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Challenges of Community Radio in Guatemala

Indigenous peoples in Guatemala rely on community radio to keep their culture, language, and traditions alive as well as to inform their communities about issues and events relevant to their lives. Because of its relatively low cost, community radio is an accessible tool. In some of the most remote areas of the country, many communities do not have access to electricity, but many have small battery-powered radios making it important means of communications within indigenous communities and among them.

The laws of Guatemala do not allow for any form of non-profit radio, including community radio. Instead, Guatemala only provides for commercial and government use of radio frequencies; obtaining a commercial license is done through a bidding process with the highest bid winning. As a result, the vast majority of Guatemala’s indigenous communities are unable to legally operate community radio stations; only a rare few have been successful in the awarding of a frequency. Instead, many indigenous communities operate community radio stations illegally, typically borrowing frequencies that are not in use, but always under the threat of raids and imprisonment by government officials.

For the past nineteen years, since the Peace Accords were signed, indigenous communities have been working together the push the government to change these discriminatory laws. As explained in more detail below, this strong and vibrant lobbying effort led to a 2010 legislative bill that would have legalize community radio. That bill was awarded a favorable recommendation by a Congressional subcommittee but was later shelved, continuing to leave radio stations and operators vulnerable to persecution and raids.

Community radio has had a presence in indigenous communities around Guatemala since the 1960s. Early community radio stations like Radio Nawala operating since 1962 and Radio Cabrican, now Radio Mam, established in 1975 and the hundreds, if not thousands of indigenous community radio stations created since play an important and necessary role. Not only do these community radio stations keep the indigenous communities they serve informed, but they also promote and protect indigenous languages and cultures. Indigenous community members recognize the importance of this role by supporting their local community radio stations in a variety of ways: community members volunteer their time, make financial contributions to meet operating expenses, and lend their political support to the passage of legislation that would provide a mechanism to grant licenses to community radio stations.

Despite the commitment to and interest in indigenous community radio, current Guatemalan law prohibits such use of the radio frequencies. The current law stands in stark contrast to the commitment Guatemala made in the negotiated Peace Accords ending the decades-long civil war. In the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“AIDPI”), signed in 1995, Guatemala agreed to “make frequencies available for indigenous projects” and “promote… the abolition of any provision in the national legislation which is an obstacle to the right of indigenous peoples to have at their disposal communications media for the development of their identity.” The “CRONOGRAMA” Agreement, which established a time-table for the implementation the Peace Accords, provided that the AIDPI be complied with during the years 1998, 1999 and 2000.8 After the Government’s failure to reform Guatemala’s telecommunications law, MINUGUA, the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala, rescheduled this process for 2001 and 2002. Almost twenty years later, these provisions of the AIDPI remain unfulfilled.

The Current Law
Guatemala’s current law, in effect, only provides for commercial and government radio stations. Under Article 62 of the General Telecommunications Law, radio frequencies are awarded through a public auction. The Superintendent of Telecommunications, the government agency charged with administering the assignment of frequencies, must always award a frequency to whoever offers the highest bid at public auction. The highest bid at a public auction is entitled to the radio frequency. The law does not provide for community radio or any other form of non-profit radio.

As described below, community radio stations serving indigenous communities are sometimes raided by Guatemalan police forces that detain the broadcasters and confiscate radio equipment. Although civil penalties for operating a community radio station without a license are unclear under current law, this has not stopped the Government of Guatemala from charging individuals who operate community radio stations with a variety of infractions ranging from theft of fluids to drug trafficking. Of significance, a new bill introduced into Congress in 2012 would criminalize community radio and establish jail terms for community volunteers.

Raids of Community Radio Stations
What follows below is a description of known recent raids on indigenous community radio stations.
In 2002, the village of Kaqchikel Maya of Sumpango, Saqatepéquez was searching for a and education to the community. In order to achieve these goals, they founded the community radio station known as Radio Ixchel. Radio Ixchel operates as a non-profit community radio station run by volunteers who live in Sumpango and funded by listeners and other fund raising activities. The municipal government contributes financially to the operation of the station.

On July 7, 2006 Radio Ixchel was raided by the Ministerio Publico’s Fiscalía de Delitos Contra Sindicalistas y Periodistas. Broadcast equipment was seized and confiscated during the raid. The townspeople of Sumpango held a fundraising party to collect money to purchase new equipment to get the radio station back on the air. On August 20, 2007, Ancelmo Xunic, volunteer coordinator for Radio Ixchel, appeared in court to answer charges. The judge found that the case lacked merit.

On May 8th, 2012 in the village of San Miguel Chicaj in Baja Verapaz, the Achi-Mayan community radio station, Uqul Tinamit “The Voice of the People,” was raided by national police forces and the Ministerio Publico. The radio station’s transmitter, computer, and sound mixer were seized. Mr. Espinoza Ixtapa, one of Uqul Tinamit’s volunteers, was arrested at the time of the raid.14 Since the raid, various sectors of the community have spoken out in defense of this community radio station that has had to shut its doors. Noe Ismalej, a volunteer at the radio station, explained: “Since its beginnings, Uqul Tinamit’s primary goal has been to communicate about topics relevant to the Achi Mayan people; its programming was developed with a focus on education and raising people’s awareness on how our people’s rights have been denied across years.”15 Gregorio Garcia, the catholic priest of the local parish in San Miguel, indicated that with the closing of this radio, the voice of an entire community is being silenced: ““…we are very dismayed, very, very hurt …. We are without a voice....”

