By Isabela Fraga
Currently in Brazil there are more than 4,000 licensed active community radio stations. If non-authorized radio stations were included, this number would drastically increase. The process for granting broadcasting licenses, however, is slow: in some cases, it can take 10 years to get a broadcast license. As such, it's not rare to find cases such as that of José Eduardo Rocha Santos, owner of a community radio in the state of Sergipe, who was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for operating a radio station without a license.
For the national president of the World Association of Community Radio, Arthur William, one of the first steps toward legislation that values Brazilian community radio stations is to decriminalize the transmission of low-power broadcast radio stations. In an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, William talked about the largest problems that Brazilian community and free radios currently face, the importance of their right to communicate, and some examples of other countries in the Americas.
How do you evaluate the Brazilian legislation in relation to community radio stations today? Has there been any progress over the years?
The Brazilian legislation in relation to community radios is outdated and conservative, established in 1998 during an era of privatization and weakening of social movements. According to that law, a community radio station must have very low power (25 watts) and no more than one kilometer in range. Also, by law, advertizing is not allowed on community radios, but no other funding alternative is offered either. In 2011, a decree updated the 1998 law (Decree 462). However, since the 1998 law is poor, the update was also poor, because it emphasized the worst parts of the law. For example, the decree automatically disqualifies any radio that transmits without a license and, meanwhile, the process to grant a license to community radios is slow and bureaucratic, sometimes taking longer than 10 years in the process. And, if meanwhile a radio goes on the air, it is automatically disqualified from the legal process.
What can be done to improve this situation and make the legal process more effective?
There is a proposal in Congress to decriminalize transmission frequencies lower than 100 watts: this is an example of improvement, because in Brazil today, any person that transmits frequencies higher than 25 watts is accused of committing a crime. A proposal that the Brazilian government is evaluating, under community radio pressure, would allow for commercial advertising in community radios, but without transmitting prices or payment methods. This proposal, if approved, would also widen the community radio's range to the entire community, without the fixed reach of one kilometer in range. Regarding community radio funding, it is necessary to have guaranteed funding, a public fund or a percentage of any tax.
What do you think about the position and role of the National Telecommunications Agency (Anatel in Portuguese) in relation to community radios?
Anatel has the role of overseeing and regulating, but, in relation to community radios, it's only present through the police. Anatel doesn't give financial aid, doesn't guide, doesn't aid in the bureaucratic legalizing process. An example of Anatel's actions, in this case, was when it tried to close the radio Cúpula dos Povos [a free radio station collectively managed by several social movements, including Amarc, which operated during the Cúpula dos Povos (People's Summit), a parallel event to Rio+20]. Anatel tried to close the radio station and remove the transmitter with the help of military police, but we didn't let that happen. In many parts of Brazil, Anatel ends up being influenced by local political powers that persecute community radios, especially during an election period. Many of those radios end up serving political and religious interests.
Are there situations in the American continent that may serve as an example for Brazil?
The reality of community radios in Latin America, in general, is very similar to that of Brazil, but some countries modified their laws so community and free radios may be valued as they should. Argentina, for example, divided its electromagnetic spectrum in three parts: public broadcasters, private for-profit broadcasters (which we call commercial broadcasters), and non-profit private broadcasters. Among the last one are indigenous, union, social movement, free, and community radios. The Argentine government also gives a percentage of public advertising to these broadcasters. This position values free and community radios. Chile also recently approved a law that decriminalizes the transmission of low power frequencies -- free radio owners are no longer put in jail. Brazil is in opposition to these initiatives: it needs to follow the rest of America.
How do you define a community radio and it's importance to Brazil?
A community radio, for me, is a communication complement. Commercial radios look to make money; public radios have cultural and education programs, but without much contact with the community. The community radio is made for and by the community that knows its own problems, the most important news in the community, spreads its culture, music, and helps develop the local economy. That is why we want permission for advertising on community radios. Community radios communicate with the community itself: they do vaccination campaigns, health campaigns, they mobilize the population, etc.
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.