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Freedom of Expression of Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala Case to be Decided in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

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Contact: Agnes Portalewska, Communications Manager // 617.441.5400 //


On April 3, 2020, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) referred a case dealing with Indigenous Peoples’ right to freedom of expression via community radio in Guatemala to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The case, brought by US-based Cultural Survival, Guatemala- based organization Association Sobrevivencia Cultural, and submitted with support from the Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples Clinic at Suffolk University Law School, originally filed in 2012, is now being referred on to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Currently in Guatemala, Indigenous community radio stations are not legalized, and operate in a legal gray zone that has led to frequent persecution, disparagement, and criminalization by mainstream media conglomerates, the national police, and politicians.

On September 28, 2012, Cultural Survival and Guatemalan organization Asociación Sobrevivencia Cultural submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights arguing that the country’s telecommunications law excludes Indigenous Peoples from accessing their own forms of media via community radio. This came after Sobrevivencia Cultural submitted, in October 2011, an action of unconstitutionality to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, declaring economic and ethnic discrimination in the State’s mechanism for distribution of radio frequencies.  The action argued that by auctioning off frequency licensees to the highest bidder, Indigenous communities, who historically and currently are among the most economically marginalized in the country, lack fair access to state-owned media. 

In March 2012, Guatemala’s highest court ruled against our favor, upholding the telecommunications law as is.  However, the court exhorted the congress to legislate in favor of Indigenous People’s access to radio.  Eight years later, the congress has still not implemented the court’s recommendation and has shelved a pending bill that would do so.  However, the right of Indigenous communities to their own forms of media is firmly established in Guatemala’s 1996 Peace Accords, as well as international agreements endorsed by Guatemala such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the American Convention on Human Rights.

“Every day, communities in Guatemala choose to exercise their rights at great personal risk. Our hope is that the court case will convince the government of Guatemala to finally honor their obligations," says Mark Camp, Cultural Survival's Deputy Executive Director.

The announcement from the Inter-American Commission about referring the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for a ruling is a positive development in the case. Decisions of the Inter-American Court are binding, meaning that the state of Guatemala would be required to change the law if the court were to rule in favor of the victims and petitioners.

The State assumed the responsibility of democratizing the airwaves at the signing of the Accord of Identity and Cultural Rights in 1995, which established among other things, that media monopolies should be eliminated through reforms to the telecommunications law and the adoption of a more egalitarian process for the delegation of radio frequencies.  Later, the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, which called for the promotion of local radio stations that would allow for grassroots development of Indigenous communities.

A positive ruling from the Court would help to improve the situation of freedom of expression and access to information, both in Guatemala and across the Americas. “The Commission's decision to refer the case to the Court is a significant step towards achieving the goal, started decades ago, of securing community radio for each indigenous community in Guatemala that seeks it out. With the Court’s review of this case, the hope is that a favorable decision will compel Guatemala to reform its telecommunications law and ensure that Indigenous communities are able to fully exercise their rights to freedom of expression and culture. A favorable judgment from the Inter-American Court would also reach beyond Guatemala to other States, especially those struggling to provide for community radio, by contributing to the jurisprudence in the fields of freedom of expression and culture, particularly, as it relates to community radio, Indigenous Peoples, pluralism and media. Finally, beyond the feeling of promise that comes with the news of this case's referral to the Court, the petitioners and victims should also feel a sense of victory as the Commission agreed with them regarding the need for legal reform in Guatemala,” stated Nicole Friederichs, lead counsel on the case and practitioner-in-residence at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, MA. 

Photo: Radio Chiquixji (Q'eqchi') in Guatemala.