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INDIGENOUS COMMUNICATIONS WITHOUT BORDERS: Indigenous Peoples of Central America Demand Laws that Favor Community Broadcasting

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression; to hold, seek, and share ideas without interference. Indigenous Peoples have been stewards of communication, passing down knowledge orally through many generations. They are experts of their media. Community radio has been a growing element in Indigenous Peoples exercising their rights and revitalizing their cultures, languages, and traditions.

The Central American Indigenous Community Radio  Network convened in Panajachel, Guatemala, August 8–9  to commemorate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It was the second gathering of the Central American Indigenous Community Radio Network, just two years after its inaugural gathering in Panama, and the outcome was impressive. More than 60 representatives of community radio stations from Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama exchanged experiences about the advances and setbacks of community radio broadcasting, the rights of Indigenous Peoples to freedom of expression and access to their own media, and the criminalization and imprisonment of community journalists in their countries. Participants also reviewed and approved a regional strategic plan for the Network.

Democracy demands equality of civil and political rights for all citizens. UNESCO has stated that radio frequencies are a shared heritage of humanity, and governments are required to grant and administer them equally, without discrimination. However, this requirement has not been met in several countries in Central America. Indigenous Peoples continue to be excluded and discriminated against when accessing radio frequencies, denying them the right to freedom of expression.

“Information is power,” said Eva Tecún, an attorney at Tz’ununija’ Indigenous Women’s Movement in Guatemala. “Community radio stations have questioned colonialism, and at the same time have strengthened the identities, cultures, and languages of Indigenous Peoples. Community radio   stations have put forward the need and right for Indigenous communication as a tool for Indigenous Peoples’ development, where conventionally communication was seen as a field where only professional journalists could participate.”

Indigenous Peoples in communities around the world have recognized the importance of locally owned and operated media as being crucial for self-determination, as well as a key tool to strengthen the use of Indigenous languages and other elements of their cultures. Indigenous communities in at least 81 countries have invested their own local resources to establish and maintain community-run media outlets. Many of these communities have chosen radio as the most practical medium. However, several nation states do not have the appropriate laws and regulations to give legal authorization to Indigenous community radio stations.

In 2016, responding to the need for solidarity and cooperation between Indigenous communities across international borders, 35 representatives from all seven Central American countries gathered in Nargana, Panama, at an event hosted by the autonomous government of Guna Yala, to lay the groundwork for a regional alliance of Indigenous community radio stations. Indigenous radio stations face similar challenges irrespective of what nation state encompasses their traditional territories. The representatives of the participating radio stations, along with several accompanying NGOs, including Cultural Survival, Fundacion Comunicandanos, World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, Voces Indigenas de Panama, and Asociacion Sobrevivencia Cultural, created a strategic framework and set of goals for the Network.

The recent meeting in Panajachel is a significant step in the continued growth and consolidation of this network, and Indigenous youth were particularly visible. With the diaspora of Indigenous knowledge and practices, community media has been an outlet for the youth; the increase of youth participation in community radio is much needed for many Indigenous communities. When discussions are held around frequency licenses, demands for protection for Indigenous journalists, and State accountability for freedom of expression, youth must take part in those conversations because they are the ones that are most impacted and will be the next leaders. It is important for youth to take leadership in the struggles community radio is facing now, and in the future. The gathering created this opportunity for the emergence of future youth voices.

Cultural Survival initiated the Indigenous Community Media Youth Fellowship project for Indigenous youth to gain access to media, especially community radio, to strengthen their cultural practices and exert their rights of freedom of expression. Two youth fellows were invited to attend the meeting: Raciel González Rojas from Boruca Cultural Radio in Costa Rica, and Delia Marisela Maquin Cucul from Radio Comunitaria Xyaab’ Tzuul Taq’n in Guatemala. Both participated as emcees for the gathering and led a few ice breaker activities. Rojas was elected as a board member for the Regional Council of the Central American Community Radio Network, representing Costa Rica, which developed a document outlining the challenges community radio faces in the current contexts. Law and communications professionals were invited to weigh in regarding the situation Guatemala and Mexico, including Cristian Otzin of the Association of Mayan Lawyers of Guatemala; Socrates Vásquez of Jenpoj Community Radio in Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, Mexico; and Tecun.

Otzín emphasized that Guatemala is reluctant to democratize the radio spectrum because it currently benefits a privileged minority who label community stations as ‘pirate’ and illegal, comparing them with organized crime. In 2011, a case was presented to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court questioning the auction system, which is currently the only mechanism in place to legally acquire radio frequencies. The Court pressed the Congress in 2012 to pass a law respecting Indigenous  Peoples’ rights, which has not advanced in the legislative body. Parallel to these actions, the Public Ministry has misapplied criminal law statutes to justify raids against community radio stations and to silence the voices of the people by confiscating transmission equipment and imprisonment of community journalists.

In spite of this dire scenario, since the establishment of the Network, progress has been made in each of the seven member countries. In Belize, where a single Indigenous station serves the southern part of the country (where most of the Indigenous population lives), a group of community journalists have been trained to report on Indigenous rights issues. In Honduras, 17 Indigenous radio stations have organized themselves into an Indigenous Radio Roundtable to work together on common issues. In El Salvador, communities have been in discussions with the government about opening up frequencies to Indigenous communities for the first time.

In Panama, where the current law technically allows for Indigenous organizations to obtain a broadcast license, communities have been frustrated by bureaucratic obstructionism. Two Indigenous communities have completed all of the required preparations to obtain broadcast licenses, but were rejected on technicalities. In protest, the autonomous Indigenous government of Guna Yala went on the air with an “experimental” radio station for a few days last year and again in October. Many challenges still remain. However, hopeful examples of positive changes to obstructive broadcasting laws do exist. For example, Mexico recently changed its broadcasting law to allow for Indigenous communities to obtain licenses.

“What are the things that makes us different as Indigenous radio journalists?” asked Vásquez in his opening remarks, which highlighted the struggle of Indigenous Peoples throughout history and how Indigenous communication is not only carried out between human beings, but among all living beings. In Mexico in the early 1960s, Indigenous people began to communicate through magazines, newspapers, and radio production centers. During the commemoration of 500 years of invasion of America, among their stated demands were the right to autonomy and the means of communication. Later on, with the Zapatista uprising in 1994 and the signing of the San Andrés Peace Accords, the right to communication was guaranteed.  

The same scenario has played out in several countries, as government and businesses have sought ways to keep Indigenous Peoples from their own means of communication and to protect their private communication enterprises. They argue that there are no radio frequencies available and that that broadcasting rights have to be obtained through public auctions that go to the highest bidder. Instead of protecting the well being of citizens, governments have sided with communication monopolies promoting undemocratic laws, extending their use of the radio airwaves indefinitely without taking into account Indigenous Peoples. This is a serious violation of freedom of expression and international human rights standards, such as ILO Convention 169, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The meeting of the Central American Indigenous Community Radio Network showcased the reality of Indigenous Peoples of the region, and in so doing, highlighted why it is necessary to strengthen community media and address the exclusionary and discriminatory policies that impede their rights. The Network’s strategic plan emphasizes the defense of freedom of expression and the promotion of national and international actions to demand responsible State legislation and public policies to democratize media in favor of Indigenous Peoples.




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