Mexico: The Voice of the Community Faces Numerous Threats

(IPS) – The Jenpoj (“winds of fire) community radio station in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, which plays an important role in keeping the Mixe indigenous community informed, has had its equipment confiscated and has fought and won a court case to get a broadcast license.

“Things are still lagging, and freedom of expression continues to be violated,” Sócrates Vásquez, the director of the tiny 1000-watt radio station, which broadcasts from the Mixe indigenous community of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, told IPS. “They treat us as if we were the same thing as a university or commercial station.”

The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) in Mexico delivered a report Monday to special rapporteurs on freedom of expression Frank La Rue, of the United Nations, and Catalina Botero, of the Organisation of American States (OAS), outlining the difficulties faced by community stations.

The two carried out an Aug. 9-24 visit to Mexico to investigate violence against journalists. Eight reporters have been killed in Mexico so far this year, and seven media outlets have been attacked.

“Community radio stations face a lack of recognition, a lack of rights, and the penalisation of unauthorised broadcasting,” Aleida Calleja, deputy president of AMARC, commented to IPS after the presentation of the 17-page report.

There are just 21 community radio stations operating legally in Mexico, 17 of which belong to AMARC. However, there are no precise statistics on how many stations broadcast without a permit — classified as a violation of the law on national assets and punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

The interior ministry and the Federal Telecommunications Commission, the country’s telecoms regulator, are in charge of reviewing the applications for, and issuing, broadcast permits. In February, they granted six.

The 1960 federal radio and television broadcasting law and the 1995 telecoms law establish that community stations cannot use advertising to finance themselves, but are obligated to give airtime to government and political party ads.

But one of the critical issues for community stations is the question of access to public advertising, which is awarded “in a discriminatory manner that violates freedom of expression,” Luís Cano, a lawyer with the Organización de Litigio Estratégico en Derechos Humanos, a civil society group, told IPS.

Cano is the legal representative of La Voladora, a station in the state of Mexico, next to the capital, and Radio Nhandiá in Oaxaca, which brought legal action against the public health ministry for refusing to provide them with government ads.

Community radio stations play a key role in keeping people in remote communities informed and providing them with useful information, sometimes in indigenous languages. The Jenpoj station receives financial aid from the municipal government and donations from local residents to hold fundraising raffles.

The AMARC report on “freedom of expression in Mexico: pluralism and diversity with an emphasis on community radio broadcasting” says the laws on radio, television and telecoms make it even more difficult for community radio stations to survive in a dignified fashion.

“The idea that community radio stations should be few in number and poor and should have a limited broadcasting range has predominated,” said La Rue. “But I reject that view. People have the right to be informed, from all points of view.”

In a report he presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in June, La Rue recommended that all countries adopt legislation to facilitate community radio stations. In Latin America, Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia are the most advanced in that area, while Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras are lagging particularly far behind.

Arguing that organised crime uses community radio stations for propaganda purposes, the government delays and denies permits, non-governmental organisations complain.

There are 1,487 radio stations in Mexico, 13 of which belong to non-profit citizen groups.

Currently facing lawsuits for broadcasting without a license are indigenous reporter Rosa Cruz with the Radio Huékaka station in the northwestern state of Michoacán; a community station in the town of Paso del Macho in the southeastern state of Veracruz; and the Tierra y Libertad station in the northern state of Nuevo León.

Something similar happened to Radio Jenpoj. After filing an application for a permit in 1999, it began to broadcast in 2001. But soldiers confiscated its equipment the following year for operating without a license, in a case that went all the way up to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In 2004, it finally received a permit to operate for seven years.

Community radio stations are familiar with the bitter taste of aggression. The offices of the La Voladora and Calenda stations in Oaxaca were attacked in 2006. And in April 2008, Felícitas Martínez and Teresa Bautista, two young Triqui Indian women who reported for the Radio Copala station, were murdered in the territory of that native group in Oaxaca state. No one has yet been brought to justice in the case.

“The main actors in the attacks are state and municipal authorities, who do not want information to get out,” said Calleja, whose association represents roughly 3,000 member stations in 110 countries.

The technological revolution poses yet another threat to community stations, because of Mexico’s planned switch to digital radio in 2021. “We want a subsidy for the technological change, because without it, we won’t be able to survive,” Vásquez said.