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COMMUNICATION-BRAZIL: ‘Radio Favela’ After 23 Years of Struggle

Mario Osava

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil, May 31 2000 (IPS) - While winning awards and recognition from the United Nations and local officials, ‘Radio Favela’ – a pirate station that has provided essential services to the residents of shantytowns in this Brazilian city for 23 years – was the target of police raids, arrests and the confiscation of equipment.

‘Radio Favela’ operates out of a three-story building still under construction in ‘Vila Nossa Senhora de Fátima’, the largest of 11 “favelas” or shantytowns comprising the ‘Aglomerado da Serra’, home to 160,000 people.

The station was finally visited by communications minister Joao Pimenta da Veiga late last year, who announced that it would be granted a license to operate as an educational station.

The announcement came after a court and the ministry of communications recognised the social role played by the radio station.

The station, the focus of a full-length film currently being shot under prominent Brazilian director Helvecio Ratton, had already won three United Nations awards since 1997 for its contribution to preventing drug use and violence, as well as a 1997 prize from the Belo Horizonte town council.

In September 1998, Governor Itamar Franco of the central Brazilian state of Minas Gerais – of which Belo Horizonte is the capital – described ‘Radio Favela’ as “one of the most important vehicles for the cultural, political and social expression of residents of shantytowns and outlying neighbourhoods in our city, contributing to the exercise of their rights of citizenship.”

A cover-page article in the Feb 4, 1999 edition of the ‘Wall Street Journal’ reported that ‘Radio Favela’ helped poor Brazilians weather the sharp price swings of basic goods, after the devaluation of the local currency, tbe real, the month before.

And a European guide for tourists recommends that visitors to Belo Horizonte listen to ‘Radio Favela’, which has been written up a number of times by the national press.

But the pirate station has been closed down several times by local authorities, and its equipment confiscated. “I was arrested seven times,” said Misael Avelino dos Santos, one of the station’s founders.

Dos Santos recalled how some 800 police swooped down on ‘Vila Nosa Senhora de Fátima’ with horses and two helicopters in September 1997, in an attempt to implicate the radio station in the drug trade.

Nevertheless, the station survived and remains an indispensable communication tool for local shantytowns, helping to locate missing children, calling ambulances for the injured and ill, locating the families of accident victims, and providing information on important issues.

Local hospitals telephone the radio station to locate and inform the families of accident victims, said Dos Santos.

“One day when the station was unable to operate due to interference from a competitor station, a sick woman waiting for transportation died outside the door to the building,” said Aparecida de Fátima Belisario, the radio station’s secretary and the announcer for the women’s programmes.

‘Radio Favela’ operates out of a three-story building still under construction, with electric cables hanging loose. A school for adults will function on the upper floors.

Water is almost always running down the steep narrow street through which visitors reach the building, due to the sewerage company’s poor maintenance of the pipes, said Fátima Belisario.

The women’s programmes educate listeners, especially women, on questions like their rights and preventive health care and treatment.

“Many people are dying of cancer, and they know nothing about the disease,” said Fátima Belisario, who plans to give a formal organisational structure to the Cultural Association of Favela Community Communication FM, which finances and runs the station.

The station’s programming is characterised by complaints of discrimination suffered by the poor, discussions of problems and solutions, a high level of listener participation – all in simple, down-to-earth language.

Listeners can dance to a range of rhythms and hum along with songs with hard-hitting lyrics depicting the harsh side – the inequality and injustice – of reality in Brazil.

The station also carries out campaigns to urge the residents of shantytowns to register for legal documents, which have already led 6,000 people to apply for identity cards, although 95 percent of them were unable to obtain a card because they lacked other essential documents.

“There are at least 5,000 children without birth certificates” in the ‘Aglomerado da Serra’, said Dos Santos.

Since socialist Mayor Celio de Castro took office in 1997, the Belo Horizonte city government has recognised the social labour carried out by the radio station and helped keep it going.

‘Radio Favela’ “is one of the four most popular radio stations in the greater Belo Horizonte,” and the second most popular in the morning hours, said Dos Santos.

That popularity is partly due to a growing number of listeners among the middle classes and students, made possible by the station’s location high up on a hillside, which allows people to tune in up to 50 kms away.

The radio station receives frequent visits from politicians of all stripes, students, tourists and well-known personalities.

Elizabeth Sily, a professor at the Newton Paiva University Centre, took her journalism students to the station, explaining that “this is an example of community media, which democratises communication and responds to the yearnings of the poor.”

The success of ‘Radio Favela’ is mainly attributed to Dos Santos, a community leader who has been involved in the project from the very start, when he was 16. “There was a nearby commercial station that never even said ‘good morning’ to favela residents, which challenged us to set up our own station,” he recalled.

Of the nearly 50 youngsters involved in the project at the start, only four are left. “Many of them are dead, because of drug trafficking” lamented Dos Santos.

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