Bill to recognize community media up for debate in Guatemala, again

Activists and media workers in Guatemala fighting for the passage of a bill to protect the existence of community radio stations in the country are facing resistance from a media broadcasting association.

The Community Media Law, part of Bill 4087, would legalize nonprofit community radio in Guatemala by providing them access to the broadcasting spectrum. It recently was re-introduced to the Guatemalan Congress by member Sandra Móran with support from member Amílcar Pop.

The current edition of the bill first was introduced in 2009 by Representative Marvin Orellana López. After passing two votes, the recently submitted iteration of the bill went to a technical committee for analysis.

The Association of Radio Broadcasting of Guatemala, which requested the analysis, said in a press release that it “is not against radio for use by the community. The rejection is against radio that operate without authorization from the Superintendency of Telecommunications (illegal radio).”

The association added that Bill 4087 “has several shortcomings, inconsistencies, omissions in technical specifications that must be observed by the Republic of Guatemala.”

On the association’s website, it posted the following audio message under the headline Community Radio: “In Guatemala, there are radio stations operating outside of the law and justice. Some governmental institutions, private institutions and individuals have been surprised by illegal stations pretending to be community stations which are outside of the law. Take caution! Do not let anyone involve you as an accomplice in the commission of a crime.”

According to Morán, in an interview reported on news site Sala de Redacción, after requesting the review, members of the association had dinner with congressmen to present their arguments, which could be harmful to the law’s passage, she said, taking into account that the Congress is conservative.

Supporters of the law also have mobilized.

Anselmo Xunic, president of Asociación Sobrevivencia Cultural, told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas he is aware of the campaign against the law, but remains hopeful.

“But we still hope to work a little more, to [look] at how to pressure Congress through district members so they don’t betray the people who elected them,” Xunic said.

Marcos Raguay, president of the Association of Guatemalan Community Radio (ARCG for its acronym in Spanish), said organizations have been spreading news about the bill via indigenous radio. Raguay said he believes the bill is affected by the whims of the radio broadcasting association.

“There is not even a proposal that would at least give us the minimum rights that we want,” Raguay said. “There isn’t a proposal for reform to this initiative because they don’t have technical arguments to say that this initiative could not be feasible.”

Sixty percent of the Guatemalan population is indigenous, according to the International Work Group of Indigenous Affairs. There are about 24 different groups of indigenous peoples in the country and just as many languages spoken.

According to indigenous rights nonprofit Cultural Survival, which has voiced support and mobilized for the bill, community radio stations in Guatemala “currently operate in a legal grey area, with the risk of police raids and jail time for radio volunteers.”

The stations “serve the vital function of distributing information about important news and educational programming like emergency disaster relief, voter registration, public health campaigns, to listeners in their own local languages, reaching even the most rural areas where radio is the only affordable form of communication,” Cultural Survival said.

From 2000 to the present, indigenous organizations in Guatemala have submitted four bills to gain recognition for community media, according to the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

As the current bill is before the Guatemalan Congress, national and international groups are voicing support for the initiative, yet again.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur of the IACHR called on Guatemala to adopt the community broadcasting legislation, explaining that indigenous groups “have historically been excluded from accessing and managing media outlets.”

The Citizen’s Board for the Human Right to Communication, based in El Salvador, joined that office in urging a quick adoption of the bill.

“If the Guatemalan Congress seeks to improve the quality of democracy, it must have a system of diverse and plural media. Therefore, we encourage you to not be pressured by officials who represent the association of commercial broadcasting or any other petty interest that is inconsistent with democracy in Guatemala,” the organization wrote.

The newly formed Central American Network of Indigenous Community Radio also sent a letter to Congress, asking them to “quickly approve Bill 4087 and thus secure the right to freedom of expression and the right to community belonging to indigenous peoples in Guatemala.”

The network was formed at the First Indigenous Community Radio Conference in Panama this January to create a permanent space to discuss issues related to community broadcasting and to share programming and information, said Angelica Rao, executive coordinator of Cultural Survival, which organized the conference in Panama.

“The main goal of the network is to create this space for sharing and growing for these communities at the regional level,” Rao said.

Additionally, the network was created so that countries can work together on regulation issues affecting community radio, such as Bill 4087 in Guatemala.

Association members elected a commission of 12 members from Central American countries to manage the direction of the network.

“We believe that we are stronger if we are organized, not only to influence and enforce our rights; but to share, learn, develop, support and revitalize our cutlural traditions and languages,” Ada Villarreal Alemán, a leader of the regional commission set up by the network, said to the Knight Center. “We work by consensus and find common values which we are willing to defend. And to do so with the conviction that diversity is a value and that we all must understand.”


Silvia Higuera contributed to this post

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.