Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Community Radio Muzzled

Stefania Milan

PORTO ALEGRE, Aug 8 2004 (IPS) - Brazilian police have shut down Radio Restinga, a community station broadcasting from a low-income neighbourhood of Porto Alegre, birthplace of the global summit of alternative social and economic ideas, the World Social Forum.

On Aug. 4, federal police officers broke into the community centre in Restinga from where the station has operated since 1999 and seized equipment preventing the radio from going to air, say its organisers.

It is the second time that police have silenced the community’s radio voice. With the closure, about 12,900 community radio stations have been shut down in Brazil and equipment from 117,755 operations confiscated since 1998, when the government passed a new broadcasting law, according to police figures.

Since then, prosecutors have launched 10,142 trials against illegal radio stations, and courts have convicted 3,600 people under the restrictive legislation on community broadcasting.

Ironically, 100 practitioners and researchers at the annual meeting of the global OurMedia network visited Radio Restinga on Jul. 24 to see a local example of a successful community channel.

"The radio was a public space open to everybody. Marginalized people from the area used it for their needs," station coordinator Marisa Godinho told IPS. Restinga is home to 150,000 people, most of them living in precarious conditions.

"The Brazilian government has no political will to create good conditions for community media. Since long ago, the government has not given permission to operate community channels," added Godinho.

But Restinga’s is not an isolated case. "This is nothing new: violence and unconstitutional practices against community radio are usual in Brazil," said Thiago (who asked to not reveal his surname) from Radio Muda, a station broadcasting from Campinas in the São Paulo region that has been closed twice by police.

The Community Radio Law (1998) created under the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso fixes the maximum strength of community radio transmitters at 25 watts, limiting stations to a reach of one km.

In March 2004 a federal resolution allocated only one frequency for community broadcasting in the entire country – the world’s fifth largest in area and with a population of about 170 million people – from 87.4 to 87.8 FM.

The law also prevents community radio stations from carrying advertising or belonging to a network. And if a community broadcaster interferes in the operation of a commercial station, it can be shut down – but the law cannot be applied in reverse.

Telecommunications regulatory agency, Anatel, has applied the law by closing the "clandestine" channels or by asking the federal police to seize equipment and even arrest station operators.

There are between 5,500 and 10,000 community radios in Brazil, but Anatel recognises only 2,620 active radio channels, community radios included, plus 1,270 waiting for approval. The rest are considered illegal and persecuted.

"The main problem is the inertia of the Brazilian government. The Communications Ministry must make Anatel stop the process of arresting people and taking equipment away from the radios until it can analyse the process of radio legalisation," says Adilson Cabral from the association Intervozes.

"The Brazilian state does not give its people the conditions of basic communication rights. It is necessary to redefine the Brazilian legislation on community radio and TVs and to establish budgets for its functioning," says Regina dos Santos from Dombali Cultural Society, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works for inclusion of racial minorities in the Brazilian media.

Paradoxically, the Brazilian Federal Constitution signed in 1988 considers communication a fundamental human right. Article 5 says, "the expression of intellectual, artistic, scientific and communication activity is free and independent from censorship or licence."

The news of the radio’s closure has started to spread worldwide via Internet mailing lists, turning local mobilisation against the move into an international struggle.

The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) is planning an international campaign to pressure the government to change the legislation and recognise the right to communicate in Brazil.

"Restinga is just another example of a very grave national Brazilian problem. The pressure of the international human rights organisations has proved to be an efficient ally of the communitarian social movement," said Gustavo Gómez from AMARC in a statement issued after the shutdown of Radio Restinga.

OurMedia Network also expressed solidarity with Restinga and the entire community radio movement in Brazil, which participated actively in the network’s conference in Porto Alegre last month.

"Radio Restinga people were our hosts in Porto Alegre, a local community media group where we came to discuss our ideas of community communication. It is especially important for OurMedia as an international network to do what we can in support of them," said the group’s Aliza Dichter, who called people to act against the closure through the network’s mailing list.

OurMedia was already helping Restinga pay a fine of 2,000 reais (652 U.S. dollars) for broadcasting without authorisation in 2002. Now the main problem facing the radio’s operators is to find equipment to permit it to return to the air, because the community cannot afford to buy new gear.

The citizens of Restinga, who last week protested in the neighbourhood’s main street to demand medical care, are organising a huge demonstration against the radio’s closure. But the struggle for legalisation of the area’s – and the country’s – community radios looks to be long and difficult.

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