Community radios matter, especially for indigenous communities all across Latin America. From Mexico to Guatemala and from Peru to Chile, indigenous people rely on the radio to keep their traditions and languages alive. Broadcasters also bring content that is relevant to local audiences, that which is often overlooked by mass-media. Community radios are owned and driven by members of the communities they serve, and it is common that volunteers run them.
Last week, Lorenzo Mateo Francisco, a Guatemalan journalist and activist, came to Georgetown. Many students were very excited to meet him, and we organized a coffee chat with him. During the event, Mr. Lorenzo talked about his experience as a journalist for the community radio Snuq’ Jolom Konob’ (in English “mind of the people”), which broadcasts in Mayan (Q’anjob’al) and in Spanish. Mr. Lorenzo mentioned that the station usually covered all types of social issues, including political and environmental concerns. In the last couple of months, the residents of his town, Santa Eulalia, have been the protesting against a hydroelectric company, which was developing plans for a dam on their land. This type of news was covered by their radio station, but typically ignored by many commercial outlets. Because Snuq’ Jolom Konob’ has covered these and other contentious issues, Mr. Lorenzo and other members of his crew have been threatened and beaten. Ever since the day they were physically harmed, the radio has remained closed.
Community radios matter because they are often the only affordable form of local communication in remote areas. Cultural Survival, a Guatemalan human rights nonprofit that works with indigenous people, says that “persecution against community radio stations is an all too-common occurrence in Guatemala”. Additionally, Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to freedom says that Guatemala is a partly free country regarding freedom of expression. The organization states that “even if Article 35 of the Guatemalan constitution ensures freedom of expression, the Guatemalan press is subject to several legal restrictions, including Article 41 of the Radio Communications Law, which prohibits transmissions offensive to civic values and the national symbols, vulgar comedy and offensive sounds, and programs contrary to morals and good etiquette. Guatemala is not the only partly free country in Central America. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are in the same category.
Snuq’ Jolom Konob’ not only maintains a broad audience in Santa Eulalia, Guatemala, but also reaches listeners all over the US. ”Many Kanjobal mayans that have migrated to the United States listen to our radio too”, said Mr. Francisco. Some migrants that listen to the radio still, show support through social media and sending remesas to the radio station. Sadly, it is not enough. Related to the issue, somebody in the crowd asked then why did they stop broadcasting, if they could do it from other parts of Guatemala or even other countries. Mr. Francisco said that money is always a problem, since most of the staff are volunteers and they have bought their own equipment through donations.
When I was listening to Mr. Francisco and his struggle, I remembered all of the journalists in my home country, Mexico, who have lost their jobs, or their lives, because they write or talk about topics that disrupt corrupt officials and organized crime. Guatemala, Mexico and many other countries in Latin America need to ensure journalists in community (and all) media outlets are able to report freely. Mr. Francisco should not be afraid to speak up. We need his voice, as well as everybody else’s, to achieve a more peaceful, inclusive and democratic hemisphere.
Andrea is a second year masters student in the Latin American Studies Program. This summer, she worked for Unesco in Montevideo on freedom of expression issues. Andrea is crazy about traveling, art cinema and drinking hot “chocolate abuelita” in DC’s cold season. Andrea is also one of the founders of the Transformaciones blog.