On May 22, 1987, Guatemalan guerillas hijacked the frequency of a state-approved radio station in order to broadcast their popular revolutionary message. Voz Popular, the voice of Guatemala’s guerilla party the URNG, transmitted from a mobile unit atop the Volcano Tajumulco, Central America’s highest peak. For nine years, these fighting comrades provided an alternative media source to the government propaganda broadcast by most radio and television stations, wh! ich often censored their programming for fear of government reprisal.
“One of the things I learned is that you can advance this country’s struggles with little more than a microphone,” says former Voz Popular co-founder Alberto Ramirez Recinos. Recinos’ radio programs spoke out against human rights violations, injustice, and military repression. For Recinos, Voz Popular alone was immune to the state’s psychological warfare against dissent.
After the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords, Voz Popular’s founders requested a legal frequency with which to continue their broadcast. Their request was denied and the station was forced to close its operations. The ex-guerillas of Voz Popular, however, were convinced of the need to continue the radio program in order to promote the implementation of the Peace Accords and the rights of marginalized communities, issues which the mainstream media failed to address. “We thought it was important to continue this project,” explains Recinos, “so we put down our arms and picked up a microphone.”
Thus was born the community radio station Mujb ab’l yol, which means ‘encounter of expression’ in the Mam indigenous language. Mujb ab’l yol began as a small station serving the community of Concepcion Chiqurichapa, a village north of Quetzaltenango with a 90 percent indigenous population. Today it has grown to a full-fledged association comprising Guatemala’s 240 community radio stations.
The Role of Community Radio in Guatemala
In a world of increasing globalization and media homogenization, community radio provides an outlet for citizen participation and the expression of individual cultures. Commercial radio and television stations in Guatemala broadcast solely in Spanish and represent mainstream ladino (Spanish-descendent) culture, largely ignoring the interests of the indigenous population. Community stations, in contrast, broadcast in local indigenous languages, making them accessible to marginalized sectors of the population. Community radio, declares Recinos, is “a form of communication that responds to different sectors of the population, a form of community expression.”
Reaching even the isolated members of Guatemalan society, community stations play an important role in educating their audiences on issues such as human rights, politics and the environment. Such programming is essential in a country where many children are unable to attend school due to financial constraints. In addition, high illiteracy makes printed media inaccessible to most of the population, while televisions are prohibitively expensive, their signals rarely reaching the country’s more remote regions. Small battery-powered radios, however, are quite abundant.
Community radio stations therefore aim to provide information about issues that mainstream communication mediums tend to ignore. They place a particular emphasis on the contents of the Peace Accords, which have yet to be implemented due mainly to the governments lack of interest in promoting socio-economic equality. Recinos and his fellow radio broadcasters believe that with the proper education, marginalized sectors of Guatemalan society will begin to claim their rights and demand a change.
In promoting education and citizen participation, community radio stations enable their listeners to participate actively in a peaceful democracy. The right to live and think differently is imperative to democracy, and community radio stations promote thinking on a local level–a fundamental step on the road to development.
Powerful Media Corporations Hinder Community Radio
Although the former guerilla station Voz Popular was denied a legal frequency after the war, the Peace Accords did recognize the importance of community radio in Guatemala. Under the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the government was obligated to reform broadcasting license laws to make frequencies available to the country’s indigenous population.
However, rather than supporting community radio stations, the government subsequently passed a law whereby the highest bidders obtained radio frequencies in government auctions, thus favoring the private sector and excluding those unable to compete on equal economic footing. “Our community, because it is so poor, can’t participate in the bidding to obtain authorized frequencies,” articulates Recinos.
Lacking an alternative, community radio stations illegally tap into unauthorized frequencies. The government once fined these “pirate” stations up to Q8 million until recent pressure from the non-governmental Guatemalan Community Communications Council obliged them to modify the law.
Yet the Guatemalan government still refuses to legalize community radio stations, favoring powerful interest groups that represent commercial broadcasters. The Guatemalan Chamber of Radio Broadcasting, an autonomous group of powerful commercial radio broadcasters, has tremendous sway in congress and effectively determines the fate of smaller stations.
In recent years, the monopoly over Guatemala’s communication media has been consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. Remigio Angel Gonzales, a Mexican businessman living in Miami, owns the country’s four main television stations and 25 commercial radio stations. Under the previous administration, Gonzales’ brother-in-law, Luis Rabbe, was appointed Minister of Communication and Transportation, ensuring Gonzales’ influence in Congress.
Powerful businessmen are not alone in benefiting from the communications monopoly. The government, in return for favoring large commercial stations, counts on the media to publicize state-run projects and portray the administration in a positive light. Thus neither the government nor large commercial stations are motivated to promote community radio, which ostensibly robs mainstream stations of listeners. Furthermore, by educating poor indigenous Guatemalans about their rights and encouraging citizen participation, community radio broadcasters challenge business interests and the status quo, which may also explain why some of Guatemala’s most powerful citizens oppose them.
Community Media Proposal
Today, member stations of the community radio association Mujb ab’l yol are still operating on unauthorized frequencies and have yet to recognized by the government. However, the association’s four staff members and 23 young volunteers are working hard to expand its influence. They are lobbying the Guatemalan Congress to pass a bill that would set aside 25 percent of all radio frequencies for community radio. The bill has been supported by all 240 community radio stations nationwide. Recinos, who is currently the director of Mujb ab’l yol, believes that these stations are one of the fundamental rights of Guatemalan citizens: “Each municipality should have a form of communication that is interested in serving the community. We’re not excluding ladinos. The law is global, not discriminatory.”