Radio Ñomndaa, The Word of the Water

By  |  2 / June / 2009

This post is also available in: Spanish

Radio Ñomndaa, The Word of the Water in English, is an indigenous community radio station in the Mexican state of Guerrero. It was formed as part of the autonomous organizing of the Nanncue Ñomndaa (Amuzgo) people in the municipality of Suljaa’ (Xochistlahuaca). It is a worthy case study, given the underlying situation of media monopolies and the rights to the freedom of expression and information in Mexico.

Photo: www.lapalabradelagua.org.

The explosion of the community radio phenomenon is relatively new to Mexico. There is an ongoing debate as to what a "community radio" station is, as opposed to other stations which transmit in small geographical areas, and the great majority of which have not been issued a license: "social," commercial, pirate, church, indigenous, and educational radio stations, among others, currently operate and share the airwaves in both rural and urban contexts throughout Mexico. The nature of community radio is essentially related to the organizational process behind the station itself, and to the connections established with the listening community.

The Legitimacy of the Organizational Processes

The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) defines community radios as projects in cultural politics and communication, which should be understood as part of the social situations that give rise to them and those they aim to transform. As such, regardless of their differences and individual identities, AMARC suggests that these radio stations should be analyzed by studying the types of relationships they have established both within their communities and social contexts, and with their audiences and other media outlets.1

At present, Mexico can be characterized by its authoritarian forms of government. Mexican citizens feel distanced from State institutions, allied as they are to the interests of the political ruling class and the economic demands of transnational companies. "Politics" is progressively being reduced to institutional and party participation, excluding or limiting democratic interactions of a more autonomous or community-based nature.

At a local level, a number of diverse social contexts are facing a wide range of social and political conflicts, as well as the appearance of new forms of citizen organizing. For Brisa Maya Solís of the National Center for Social Communication (CENCOS), it is of fundamental importance to pay attention to the organizational processes which give rise to these radio stations. In many cases, the station is simply a pretext for the broader organization, and ends up becoming the heart of its work.

No clear statistics are available for the number of community radio stations currently operating without a license. The consensus is that there are more than 100 across Mexico, a figure which has caused debate around the issue of their legalization. There are two main positions in the discussion: on the one hand are the stations which seek recognition within the existing legal framework. On the other are those that consider that the airwaves, the frequency itself, is public space and that they are simply exercising their right to express themselves in that medium.

The high concentration of broadcast concessions and permissions in very few hands has resulted in a limited range of voices and opinions in Mexico’s media. The nation suffers a monopoly in both the private sector (the powerful media groups, Televisa and TV Azteca, control the majority of radio and television stations), and in the public sector (where universities, Congress, and state governments control the airwaves). Community radio stations seek to diversify this information monopoly, creating media content which responds to the needs and interests of their home communities.

Since community radio stations were declared unconstitutional in the Federal Telecommunications Law [Ley Federal de Telecomunicaciones] and the Radio and Television Law of 2006 [Ley de Radio y Televisión de 2006], they exist and operate in a legal vacuum. Business interests have blocked any new legislation on the issue and continue to defend the primarily economic criteria used to grant concessions and licenses. This results in a concentration of media outlets and limits the development of public media bodies and, to an even greater degree, the development of community media itself. No legal recognition of community radio stations yet exists, causing insecurity for the institutions and in many cases, putting their survival at risk. Licenses are authorized at the government’s discretion, and are often denied. What’s more, not only is the State applying administrative measures to seize equipment and ban the activity of unlicensed stations, but there have been cases of legal action, applying the General Law of National Goods [Ley General de Bienes Nacionales]. (In these cases, radio-phonic space is considered a possession of the nation, which is being used or benefitted from without permission.)

However, looking beyond the legal question, the legitimacy of these radio stations can be located in the organizational process which creates and defends this type of project. The case of Radio Ñomndaa has its roots in the modes and customs of a primarily indigenous municipality. Through this process, the members are recovering their traditional organizational practices and defending their rights as an indigenous community to operate their own media outlets.

Challenges:

  • The creation of a legal framework for community radio stations which takes into account their current legal situation and respects the legitimacy of the stations currently in operation.
  • The establishment of clear rules for the granting of licenses, based predominantly on social and cultural criteria rather than economic criteria only.
  • The enforcement of guarantees for those participating in community journalism, ensuring their right to communicate and their right to freedom of expression.
  • The strengthening of the organizational processes that have established community radio stations.
  • The development of protection mechanisms for and by the community radio stations.

The Word of the Water

Over the last 40 years, the Nanncue Ñomndaa people have denounced the authoritarianism and the violence exercised by State powers in the municipality of Xochistlahuaca, mobilizing at different times against the local caciques who were supported by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Much of their resistance has focused on the defense of their community and collective customs, particularly in methods of decision making and choosing candidates for public positions (as compared to the dominant models imposed by political parties). In reaction to the imposition of commissioners in several of the municipality’s communities in 2001, the residents of the municipal seat occupied the local municipal offices and established a government of Traditional Authorities.2

Broadcasts of The Word of the Water began in December 2004. Independent of political parties and religious creeds, the station is not an end in itself, but rather a tool to encourage a broader reflection which will help strengthen the culture and the organization of the Nanncue Ñomndaa people.

In defending their right to the free expression of ideas, the members of the station maintain that all they are doing is exercising a right that is recognized by the San Andrés Accords, negotiated between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the federal government in 1996. (The Accords were subsequently changed in the counter reform approved by Congress.) For the Nanncue Ñomndaa, it is a right which is still denied them.

