Nearly all newspapers, television and radio stations in Venezuela are in the hands of people opposed to President Hugo Chavez’s government, providing an endless stream of articles and programs criticizing the administration. This opposition media played an important role in the coup against Chavez in April of 2002 and failed to report on the national uprising in Chavez’s favor during the coup. Community radios were one of the few media reporting on the reality of the coup’s events as they transpired.
Merida, a city of around one million people in mountainous, western Venezuela is a host to five community radio stations, most of which have sprung up since Chavez came into office in 1998. Under previous administrations, clandestine radio stations went on air illegally, and were often shut down by the government. Yet under Chavez, a community media movement has thrived. As of May 2004, the National Association of Free, Community and Alternative Media in Venezuela, (ANMCLA) operated as the umbrella organization to some 180 community media outlets, including community newspapers, radios and televisions. Often, around 25 percent of the radios’ financial support comes from the government and after filling out the necessary paperwork, virtually anyone can start up their own radio.
“There was no money at the beginning,” said William Barillas, a broadcaster at Radio Horizonte in Merida. “In 2001, we started with a transmitter that was lent to us by some friends.”
Barrilas said previous governments “did not allow access (to many radio stations) to go on the air. They just allowed commercial radio because they want the public to remain ignorant.”
“Community radio extends democracy,” Barillas added. “With our radio now, whatever problems or issues that arise in the community, anybody can talk about it. Other commercial radios do not care about teaching people anything. They just promote violence and advertisements.”
Radio Horizonte is located in what used to be a fire department building in the center of a poor neighborhood called Campo de Oro. Like most poor neighborhoods in Merida, Campo de Oro is made up of small, brick houses with tin roofs. Besides the radio station, the old fire house is home to a cultural center, theater, and offices where free dental and medical services are provided. Throughout each day, music and voices from the radio station echo across the plaza in front of the building.
Like most community radios in Venezuela, Horizonte is organized so that each member of the radio station has a say in how it is run. “When there is a big issue that comes up, everyone gets together to talk about what needs to be done,” said Barillas.
Some of Radio Horizonte’s programs include meditation, sports, health, tourism, local history and stories for children. “If someone wants to start a program, all they have to do is show up and talk with the coordinators about their idea,” Barillas said.
“We want to spread culture with this radio,” Barillas continued. “We play our own music from Venezuela, not just popular mainstream music all the time. In the future, we want to include even more voices from the community and become independent from the government and financially self-sufficient.” Radio Horizante, like many other community radios in Venezuela, receives roughly 25 percent of their financial support from the government.
Out of the five community radio broadcasters I spoke with, all of them were left-leaning and supportive of Chavez, and each were adamant that they can freely criticize the government without fear of losing funding.
A media law – called the Law for Responsibility in Radio and Television—that took effect in January has been criticized by media executives as a tool to punish media outlets and others who criticize the government. However, this law, like many media laws in other countries, regulates when violent and sexual content can be aired, seeks to prevent slander and aims to secure space for independent media. In 1999, the Chavez government legalized numerous radios which had previously been illegally “pirating” air time and guaranteed access to community media as a constitutional right.
Radio Zamorana was operating clandestinely until 2003, when it obtained a license to operate. They first used pirate radio with a homemade transmitter. “We went on air without permission,” Jorge Luis Hernandez, the general coordinator of the radio.
Zamorana is located in the center of Merida in a cultural center which has rooms for dance classes, art exhibits, a book store and library. The radio is regularly full of people coming and going, planning their programs, organizing disks and drinking coffee. Students from the city’s university help out with the radio’s technical work. The radio has programs on political opinion, local music and history, accident prevention, Venezuelan literature and regional geology.
“In order to start a new program, the person has to write a letter and explain their ideas and objectives for the project,” said Hernandez. “Our radio has a horizontal coordination. Everyone has the same power.
Many people in the neighborhood have come in to be a part of the radio, Hernandez said. “This is the voice of the voiceless, our door is always open.”