Why is community radio in Guatemala important?

Despite the legal challenges, Indigenous communities use radio to 'keep their language and culture alive'.

by &

    Sumpango, Guatemala - Sitting in a courtyard, wearing an indigenous huipil dress, Amanda Chiquito glows as she talks about the challenges and successes of working with the community radio station in Sumpango Sacatepequez, Guatemala.

    "There is no media that represents our community," the 25-year-old says.

    "There wasn't a media outlet that could inform us and keep our culture and language alive," she tells Al Jazeera.

    Chiquito is a reporter and radio host at Ixchel Radio, the only community station in Sumpango Sacatepequez, a small town 42km from Guatemala's capital.

    More than 95 percent of the town's 50,000 inhabitants are indigenous, living in remote areas, where access to information and technology is limited.

    "Ixchel Radio represents the goddess Ixchel, she is the goddess of weaving, the goddess of fertility," Chiquito says.

    "So, Ixchel Radio was thought up because its purpose is to weave communication throughout the population."

    Radio has become an essential tool for communication in Sumpango, but due to government restrictions, getting on the airwaves has proved challenging.

    Radio Ixchel was founded in 2003 by three indigenous men who "felt the need to reach out to [the] community", according to founder Anselmo Xunic. 

    Today, the station broadcasts daily from 6am to 10pm. Programming is led by a group of volunteers and touches on varied educational content as well as social issues.

    "We have programmes for kids, young adults, women," Chiquito says.

    "We also have a section for Alcoholics Anonymous where we speak about the importance of not becoming addicted to anything," she adds.

    Xunic says the station also informs the community about the issues that affect them the most, including corruption in the media and the government.

    According to Xunic, Radio Ixchel has also focused on recruiting female reporters and hosts.

    "One of our priorities was to involve more women in media because we realised they are not really present," Xunic says.

    The station has the highest percentage of female participation in Guatemala's community radio network, according to local media. 

    When the station started in 2003, four women were on the air. Today, the majority of 16 volunteers at the station are female.

    Battle for the airwaves 

    While the station has had great success, it also continues to battle for a legal space on the airwaves.

    Under Guatemala's law, licenses are only given to those who are able to buy bandwidth at auction for about $28,000. Those who cannot afford to buy the license risk being raided by the Guatemalan Public Ministry and shut down.

    In 2006, Radio Ixchel was raided by the national police and was forced off the air. Xunic was taken to court.

    "I went to trial and was accused of drug trafficking, the judge found no crime, and asked the ministry for more evidence," Xunic explains.

    But the judge closed the case due to lack of evidence. The station came back on air a few months later.  

    Radio Ixchel is led by a group of volunteers and touches on educational content as well as social issues [Ali Rae/Al Jazeera] 

    The right to exist

    There are more than 100 community radio stations operating in Guatemala, according to local media.

    Amanda Chiquito is a reporter and radio host at Ixchel Radio [Ali Rae/Al Jazeera]

    The indigenous communities don't have explicit rights to use radio frequencies, though their right to exist is guaranteed by the country's Peace Accords.

    "The Government of Guatemala has not had the will to create legislation where indigenous peoples can access our own radio frequencies," Chiquito says.

    Many believe the lack of support for community radio puts the volunteers in a very vulnerable position, and the law puts freedom of expression at risk.

    "We face constant criminalisation and stigmatisation towards indigenous people," Chiquito says.

    "I think that the worry of both the government and the media outlets is that through radio there is constant programming that aims tell our communities that we have rights." 

    The radio broadcast authority has stated publicly that its entity does not oppose the existence of "community radios," as long as they operate within the Guatemalan legal framework.

    The authority did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment. 

    "Every station (community or not) has to operate with the radio spectrum; and in its anarchic operation will produce harmful interference to other stations," a statement from 2012 reads on its website.

    The stations that operate legally are commercial and mostly foreign-owned.

    Remigio Angel Gonzales, for example, a Mexican businessman who lives in the United States, owns the country's four main television stations and 25 commercial radio stations.

    For indigenous communities, the monopolisation of media means that the issues that affect them the most are not addressed. 

    "Big companies don't accurately explain what is happening in indigenous communities, their information is often biased, discriminatory and racist," Chiquito says.

    This is where community-based radio stations have come into play.

    I think that the worry of both the government and the media outlets is that through radio there is constant programming that aims tell our communities that we have rights

    Amanda Chiquito

    Sumpango Sacatepequez is a small town 42km from Guatemala's capital [Ali Rae/Al Jazeera] 

    Keeping a culture alive 

    In Sumpango, Radio Ixchel offers a way to keep a culture and a language alive, as well as provide important information about the community.

    "When we do radio, we can express ourselves freely there; we can talk without worry. And through the radio, I find out that I have the right to express myself freely," Maria Escalon Ruiz, a volunteer in Radio Juventud says.

    The station has also given the Kaqchikel language a second chance.

    The Mayan people in the area have faced discrimination for decades, leaving many to abandon the use of their indigenous language. Today, Kaqchikel is mostly spoken in villages and by those more than 50 years old.

    "The language was lost in our community, I know a little Kaqchikel but I no longer have anyone to talk to, so we are making an effort to bring it back to our community," Xunic says.

    Radio Ixchel has focused on promoting the language and developing a close collaboration with the Kaqchikel Linguistic Community.

    An association of radio stations has also brought together different sectors of society to incentivise the participation of more indigenous women in radio. 

    The Indigenous Female Communicators' Network brings together women from Coban, Totanicapan, Quiche, Solala, Sacatepequez and Escuintla, among other areas.

    "I, as an indigenous woman, have the opportunity at my fingertips to communicate myself in a different way, to bring information to the community in a different way, that's something that motivates me," Chiquito says. 

    "Our aim with this tool is to make stories known," She adds.

    "Reaching a person who is working in the field, [and showing him] the idea is that they can listen through the radio to something that they cannot see, or otherwise know."  

    Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.

    There are over 100 community radio stations operating in Guatemala, according to local media  [Ali Rae/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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