In response to this incident, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression issued a statement denouncing the raid and reiterating that Articles 13, 15, and 16 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples establish the right to freedom of expression, transmission of culture, and to their own forms of media.

On October 11, 2012, Radio Doble Vía of San Mateo, Quetzaltenango, was raided by four agents of Guatemalan Ministerio Publico’s Fiscalía de Delitos Contra Sindicalistas y Periodistas and by five agents of the Guatemalan National Civil Police. As explained by the radio station’s coordinator, José Walter Mejía Estrada, in his affidavit, no arrests were made, but the police confiscated the station’s computer and console, for a total of about $1,400.00 U.S. dollars in equipment.

On November 15, 2012, Radio Damasco of San Pablo, San Marcos, was raided by police. The station was closed at the time, but police agents broke into the station and confiscated the station’s transmitter, computer, two microphones, and one console, for a total of about $6,300 U.S. dollars in equipment.

The same station was raided again for a second time on November 21, 2013. A team of police brought in from the country’s capital raided the station, accompanied by three members of the Ministerio Publico. The director of the station, Mr. Victor Angel, was taken into custody after he made an announcement on the air that the police had arrived. Looking for an excuse to arrest him, they interpreted his comment as “incitement to violence” and put him in handcuffs. He spent five nights in jail following the raid, and was not provided food or water by the prison guards.

Efforts to Amend the Law
A community radio movement emerged in Guatemala after it became clear that ensuring that indigenous peoples have access to communications media was not a priority for the Government of Guatemala. Lobbying campaigns to change the current General Telecommunications Law are numerous. Hundreds of indigenous community members have traveled to the capital to lobby Congress on behalf of community radio stations. Thousands have participated in public demonstrations and marches. Many thousands have signed petitions: for example, more than 3,000 citizens of the Mam Maya town of Cajola, Quetzaltenango signed a petition in February of 2012 expressing their support for local community radio station La X Musical. Another 3,000 residents of community of Todos Santos Cuchumatan, Huehuetenango, including the mayor and the police captain, signed a petition supporting Radio Qman Txum. In 2002, the trade group that represents Guatemala’s commercial radio stations, the Cámara de Radiodifusion de Guatemala, announced its support for community radio.

More formal attempts to amend the telecommunications law began soon after the law went into effect. In 2002, the first bill (Initiative 2621) was introduced into Congress; the bill failed to get out of committee. In response to concerns that the entire spectrum of frequencies would be auctioned to commercial radio stations and as a result of pressure by the European Union, the auction of frequencies was suspended on March 24, 2002. A second bill (Initiative 3142) was introduced in 2004, and a third in 2005 (Initiative 3151). Both met the same fate. Meanwhile, the Superintendent of Telecommunications released a study that found that 29 frequencies could be available if a community radio bill passed.

At the urging of the Inter-American Commission Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, a National Round Table for Dialogue was established to resolve the problem of “illegal radio stations.” The Guatemalan government charged COPREDEH (Comisión Presidencial para los Derechos Humanos), the Presidential Commission for Human Rights, with hosting the Round Table. The Round Table resulted in a fourth bill (Initiative 4087) which was introduced in Congress on August 3, 2009. This bill was revised by Congress’ Indigenous Peoples Committee and then sent back to the full Congress with a favorable recommendation in January 2010. Despite intensive lobbying by indigenous communities and community radio organizations, Congressional leadership failed to place the bill on the agenda for debate and a vote. In 2010, the Guatemalan Government body CNAP, the National Advisory Group on the Implementation of the Peace Accords, helped pay to print 2,000 booklets exhorting the Guatemalan Congress to approve Initiative 4087.

Most recently, Congress established yet-another committee that would further examine what steps would need to be taken in order to provide community radio for the indigenous community. The Committee met in November 2013 with Representative Carlos Mejía, the President of the Commission of Indigenous Peoples. Even though the committee is a positive development and an opportunity to continue the dialogue and keep the issue alive, similar committees have been created in the past, and none of have led to any reform or progress.
In addition to the extensive and long-spanning lobbying effort, the indigenous communities in Guatemala have also exhausted their judicial domestic remedies. The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Guatemala, the State’s highest and only court charged with interpreting the country’s Constitution, issued a decision on a constitutional challenge to the General Telecommunications Law. On November 17, 2011, Asociación Sobrevivencia Cultural presented a case to the Constitutional Court arguing that the current telecommunication law is unconstitutional on the grounds that it discriminates against indigenous peoples by denying them access to radio frequencies. In its March 2012 decision, the Court disagreed with the claims presented by Asociación Sobrevivencia Cultural and held that the General Telecommunications Law does not violate the Constitution of Guatemala.28 However, the Court “urged” Congress to consider and pass a law granting and regulating radio frequencies to indigenous communities to promote indigenous languages, traditions, spirituality, and other cultural expression but this was not based on any constitutional requirement to do so. This would involve providing legal access to radio frequencies in the country. As of this moment, the Guatemalan Congress has not responded to the recommendations of the Constitutional Court.

Furthermore, Cultural Survival filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in September of 2012. The petition outlines the grievances of the indigenous community and how the absence of community radio is a limitation on their rights to freedom of expression and thought and culture and a violation of the principle of non-discrimination under the American Convention on Human Rights and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. The petition is pending before the Commission.

As recognized by the international community and as provided for in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, access to all forms media, including radio, is an essential means for indigenous peoples to exercise many of their human rights, including culture, language, participation and freedom of expression. Despite a commitment from the Government of Guatemala nineteen years ago to provide access to radio frequencies in a non-discriminatory manner to indigenous peoples, the Government continues to fail as meeting is human rights obligations.