On May 22, 1987, Guatemalan guerillas hijacked the frequency of a state-approved radio station to broadcast their popular revolutionary message. Voz Popular, the voice of Guatemala’s guerilla party, the URNG, transmitted from a mobile unit atop the Volcano Tajumulco, Central America’s highest peak. For nine years, the insurgents provided an alternative media source to the government propaganda broadcast by most radio and television stations, which often censored their programming for fear of government reprisal.

“One of the things I learned is that you can advance this country’s struggles with little more than a microphone,” says former Voz Popular co-founder Alberto Ramírez Recinos. Ramirez’s radio programs spoke out against human rights violations, injustice, and military repression. For Ramirez, Voz Popular was a lone bastion during the state’s psychological war on dissent.

After the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords, Voz Popular’s founders requested a legal frequency to continue their broadcasts. Their request was denied and the station was forced to close down operations. The ex-guerillas of Voz Popular, however, were convinced of the need to continue the radio program in order to promote the implementation of the Peace Accords and the rights of marginalized communities–issues that the mainstream media failed to address. “We thought it was important to continue this project,” explains Ramirez, “so we put down our arms and picked up a microphone.”

Thus was born the community radio station Mujb’ ab’l yol, which means “encounter of expression” in the Mam indigenous language. Mujb’ ab’l yol began as a small station serving the community of Concepción Chiqurichapa, a village north of Quetzaltenango with a 90% indigenous population. Today it has grown to a full-fledged association comprising Guatemala’s 240 community radio stations. Although these stations operate on unauthorized frequencies, they play a pivotal role in promoting cultural expression and community participation throughout Guatemala .


The Role of Community Radio in Guatemala

In a world of increasing globalization and media homogenization, community radio provides an outlet for citizen participation and the expression of diverse cultures. Commercial radio and television stations in Guatemala broadcast solely in Spanish and represent mainstream ladino (Spanish-descendent) culture, largely ignoring the interests of the indigenous population. Community stations, in contrast, broadcast in local, indigenous languages, making them accessible to marginalized sectors of the population. Community radio, declares Ramirez, is “a form of communication that responds to different sectors of the population, a form of community expression.”

Reaching even the isolated members of Guatemalan society, community stations play an important role in educating their audiences on issues including human rights, politics, and the environment. Such programming is essential in a country where many children are unable to attend school due to financial constraints. In addition, high illiteracy makes printed media inaccessible to most of the population, while televisions are prohibitively expensive and their signals rarely reach the country’s more remote regions. Small, battery-powered radios, however, are abundant.

Community radio stations aim to provide information about issues that mainstream communication media tend to ignore. They place a particular emphasis on the contents of the Peace Accords, which have yet to be implemented due mainly to the government’s lack of interest in promoting socio-economic equality. Most of these stations are run by local residents, including women and youth, whose voices are rarely heard in other mediums in Guatemala . Teenage deejays mix everything from hip-hop to revolutionary Cuban trova music. Daily programs vary from explanations of the Maya calendar to instructions on how to vote in local elections. Programming can be about almost anything, as long as community members are listening and participating.

Ramirez and his fellow radio broadcasters believe that with the proper education, marginalized sectors of Guatemalan society will begin to claim their rights and demand a change. In promoting education and citizen participation, community radio stations enable their listeners to participate actively in a peaceful democracy. The right to live and think differently is imperative to democracy, and community radio stations promote thinking on a local level–a fundamental step on the road to development.


Powerful Media Corporations Hinder Community Radio

Although the former guerilla station Voz Popular was denied a legal frequency after the war, the Peace Accords did recognize the importance of community radio in Guatemala. Under the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the government was obligated to reform broadcasting license laws to make frequencies available to the country’s indigenous population.

However, rather than supporting community radio stations, the government subsequently passed a law whereby the highest bidders obtained radio frequencies in government auctions, thus favoring the private sector and excluding those unable to compete on equal economic footing. “Our community, because it is so poor, can’t participate in the bidding to obtain authorized frequencies,” articulates Ramirez.

Lacking an alternative, community radio stations illegally tap into unauthorized frequencies. Until recently, the government would fine these “pirate” stations up to Q8 million ($1 million), but the practice ended under pressure from the non-governmental Guatemalan Community Communications Council (GCCC).

Even without the fines, community stations have difficulty securing funding to run their daily programming. Many community stations have solicited funding from international agencies, including the European Union, which granted some $900,000 to support a three-year GCCC program. Still, a lack of funds plagues community radio stations and many have been forced off the dial as a result.

Despite the GCCC’s petitions, the Guatemalan government refuses to legalize community radio stations, favoring powerful interest groups that represent commercial broadcasters. The Guatemalan Chamber of Radio Broadcasting, an autonomous group of powerful commercial radio broadcasters, has tremendous sway in congress and effectively determines the fate of smaller stations.

In recent years, the monopoly over Guatemala’s communication media has been consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. Remigio Angel Gonzales, a Mexican businessman living in Miami, owns the country’s four main television stations and 25 commercial radio stations. Under the previous administration, Gonzales’ brother-in-law, Luis Rabbé, was appointed Minister of Communication and Transportation, ensuring Gonzales’ influence in Congress.

Powerful businessmen are not alone in benefiting from the communications monopoly. The government, in return for favoring large commercial stations, counts on the media to publicize state-run projects and portray the administration in a positive light. Thus neither the government nor large commercial stations are motivated to promote community radio, which ostensibly robs mainstream stations of listeners. Furthermore, by educating poor indigenous Guatemalans about their rights and encouraging citizen participation, community radio broadcasters challenge business interests and the status quo, which also explains why some of Guatemala’s most powerful citizens oppose them.


Community Media Proposal

Today, member stations of the Mujb’ ab’l yol association are still operating on unauthorized frequencies and have yet to be recognized by the government. However, the association’s four staff members and 23 young volunteers are working hard to expand its influence. They are lobbying the Guatemalan Congress to pass a bill that would set aside 25% of all radio frequencies for community radio.

Unfortunately, the bill has little chance of being approved. Powerful lobbyists representing commercial stations have prevented previous administrations from reforming telecommunications laws, and given the current administration’s close ties to commercial media, this trend seems unlikely to change in the near future.

In spite of the dim prospects for its approval, all 240 community radio stations nationwide support the bill. Ramírez also advocates the community media proposal, believing that “each municipality should have a form of communication that is interested in serving the community.” Community radio stations, he contends, are one of the fundamental rights of Guatemalan citizens.