San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guatemalan Mayans take fight to the airwaves

SUMPANGO, Guatemala – The dial is tuned to Radio Ixchel, 102.3 FM. Rosario Sul González is signing off her show: “I just want to remind all of you today to keep smiling, because a smile is the key that can open any door, even the door of hate. Let’s not forget that.” 

Turn the dial to 99.7 Kiss FM, and they’re on commercial. A spot features two men speaking: “Juancho, what’s up man?” asks one of the men. “Well, I’m worried, … they’re shutting down all the pirate radio stations,” Juancho replies.  

“Well, of course, Juancho, those are against the law,” Juancho’s friend says. “Don’t tell me you have one! But you seem so respectable. Hurry up and close it. Or would you rather I come visit you in jail?”  

The figurative Juancho in the fictional conversation is a radio pirate. Rosario, an energetic 28-year-old Mayan communications student, is a real one. In Guatemala, where there are 15 murders per day and only 2 percent of them are solved, constant warnings about radio piracy seem amiss.

Rosario broadcasts for her local Radio Ixchel in her free time. She sits in a bare nine-square-meter room with two small tables, a mixing board, one computer and two microphones. The main door is unmarked. 

The radio’s founder, Anselmo Xunic, joins Rosario as the station switches from a children’s program to a youth program. Radio Ixchel programming includes a women’s-issues hour, a marimba music program, and a Kaqchikel language program. Kaqchikel is one of Guatemala’s 23 Mayan languages, and this type of program is typical of a community radio station.  

Xunic, a Maya Kaqchikel farmer, became a radio pirate in 2003 when he and two partners invested almost $1,400 of their own money, no small feat in a country where 75 percent of the indigenous population lives on less than a dollar a day. 

When he started his radio station, he could not afford a license. According to the 1996 Telecommunications Law, the only way Xunic could get one was by bidding at a public auction where licenses can go for more than $100,000 to big players.

Without a license, broadcasting is illegal, says Eduardo Mendoza, secretary of Guatemala’s Chamber of Broadcasting.  

Mendoza explains that there are at least 800 pirate radio stations in Guatemala. While many of these do profit from broadcasting or serve a political or religious group, community-run stations like Xunic’s Radio Ixchel are deemed to be as menacing as the others. 

The Chamber of Broadcasting is leading a campaign against illegal stations through radio spots like the one with Juancho. Mendoza says these ads will inform Guatemalans of the law and help enforce it. 

“The law is the law,” says Mendoza. “We’re trying to avoid a complete mess on the radio-electric spectrum.”

This “mess” happens when a pirate radio sets up on a given frequency, disrupting legally bought frequencies in that range. For stations that have purchased frequencies and promised advertisers airtime, this hurts business. Mendoza also condemns illegal broadcasters’ failure to pay taxes.

But radio stations like Radio Ixchel claim that they have a right to the airwaves, and that the current law is discriminatory. They cite the Guatemalan Peace Accords, which were signed in 1996 and ended 36 years of bloody civil war between the military government and leftist guerillas. 

The Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples says the state is responsible for promoting “reforms of the existing Act on radio communications that are required to make frequencies available for indigenous projects, and to ensure respect for the principle of non-discrimination in the use of the communications media.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also supports community radio. It holds that radio frequencies must be allocated using “democratic criteria that guarantee equal opportunity for all.” The U.N. Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples says that establishing media is a right.

Community radio stations claim that the current law fails to meet any of these standards. There is no category for community radio in the Telecommunications Law, and distributing frequencies through auction is not democratic, argues Danielle DeLuca, program associate for the U.S.-based organization Cultural Survival. “The current Telecommunications Law completely ignores [community radio].”

In 2009, with the support of Cultural Survival, community radios proposed the Community Media Bill to Congress’s Committee on Indigenous Groups. The bill would recognize nonprofit community media as a new category separate from the current law’s commercial-, public- and ham-radio designations. The bill would allow each of Guatemala’s 333 municipalities to have its own community radio station. 

Community radio stations would have to meet certain criteria, such as having programming in an indigenous language, maintaining gender equality in management and programming, no political-party affiliation, and nonprofit status. The proposed law would also create a Council of Community Media that would uphold the standards for designating frequencies.

Asked about the proposed change, Mendoza says that, “It’s contradictory to current law.” Radio is an industry, and the spectrum of frequencies is limited, he says. 

Mendoza denies that his stance is discriminatory. “We are not racist,” he says.  

 Mendoza says that community radio already exists legally in Guatemala; about 25 community radio stations have licenses. But he doesn’t see the need for community radio to become an entirely different entity, as proposed in the bill. He sees it as simply a different format of broadcasting, like a sports radio station.

Xunic was hopeful when the Community Media Bill was first proposed in 2009. It hurdled the first step to passage when Congress’ Indigenous Groups Committee officially supported it. But since then, the bill has gone nowhere. DeLuca believes it’s stuck because of “a lack of political will.”

This fight for community radio fits in to a bigger picture of the indigenous struggle for equality in Guatemala. Even though the Central American country is 60 percent indigenous, Mayan Congressman Amilcar Pop says this is a norm. “Historically, it’s typical for Congress to exclude indigenous groups. They accept bills but never adopt them.”  

The proposed Community Media Bill is one of more than 10 bills dealing with indigenous rights that have been accepted by Congress and shelved indefinitely.

Although radio may seem insignificant to many, the Community Media Bill is crucial for indigenous people to stay informed. Without community radio stations broadcasting in each of the local languages, the many indigenous Guatemalans who can’t speak Spanish or read could be cut off from news. Xunic worries that indigenous communities could “fall backwards into the past” without their own radio.

Radio Ixchel listener Martina Sal says it would be a great loss to the community if the radio disappeared. She listens to the Kaqchikel Language Program and practices every week. When Sal was in school during the civil war, she was banned from speaking Kaqchikel and forgot it. She is proud to be able to hold on to that part of her culture.

Today, pirate radio stations face the constant threat of police raids and possible imprisonment. It happened to Radio Ixchel in 2006. But unlike the warnings made in radio announcements, Xunic was not sent to jail. He went before a judge and returned home without a fine. 

Radio Ixchel was broadcasting again six months later, after community members donated more than $1,300 to start it again. He says that if Radio Ixchel were raided again, they would do it all over. “Radio is a right,” he says.

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