction, as is currently the case — would go a long way as an incentive. True, a large portion of the northwest is covered by Radio Pakistan’s medium-wave transmissions; but FM has appreciably better broadcast quality and in a region that Pakistan needs to develop, a case can be made for the plurality of voices. Responsible radio programming can make a difference. The rest of Pakistan has benefited from the FM revolution; so should the northwest.