Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COMMUNICATIONS-MEXICO: Community Radio Stations Up Against the Wall

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Mar 2 2004 (IPS) - ”Storming the airwaves” is the slogan of Radio Neza, a community radio station that operates in the outskirts of the Mexican capital, without a permit and at risk of being closed down like the other 83 non-profit stations in the country.

According to spokespersons for the National Chamber of the Radio and Television Industry (CIRT), which is demanding the immediate closure of all community radio stations, the non-profit broadcasters foment piracy of the airwaves and incite guerrilla groups.

“We don’t foment subversion,” Rocío Román, director of Radio Neza, which operates in Nezahualcóyotl, a poor outlying district of the capital, told IPS. ”The only thing we do is exercise our right of free communication in favour of the community, outside the scope of the media monopolies and economic interest groups.”

Through the powerful Azteca and Televisa companies, the Salinas and Azcárraga families own TV stations that account for 90 percent of the viewing audience in Mexico, and 90 percent of the airwaves is controlled by just 13 business groups.

Radio Neza operates on donations from the community. It is run by a group of young people and community leaders who produce cultural, sports and political programming.

Since 1998, the unpaid group of volunteers has been broadcasting, without any advertisers, Friday through Sunday on a frequency that it has no license to use, but which has not been granted to any commercial station either.

”Saying we are going to take the airwaves by storm is just a provocative phrase, because we have never hidden ourselves or carried out subversive work,” said Román.

In December, facing threats of having its equipment seized by the communications authorities, Radio Neza stopped going on the air. But the station says it will soon be back, broadcasting from an undisclosed site and with new and more powerful equipment which will take the signal beyond Nezahualcóyotl.

In the more than 30-year history of non-commercial radio stations in Mexico, a large part of which currently belong to the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), the government has only granted a permit to one such station, although the stations have never given up on their attempts to obtain legal licensing.

Local authorities stage periodic raids on community stations. In December, applauded by CIRT, they closed down three non-commercial stations that broadcast cultural and educational programming in the southern state of Jalisco.

Mexican laws give the state control over the airwaves. Although the laws do not refer to community stations, they do stipulate that the government must confiscate the equipment of any station that operates ”without a concession or permit.”

According to AMARC, which has been engaged in talks with President Vicente Fox on the possibility of licensing community stations since before the December closures, CIRT is opposed to the regularisation of their situation.

But many alternative stations actually receive funding from universities and from the state’s own social agencies.

Community radio stations enjoy strong support from their local populations because of the educational content of their programming, their efforts to raise awareness of issues like human rights, the warnings they put out in cases of natural disaster, and because many broadcast in the indigenous languages of their listeners, says AMARC, which was founded in 1983.

AMARC, which has almost 3,000 member stations in 106 countries, promotes community radio stations as a route to the full exercise of freedom of expression and the right to communicate, and as effective tools for ”development, peace, justice and solidarity.”

The organisation’s website states that its ”goal is to support and contribute to the development of community and participatory radio along the principals of solidarity and international cooperation.”

But CIRT legal adviser Javier Tejado says AMARC and its approximately 30 members in Mexico ”foment clandestine, pirate and guerrilla radio.”

When Mexico’s community radio stations apply for a license, the government responds that they must first obtain approval from the army and the state’s social agencies. It also asks them for a guarantee or back-up fund of more than 100,000 dollars, among other requisites.

According to the director of Radio Neza, the requirements are discriminatory because there is no way they can be met by community stations, which have a purely social function and are financed by donations from the public, or by private foundations.

Sources at Mexico’s interior ministry told IPS that this governmental office is interested in finding a legal solution to the question of community radio stations. But they also said that would depend on legal reforms pending in Congress, where there is no consensus on the matter.

Until the reforms make it through Congress, the ministry must enforce the existing laws and close down stations that operate illegally, they said.

Communications expert Alberto Ricalde told IPS that the state has acted in an arbitrary manner, closing down some community stations under pressure from the commercial media or the army, while tolerating most of the rest.

In rural areas with a strong indigenous presence – an estimated 10 percent of Mexico’s 100 million people are Indians – the government has even asked community stations to broadcast information about government social programmes and to promote public policies.

Community radio stations have existed in Latin America since the late 1940s, when they were created to mobilise different sectors of society and provide an educational, cultural and political contribution to society. They also gradually began to be promoted by international bodies.

The American Convention on Human Rights, for example, states that ”The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions.”

Mexico is a signatory to that international convention.

”Radio stations that style themselves as community, educational, participatory, rural, insurgent, interactive, alternative, and citizen-led are, in many instances and when they act within the law, the ones that fill the gaps left by the mass media; they serve as outlets for expression that generally offer the poor better opportunities for access and participation than they would find in the traditional media,” says the 2002 annual report of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression

In 2002, the indigenous community of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, applied for authorisation to operate its own radio and TV stations, and thus disseminate information about and raise the visibility of indigenous peoples.

The government’s response was to confiscate the equipment that the impoverished indigenous community had managed to obtain.

In a letter addressed to the local community, the authorities also said that to make up for the lack of media in that area, the government had asked Azteca and Televisa to install antennas to make it possible to pick up the signals of the two broadcasting giants.

That should be included in ”an anthology of cultural centralism,” because it demonstrates that the government is not interested in the identity of indigenous people, but in their assimilation ”into the cultural homogeneity disseminated by the major TV networks,” said Sergio Aguayo, a political scientist and activist with humanitarian groups.

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