community radio station

Voices of the Community

By Patricia Macías López

What is community radio? Community radio is not-for-profit, and is owned and operated by the community. Historically, it is characterized by offering space for those who have no voice in the mains­tream media. Furthermore, community radio performs an educational and cultural function. Educational, by including educational content that would otherwise not reach many of the beneficiaries; and cultural, by overcoming barriers such as illiteracy and supporting the traditions and languages of the community. Community radio is a defense of cultural identity that would not otherwise find a form of expression.

The struggle for community radio in Guatemala is unfortunately a historical process. Since the signing of the peace accords in 1996, when their legalization was promised, the struggle for these radios has not stopped for even one day. There are 205 community radio stations in the country, but all of them, with few exceptions, work in an ‘illegal’ way, as the Guatemalan telecommunications law only recognizes and gives license to government or commercial stations – the only ones that have sufficient financial means to bid in public auctions to obtain radio frequencies. However, both Article 35 of the national Constitution and the peace accords include the right to obtain operating licenses for these radios; in practice this has never materialized due to the lack of financial resources.

On top of this legal vacuum are the raids of community radio stations. A raid involves an ‘occupation’ of the station by the police, making arrests and confiscating the technical equipment of the headquarters on charges of theft of radio frequencies. The raids have become tougher in the past two years, as a form of direct attack on community radio, particularly against those that work primarily for social benefit. In one of the last raids in San Jose San Marcos, one of the young volunteers on the radio – who was commissioned to conduct a program on education and youth – was arrested and has spent more than a month in prison, without much hope of being released until the investigation is completed and those responsible for the radio are turned over to authorities.

Sobreviencia Cultural (‘Cultural Survival’) is an organization that works to defend the rights of indigenous communities; to defend their lands, languages and culture. Headquartered in Quetzaltenango, one of its main activities is to support community radio stations across the country. One of its key objectives is to get congressional approval for initiative 4087 for the legalization of community radio, which is currently pending a final decision in that institution. The passage of this initiative would mark a ‘before’ and ‘after’ for community radio in Guatemala. Angelica Rao works at Cultural Survival; when asked about her experience, the first adjective she uses to describe the radios’ work is “passion.” “I have seen a lot of passion in the people of the radio, passion for service to their community, as this is volunteer work that they do in their spare time and for these people the radios are a fundamental tool for the development of these communities”

A free and informed citizenry is the foundation of any democracy. As such, the work of these misnamed ‘pirate’ radios is so important: local communi­cation that contributes to the building of a culture of solidarity and coexistence between peoples, allowing us to be a little freer every day.