Community radio stations in Latin America discriminated against by law and its advocates face criminal convictions

While Latin American community radios have received greater recognition in their countries since the mid-2000s, they remain limited and discriminated against in practice and by law.

This was the argument put forward by representatives of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (Amarc) and the Latin American Observatory of Regulation, Media and Convergence (Observacom) during the 162nd period of public hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from May 22 to 26.

"Of the thirteen countries studied in Latin America, only four of them  (Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Colombia)  have a regulation that is in line with the inter-American standards developed by the Rapporteurship (Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression) and the IACHR. Then, the other nine countries recognize community media but with discriminatory rules of greater or lesser intensity," said Javier García, a representative of Observacom.

In the hearing on freedom of expression and community radio in Latin America, these international organizations stressed that the communication services laws of Uruguay (2007) and Argentina (2009) have sought to give a more equitable treatment to community radio stations in comparison with commercial radio stations.

Amarc's international vice president, Damián Loreti, said that both Uruguay and Argentina have based their legislation on community radios on the telecommunications laws of Canada and France. However, in the case of Uruguay, there are limitations of antennas and electric power in practice, which means community radio stations are destined to be poor, few and small, Loreti added.

Meanwhile, in Guatemala, Chile, Brazil and Peru, communities that operate their radio stations and then arrange their regulation with the government, are criminally sanctioned. In Peru and Guatemala, the advocates of these radios are punished with the crime of "aggravated theft" or "theft of frequency," which the Amarc representative explained has no relation to radio broadcasting. Legally, “you cannot steal a frequency because the theft is either of energy, or of heat, and a radio frequency does not adhere to either situation. This has been explained several times by the ITU (International Telecommunications Union, of the United Nations)," Loreti explained.

García, of Observacom, said that the legal recognition of community broadcasting is not enough. The rules of recognition of these media contain discriminatory conditions that impede their development, he explained. He added that restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression continue.

Several Central American countries continue to deny the right to indigenous communities and indigenous peoples to have their own media outlets. This is the case in Guatemala, García said.

Argentina and Uruguay are the countries with the best regulatory practices, while Chile, Brazil and Paraguay have discriminatory regulations that do not meet the inter-American standards. "From our experience of analysis in the region and the reports of the Rapporteurship, it can be that there is a formal but very limited recognition," García said.

Another difficulty faced by community radio stations, according to Loreti, is their definition as rural radios, in many cases. "Radio stations should be recognized with a community of interests that are not limited to a specific geographic location. This is happening in Peru and Paraguay, where the definition of 'community' unequivocally mandates that they be rural or remote radios," Loreti explained. One of the examples cited by the researcher was that of Brazil, whose legislation only allows community radios a kilometer (a little more than half a mile) of coverage in the radio spectrum.

In the case of Paraguay, community radios do not even have access to state advertising, nor to any sponsorship because of this same geographical restriction. Sponsorship advertising is only possible on community radio stations if they are in the coverage area of the station. That means, they are geographically located within the area the radio spectrum of the media outlet covers, which may be 1 or 5 square kilometers, in total, Loreti said.

"That violates the standard set by the Rapporteurship, that advertising is not just a market issue. Community radios in that sense are discriminated against and literally excluded from access to official advertising," Loreti said.

The economic limitation of access to frequencies continues to exist, that is to say, that bids for public allocation of frequencies are still not differentiated. Community radios compete at the same level as commercial radio stations, the Amarc representative said.

In the case of Peru, the allocations are specifically linked to financial bids. And also in Brazil, in the case of signal interference, the commercial radio is favored over the community, which goes against the principle of equal opportunities, added Loreti.

Media concentration is increasing in the region, and the strangulation of community media is also growing, Amarc and Observacom agreed.

"This gap does not go away with the internet. The use of the internet is paid, and its contents can be controlled, but broadcasting is open, and it still keeps the anonymity of the receiver, and it is free, and those are the principles that we want to continue to maintain," Loreti said.

Both Amarc and Observacom asked the Special Rapporteurship and the IACHR to continue to urge Latin American countries to adapt their legislative and administrative frameworks and their public policies to the standards and principles on freedom of expression and broadcasting, which are expressly recognized in the Inter-American system.

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.