Community radios

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By Patricia Schwartz

Community radio stations have long been an invaluable pillar of freedom of expression and community organizing in Guatemala. The voice of community stations, unlike that of mainstream radio which often speaks to commercial and/or foreign interests, is the popular voice of the people.

Giving a platform to this voice is essential because, as Alberto Recinos of local radio collective Mujb´ab´l Yol insists, “There are many things that need to be spoken about.”

After an arduous 20-year campaign for recognition and reform, a current pending Initiative proposed in Congress by an extensive group of media activists could finally mean concrete support for the community radio movement from national government. In February of 2016, Initiative 4087 addressing the Community Media Communications law was granted its´ first and second reviews in Congress. The primary objectives of the proposal are to mandate that the government complies with its promises of recognizing and facilitating community radio stations, including the provision of one frequency per municipality to a collective, community station. It is currently awaiting scheduling for its third and final review.

This is potentially good news for stations such as Doble Via in the municipality of San Mateo, which transmits on frequency 91.3 throughout Quetzaltenango.

Stations such as Doble Via and its parent association, Mujb´ab´l Yol, draw on the rich tradition of independent radio sources that came before it, fighting against the repression of civil population before and during the armed conflict. For 9 years of the war, its predecessor, “La Voz Popular” broadcasted in Mam from the foothills of Volcán Tajulumulco to publicize atrocities, give voice to silenced sectors of society, and coordinate and inform resistance movements.

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Today, the movement that this 35-person collective began continues fighting, with a new focus.

The volunteers which bring Doble Via to life broadcast daily from the headquarters of the Asociación Mujb ́ab ́l yol- Encuentro de Expresiones – a nonprofit collective that provides training and support to community radio stations. They’re committed to their cause, convinced that community radio has a unique power to diffuse relevant local news and increase civic engagement. It provides an essential space to unmask and systematize stories of injustice and the oppression faced by indigenous peoples of Guatemala.

And they’re not alone in the fight. Mujb´ab´l Yol works to develop grassroots community radio stations spanning 6 departments in western Guatemala and is part of a nationwide network of endangered independent media sources.

These stations are volunteer-run, and the programs are primarily transmitted in native languages like Mam and K´iche´. In the midst of a media climate with almost no commercial broadcasts in any of the 24 native languages spoken by huge portions of the population,  community radio stations provide access to a lifeline of news and coordination for countless citizens, in their primary language.

Radio signal coverage is at about 90% across the country, which includes rural areas unreached by other signals and forms of media. A diagnostic carried out in 2005 cataloged 2500 radio stations operating without an officially recognized frequency in Guatemala. Though, the majority of these stations are supported by the Evangelical church and broadcast only religious programming.

The Guatemalan constitution and the Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous People, (a part of the 1996 Peace Accords), mandate the facilitation and opening of spaces in media for voices of indigenous communities. However, in practice, a policy of public auction for bandwidth passed later in the same year has made gaining that access all but impossible for grassroots groups operating in the interest of indigenous and rural communities.

In the current context, the purchase of a municipal frequency costs about 250,000 Qtz. A frequency reaching an entire department costs about 4 million Qtz. These exorbitant fees and the difficult bureaucratic process of acquiring a frequency uphold the country’s media monopoly.

The majority of Guatemala´s officially owned and authorized radio frequencies are controlled by one of 3 mega-corporations: Radio Sonora, Emisoras Unidas, and Grupo Alius.

Radio Sonora is just one of the Latin American media chains owned by Mexican multi-millionaire media tycoon Remigio Ángel González, whose media sources have been arraigned with corruption and political interference numerous times. Guatemalan ex-president Álvaro Colom once quoted him as stating in private conversation:  “I remind you that I control 11 presidents and 11 congresses, when they leave, I remain here.” Moreover, in 2007, one of González’s local companies paid out Q1,775,200 for Roxana Baldetti´s beach house during her pre-vice-presidency term in Congress.

Emisoras Unidas, long recognized as a leading outlet for news and information, is owned and operated by the extensive and politically-involved Archila family. One of its prominent members, Erick Archila, who also presided over media conglomerate, Grupo Antigua, resigned from his position as Cabinet Minister of Energy and Mines last year amidst charges of involvement in corruption and coercion against freedom of expression in the media. Grupo Alius, meanwhile, largely avoids competition with the other two powerhouses via its focus on broadcasting Christian religious programming.

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These mega-chains also hold principal control over the Guatemalan Chamber of Radio Broadcasting, a lobbying group of commercial broadcasters that has launched various campaigns denouncing community radio initiatives as harmful “pirate” projects; often leading to forced closures of independent, local stations and seizures of their equipment by police. Although, with local ranges of only a few miles and no national advertisers, it is unclear how community radio stations could pose the market threat to national commercial stations broadcasting from Guatemala City that the Chamber has claimed.  This June, one of Mujb ́ab ́l yol´s  neighboring community stations transmitting a public health program in La Esperanza, Quetzaltenango, was raided and shut down, mirroring countless stories of closures and seizures from across the country.

The association and its partners keep fighting for these stations, which they believe serve as a much-needed channel for freedom and participation, as well as a bastion of community resistance.

Activists and broadcasters hope that the final hearing of Initiative 4087 will bring about the first legal progress in the reform campaign waged by numerous groups on behalf of community radio stations in two decades. The proposed reforms and governmental commitments could radically alter the context of information sharing and community-building in Guatemala, as they have the potential to shift dominion over local media into more local hands.  A change which, Mujb´ab´l Yol affirms, would contribute to a growing culture of peace in Guatemala.