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SANTIAGO, Feb 9 2010 (IPS) - Criminal law should not be used against freedom of expression, nor to silence community radio stations in Chile, say activists and journalists in response to closures of community radio outlets in this South American country.
Seven community radio stations were closed down in 2009 for broadcasting without a licence and allegedly interfering with telecommunications – offences that carry penalties ranging from fines and seizure of equipment to prison terms, under Chile’s law on telecommunications.
“No more community radio stations should be silenced by applying criminal law to freedom of expression,” Juan Enrique Ortega of the non-governmental organisation Education and Communication (ECO) told IPS.
Radio Sin Tierra (Landless Radio) is one of the broadcasters that has been silenced. It was set up by local people and students who work as volunteers at the Peñalolén station, in a low-income neighbourhood on the southeast side of Santiago.
“I have been charged for simply communicating, for exercising my freedom to communicate with the rest of the community,” Fidel Galaz, one of the broadcasters at the closed radio station, told IPS.
“Everyone has the right to communicate, whether or not they can afford to pay Subtel,” he said, referring to the Subsecretaría de Telecomunicaciones (Subtel), Chile’s telecoms regulator, which grants broadcasting licences.
ECO says that it costs about 2,000 dollars in Chile to obtain a licence, and points out that there are no subsidies to promote community stations and equal access.
Galaz turned down a deal offered by the prosecution as an alternative to facing trial: if he pled guilty and stopped broadcasting, he would not have to do time in prison.
In his view, that would mean deserting a collective project, and consenting to the radio station being silenced. If he is convicted, he risks a heavy fine and a sentence of up to three years in prison.
Demanding a halt to what they say is criminalisation of radio broadcasting is one of the planks of a social alliance comprising the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), the Chilean Peoples’ Media Network (RMP), the University of Chile’s School of Journalism, ECO and Corporación La Morada, a leading women’s organisation.
The head of AMARC’s Latin America and Caribbean office, María Pía Matta, told IPS that “state coercion and the enforcement of criminal law in these cases is, in our view, backwards.”
Matta emphasised that by criminalising community radio broadcasting, Chile “is failing to meet the international standards subscribed to by all Latin American governments” in the American Convention on Human Rights, in effect since 1978.
During her visit to Chile in September 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Catalina Botero, said that “criminal law is not intended to prosecute” those who set up community stations.
“Criminal law is intended to prosecute murderers, thieves, fraudsters,” but not communicators, she said.
In Latin America, only Chile and Brazil still treat unlicenced broadcasting as a criminal act.
The communicators’ organisations and community radio stations are demanding the repeal of Article 36 b) of the General Telecommunications Law, a legacy of the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), which criminalises unlicenced broadcasting.
Issued by Pinochet as a supreme decree in 1982, its purpose was to clamp down on and silence opposition media outlets.
Twenty years after Chile’s return to democracy, the outgoing government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet has only just now seen fit to send a bill to Congress to eliminate the criminalisation of community radio broadcasting without a licence.
“The government has promised to prepare and send a single-article bill to modify the current law, so as to eliminate prison sentences for these offences,” said government spokeswoman Pilar Armanet.
The bill is to be sent to Congress in March, after the southern hemisphere summer recess.
On Mar. 11, Bachelet will hand over the presidency to Sebastián Piñera, the rightwing billionaire who won the Jan. 17 runoff election.
Therefore, unless the executive branch requests urgent treatment of the bill in Congress, the measure may be lost among the new government’s legislative priorities.
AMARC’s Matta said there is no certainty about what Piñera’s position on the issue might be.
And even if prison sentences are eliminated for broadcasting without a licence, the seizure of equipment and levying of fines would still stand.
A report on broadcasting in Chile, produced by RMP and ECO and released in December, shows that nearly all the legal actions against community radio stations were brought by members of the National Association of Radio Broadcasters, which represents the interests of private commercial broadcasters.
According to RMP, this is persecution with ideological overtones, which seeks to impose a free-market perspective that sees communication solely as a business, and causes harassment of community broadcasters and their treatment as criminals by the justice system.
This persecution “means people involved in community media are being tracked and monitored, in order to report them to Subtel or directly to the Public Prosecutor’s Office,” Paulina Acevedo, a member of RMP, told IPS.
The community broadcasters got some news in January that raised half a cheer, when Congress approved a law creating “community broadcasting services”, which will benefit about 400 community radio stations that currently hold licences as “minimum-coverage” broadcasters.
The bill, awaiting Bachelet’s signature, legally recognises the radio stations as providing social and community services, offers some technical improvements, like increasing their permitted power from one watt to 10 watts, and extends their licence periods from three years to 10 years.
RMP, made up of more than 50 community media outlets, regards the new Community Radio Law as a step forward, but points out that the development of these media will be restricted, since they are confined to a small segment of radio frequency which limits the number of possible concessions.
It also expressed concern over the requirement that radio stations be certified as bona fide “community” broadcasters by the Division of Social Organisations in the Secretariat-General of Government, because this gives the government of the moment discretionary powers over their licencing, opening the procedure to possible abuses and arbitrariness.
ECO’s Ortega said the problem is that there is little public awareness that the right to communicate is an essential human right. “To raise awareness on this and guarantee freedom of speech, communication must be democratised, and this law does not do that,” he added.
The new law restricts community radio stations to a segment equivalent to only five percent of Chile’s radio spectrum. Community radio activists had lobbied for one-third of the spectrum to be allocated to community broadcasting, as has been approved in other Latin American countries.
The social organisations and community broadcasters have asked the outgoing government to hold a workshop, with broad participation by civil society, to discuss criteria for drawing up the regulations that will determine how the Community Radio Law will be applied and enforced.
This mechanism could fine-tune the regulations so that they are appropriate to the reality of community media, and also push for the repeal, before Mar. 11, of the article that applies criminal penalties to community broadcasters.
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