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URUGUAY: Community Radios Have Innovative Law, But Are Off the Air

MONTEVIDEO, Feb 29 2012 (IPS) - Uruguay took a giant step towards more democratic media when it passed a law on community radio broadcasting in 2007. But although regulations for the law were approved in late 2010, many broadcasters are now off the air and waiting to be assigned a frequency.

Community radio operator at La Cotorra. Credit: Courtesy of La Cotorra FM

Law 18.232 on Community Radio Broadcasting Service, promoted by civil society organisations, “is innovative and is regarded as one of the best of its kind,” Gabriel Kaplún, head of the degree course in communication sciences at the state University of the Republic, told IPS.

“It establishes a community radio broadcasting sector which is assigned one-third of the radio spectrum in every frequency band,” he said. A draft decree on digital television being prepared by the government also “reserves one-third for community broadcasters.”

Martín Prats, head of the Honorary Advisory Council for Community Radio Broadcasting (CHARC) as the representative of the Ministry of Industry, told IPS the law “establishes a transparent process for assigning frequencies in different parts of the country, which is the stage we are at. It is a process that has just begun; the results will be more visible next year.”

Radios uruguayas con ley, pero fuera del aire.

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Based on the law, a census was carried out in 2008 to assign frequencies to community radio stations that were already on the air. A total of 413 projects applied, but only 92 of them met the legal requirements.

This process ended in 2010, and it was only in 2011 that calls were opened for applications in different parts of the country to assign frequencies to radio stations that had not necessarily been on the air before.

Stations that apply – on the understanding they must not broadcast until they have been approved by the competent authorities – are scrutinised by CHARC, after which public consultations are held. If selected, they must wait to be assigned a frequency.

So far, calls for applications have been issued in five of the country’s 19 provinces, and the most headway has been made in Durazno, in the centre, Flores in the southwest and Lavalleja, in the southeast. In these provinces public hearings have already been held, and the stations are awaiting the assignment of frequencies.

“The plan is to finish the application process throughout the country this year. It’s a very gradual process,” said Prats. Only one frequency is made available in each geographic location, which “to a certain extent limits the aspirations of applicants,” but the political goal is “to regulate use of the spectrum.”

In 2013, “when the spectrum has been regulated, further calls for applications will be issued,” he said.

In March, public hearings will be held in the eastern provinces of Treinta y Tres and Cerro Largo.

José Imaz, of the Coalition for Democratic Communication and a member of the La Cotorra FM radio station in the Cerro neighbourhood of Montevideo, told IPS that “the law has set some very important precedents in terms of the democratisation of speech, which have been taken up in various decrees.”

But implementation of the application procedure “is excessively slow, and a major hurdle for future calls.”

Prats acknowledged there were administrative difficulties. “CHARC is an honorary body,” and therefore suffers from a “lack of resources,” he said.

Mega FM, a radio station in Vergara, a town of 4,000 people in the province of Treinta y Tres, had been broadcasting since 2008, one of the station’s members, Cristián Rodríguez, told IPS.

Two other community radio stations were also operating in Vergara. They all applied for frequency assignment and are awaiting a public hearing in March. “All three stations have shut down, they are all off the air,” Rodríguez said.

But “local people miss them, because Vergara is a small town and is accustomed to relying on the community radio stations,” he complained.

While it is unable to broadcast, Mega FM is posting on its web site videos of music concerts, sports events and other local activities on YouTube.

It is noteworthy that the Uruguayan law does not stipulate power limits for the frequencies, Kaplún said. “The limits will be set according to need and advisability.”

However, putting this guideline into practice raises difficulties. “The frequencies assigned in the first round are short range. Use of a 30-metre antenna and a power of 30 watts were established as general principles.”

In rural areas, where more wave bands are available and higher power is needed, “this general rule for frequency concession does not seem reasonable,” Kaplún said.

In contrast, in the capital city it is not easy to assign new frequencies on a spectrum that is overcrowded with private and public radio stations. “The spectrum should be redistributed, but this option was not chosen; instead, gaps in the spectrum are being used so as not to displace commercial and public broadcasters. This is untenable,” said Kaplún.

In Imaz’s view, the state should promote community radio stations and provide “economic aid for their installation, as well as distributing official advertising more widely to include community stations as well as commercial broadcasters.”

Prats said that in order to achieve “better implementation of the law, more economic and administrative resources should be allocated to CHARC.”

In future, he said, community radio stations “face a challenge: to be committed to playing a role in and for the community, without broadcasting political or religious propaganda.”

* This article was produced with the support of UNESCO. (END)

 
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