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Without a Secured Right to Freedom of Expression, There Is No Democracy in Central America

Agnes Portalewska

"We have come to very respectfully ask that the Commission follow up on our request. We are well aware of current policies on radio broadcast throughout the region and the sustained approach that favors monopolies and oligopolies. Central America is challenged in developing human rights approach to communication.This requires dismantling the hyper-mercantilization that has drawn the human rights map.” — Ancelmo Xunic

On October 23, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a Thematic Hearing on Examining Freedom of Expression in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala during its 156th Session in Washington, D.C. Organized by Asociación Mundial de Radios Comunitarias (AMARC-Subregión Centroamérica), Asociación de Medios Comunitarios de Honduras (AMCH), Asociación de Radios Comunitarias de Guatemala (ARCG), Asociación Sobrevivencia Cultural, Central American Institute for the Study of Social Democracy (DEMOS), Comité por la Libre Expresión (C Libre), Cultural Survival, Fundación de la Comunicación para el Desarrollo (Comunicándonos), Junta Ciudadana por el Derecho Humano a la Comunicación, and Mujb’ab’l yol: Encuentro de Expresiones, the session sought to shine a spotlight on the daily rights violations that Indigenous journalists and communities face when exercising the universal right to freedom of expression and communication.

These basic rights make up the foundation of a well functioning democracy, yet communities in Central America share a common experience, history, and reality that citizens’ freedom of expression and the right to communication are not evenly respected and guaranteed. Indigenous journalists and community radio operators, despite physical threats, state persecution, and even risk of death, continue to exercise their rights in order to serve their communities. Telecommunications laws in Central America do not recognize community radio except in Honduras, and even there, a law that favors commercial institutions is the one that prevails.

The panelists included Oscar Antonio Pérez from Asociación Mundial de Radios Comunitarias, Anselmo Xunic from Cultural Survival and Asociación Sobrevivencia Cultural, Christian Oztin from the Asociación de Abogados Mayas, Alma Gloria Temaj Morales of Asociación Mujb’ab’l yol: Encuentro de Expresiones, and Carlos Ramón Enamorado Pérez of Asociación de Medios Comunitarios de Honduras (AMCH).

El Salvador
“In El Salvador, there is a continuing trend of concentration of media in the hands of corporate groups that control the whole radio spectrum,” said Pérez during his address to the Commission. He added, “all oligopolies are tied to political parties.” Five commercial groups have historically held ownership of El Salvador’s radio frequency spectrum. Former president Elias Antonio Saca owned six radio frequencies when he began as president, and fourteen by the end of his presidency. The law does not distinguish between public, private, or community radio; all frequencies are auctioned to the highest bidder and no state entity exists to regulate radio broadcasting. Pérez requested that the Commission urge the government of El Salvador to make the necessary changes to the judicial framework such that the State of El Salvador fully recognizes the three communications sectors, including community media. Additionally he asked that the Commission support the State of El Salvador in guaranteeing a free and inclusive radio system. Finally, he demanded that in El Salvador and Central America, those who work in community radio be recognized as an indispensable sector working to strengthen the quality of democracy.

“Guatemala’s diversity is its strength, but there is discrimination, and it has been co-opted by de facto groups that hold power and abuse it. The concentration of media is viewed as normal among the people who do not realize it is a violation of social, civil, and political rights and an attack on their freedom of expression. It violates the quality of democracy, democratization of media, and the constitution,” said Temaj Morales. The 1996 Peace Accords that ended Guatemala’s 36-year civil war guaranteed the democratization of the media. However, the current telecommunications law makes no provision for nonprofit community radio. “One of the strategic resources is radio frequency. We are seeing a greater concentration of media outlets, and concern is strong when greater concentration of media is in few hands. These outlets have undermined standards of democracy. Young democracies are at the mercy of serious structural voids that threaten the progress of their political systems,” said Xunic.

In Guatemala, radio frequencies are either reserved for government use or auctioned to the highest bidder, so Indigenous communities must compete directly with commercial radio stations. The Community Radio Movement of Guatemala brought a case to the Constitutional Court arguing that this practice is discriminatory against Indigenous Peoples. In March 2012, the court exhorted the congress to legislate in favor of Indigenous community radio stations, allowing them access to radio frequencies. Since then, Bill 4087, which seeks to legalize and regulate community radio, has been introduced to the Guatemalan Congress, but it has not been ratified into law. As a consequence, the further concentration of Guatemala’s media has prevented the exercise of real democracy by barring the broadcast of varied sources of information and opinions, and has contributed to a loss of Indigenous cultures and values.

The concentration of ownership of media is a violation of Article 130 of the Guatemalan Constitution, which prohibits media monopolies. “The concentration of media due to political candidates asking for airtime...these are structures of power that are coordinated around traffic of influence and corruption. We call on the Commission to raise the profile of this situation and put conditions in place where Indigenous Peoples and others can utilize the radio spectrum,” said Temaj Morales. In addition, in recent years, community radio stations have been the targets of police raids, criminal investigations, and unlawful imprisonment. “Under rule of law, it’s impossible to allow community radio broadcasting to be prosecuted. It is a contradiction,” said Xunic. “Official state propaganda in Central America continues to be used to either reward or punish media. The Commission and Special Rapporteur must make efforts to work with civil society to ensure greater plurality of voices to strengthen democracy in the region." 

In Honduras, restrictive laws, the criminalization of the right to free expression, wiretapping, and murder of community journalists are all common occurrences. In less than four years there have been seven murders of journalists and broadcasters working for community media outlets. From 2014– 2015, there were 55 acts of aggression against those who work for community and alternative radio stations; journalists regularly face threats to their lives by local governments. “The Honduran state is violating freedom of expression over internet and all forms of communication due to questions of security. We request that the Commission and Rapporteur ask the government to remove legislation that attacks freedom of expression. We call on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to help create a law that includes the term ‘community media,’ and ask that an office of community broadcasting be created to help facilitate the procedures for organizations to apply for a frequency. This is part of democracy, having media availability,” said Pérez.

The Commission members asked the panelists for more information regarding their opinion on adequate regulation and laws with regard to community radio broadcasting as well as more information on the abuse of criminal law against people who engage in community radio broadcasting. The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza, stated that “the Commission firmly believes that diversity and pluralism are conditions and ends to democratic systems, and that in order for freedom of expression to wholly exist, States must assume their obligations and adopt legislation and effective public policies that enforce social inclusion.” Mark Camp, deputy executive director of Cultural Survival, who attended the hearing, said, “It is clear that Indigenous community radio is an extremely important tool for Indigenous Peoples. It can help sustain Indigenous cultures and languages. And when radio stations are operated by the community and for the community, it promotes participatory democracy. Governments must demonstrate their respect for the right to freedom of expression by ceasing their attempts to bar Indigenous community radio from meaningful access to the airwaves.”