Reporters Without Borders today condemned the closure of nine community radio stations this month in the central department of Chimaltenango and the northwestern department of Huehuetenango on the grounds that they had no licence.
The closures were ordered by the special prosecutor’s office for crimes against journalists and unionists, with the support of the Telecommunications Authority (SIT) and the National Broadcast Commission.
“The growing crackdown on community radio stations could affect the process of dialogue with indigenous communities,” Reporters Without Borders warned. “Legally, these community radios are in the wrong, as they have no licence. But they are operating in accordance with the peace accords signed by previous governments, which say the indigenous communities should be able to express themselves freely without fear of censorship.”
The press freedom organisation added: “These community stations broadcast over a very local area, carrying news that chiefly concerns only those who live in their community. We therefore call on the government to conduct a thorough debate about free expression and the promotion of indigenous community rights, and we call on parliament to quickly pass a proposed bill that could resolve the situation of these community radios.”
This month’s crackdown began on 2 March when several public prosecutors accompanied by a score of police officers went to the offices of two organisations that belong to the Guatemalan Council for Community Communication (CGCC), seizing all the files about CGCC-affiliated radio stations, computers and books.
The two organisations, the Association of Community Radios of Guatemala (ARCG) and the Association of Community Media of Sololá (AMECOS), accused the prosecutor in charge of acting in an abusive manner. The CGCC for its part voiced astonishment that the raids had been authorised by the special prosecutor’s office for crimes against journalists, which is supposed to defend free expression and press freedom, not repress them.
Arrests were made in the ensuing closures. Radio Voz Latina director Ana Piedad Martín was arrested when her Chimaltenango-based station was closed on 9 March. She was freed on bail six days later. When Huehuetenango-based Radio Stereo Nolber Sideral was closed on 15 March, director Oscar Rafael López and contributor Esbin Martínez Palacios were also arrested. They were released later the same day after paying a fine.
The Movement for Peace, Disarmament and Liberty (MPDL) said both provided a social service to their communities, especially Radio Voz Latina, which actively encouraged young people to participate in its programmes.
Also closed on 9 March were Presencia Stéreo, Radio Cairo and Radio Mayense (all in the department of Chimaltenango) and Radio Acción in the department of Huehuetenango. None of these stations can go back on the air as their broadcast equipment was confiscated.
Around 2,500 community radio stations are currently broadcasting without a licence in Guatemala. Only 250 community radios are properly licensed. A bill currently before parliament would grant a special status to community radios and let them broadcast without a licence.