Furthermore, the right to obtain, operate, and administrate media outlets is consecrated in Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, signed by the Mexican government. In the state of Guerrero these media-related demands were included in a joint initiative, the State Agenda for the Development and the Autonomy of the Indigenous Peoples of Guerrero.3 The government ignored this proposal, and Guerrero continues to be one of the states with the most limited legal recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples.

The station The Word of the Water began transmission as a means of exercising the right to indigenous autonomy, reflecting this in the contents and information broadcast. As David Valtierra, founder of the station, explains:

"We speak about our history of marginalization and struggle, and about our dreams of freedom; we report violations of human and collective rights; we share information on events occurring at an international or a national level; we encourage reflection on the challenges we face as a people, as Mexicans, and as human beings; we propose and support alternatives in regard to the problems we face; we show solidarity with the struggles of our peers."

The mural inside the Radio Ñomndaa
station. Photo: www.lapalabradelagua.org.

Since the beginning, the project has made room for the people of the region to participate in the preparation of the program contents, thereby ensuring that they responded to the interests of men and women of all ages.

The participation of women, for example, was reflected in the program Women of Xochistlahuaca. In this timeslot, issues of reproductive health, women’s rights, and familial problems were dealt with for the first time. Women approached the station with issues, or, in some cases, the women presenters asked different groups of women to speak about the topic they wished to communicate to the station’s audience. For many of these women, being given a voice and being listened to via the radio has been a chance to learn a new way of communicating and, at the same time, a means of enabling their participation in other community spaces.

In both Ñomndaa and Spanish, the station transmits the customs and traditions of the Nanncue Ñomndaa, rooted in respect and recognition for the region’s cultural diversity. It has also become a platform for musicians to record their own albums, as well as a tool to facilitate communication between different communities, some of which are geographically isolated. For all these reasons, the station has gained broad acceptance within the community beyond the political differences of the local residents.

One clear indicator of Radio Ñomndaa’s impact was the appearance of a new radio station at the beginning of 2008, The Indigenous Voice of Xochistlahuaca, promoted by Aceadeth Rocha Ramírez, the town’s former municipal president on behalf of the PRI. This new station was established to combat Radio Ñomndaa. It operates without a license and, for David Valtierra, it isn’t a media outlet which tries to encourage the community to think for itself:

"It’s the voice and the interests of those above: it disseminates the ‘achievements’ and programs of the government, business news. It is media manipulation, because of its name and because it is used to provide disinformation on what happens in the communities. It represents the invasion of our frequency, its signal is more powerful and it invades ours, and it shows contempt for our cultural expressions."

This media strategy to counteract independent, autonomous, and community media outlets is nothing new. In 2006, as a response to the occupation of commercial stations by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), a clandestine radio station began transmissions that attempted to delegitimize the social movement. Programs named individuals who participated in the APPO or supported their social and political demands; they also incited violence and confrontations and thus aggravated the social polarization in Oaxaca City.

The legitimacy of the station The Word of the Water rests on the fact that it is a community project, as was demonstrated on July 10, 2008. That day, some 40 members of the police (federal and state) and representatives of the Secretariat of Communication and Transport (SCT) attempted to seize the radio equipment and shut the station down. The community’s response was almost instantaneous: more than 200 people mobilized to halt the actions of the police and government representatives, thus succeeding in their peaceful defense of the radio station and stopping its closure.4

The rural landscape of
Xochistlahuaca where Radio
Ñomndaa broadcasts. Photo:
www.lapalabradelagua.org.

The reasons given for this attempted closure were that the station was transmitting without a license, but it seems clear that the question of the station’s legal status was merely an argument used to dismantle the community organization. The station had previously been victim to acts of defamation, aggression, and intimidation, in which the Mexican Army had also participated. The State has also resorted to using legal institutions to criminalize agrarian authorities and station members, such as detentions and legal proceedings which still remain open.5

Numerous organizations reacted to this hostile situation, denouncing the intervention of the SCT and demanding that the rights to freedom of expression and information be respected. Subsequently, the Federal Telecommunications Commission (COFETEL) offered to grant the station a license. The community’s assembly discussed the offer and eventually decided to reject it. The reasons for this decision were not only related to the conditions imposed by COFETEL, such as the required transmission of electoral announcements and those of political parties. The members of the station have positioned their choice as a vindication of their rights:

"Legal recognition is necessary. What’s more, it’s an obligation that the Mexican State, sadly, has so far refused to comply with. To date, what the government has offered us is the negotiation of a transmission permit, not a recognition of our legitimate right. [We don’t want] permits to be a negotiation of our rights, nor the submission or the cooptation of the freedom of words of the community."

The project has slowly consolidated itself with the support of various collectives who helped to install the equipment and train the station’s members to operate it. Since 2005, they have celebrated their anniversary in an event which has become a space for exchange and solidarity with other community radio stations and organizations, be they indigenous or related to civil society or human rights.

Some of the challenges they currently face occur because their signal transmits to all of the communities in the region, and each of these communities has a support committee and at least one community reporter. Additionally, they wish to improve the webpage and the streaming (via internet) of the station’s transmission, which is currently unreliable because of "faults" in the telephone line.

"We’ve realized that it’s predominantly the region’s migrants who tune in, those heading to Acapulco, Chilpancingo, Mexico City, and Tijuana, among other Mexican cities, as well as those on their way to different cities in the United States of North America [sic]. Likeminded people across the country also listen to us."

Achievements:

  • The community has both the equipment and the personnel needed to broadcast in both Spanish and Ñomndaa across Xochistlahuaca, in the eastern region of the Costa Chica.
  • They publish a webpage: http://lapalabradelagua.org/.
  • The contents are devised in collaboration with the community, responding to current events and local needs, and in relation to national and international issues.
  • The organization is autonomous, and operates independently of political parties and elected representatives. The station operates with the permission and support of the local community.
  • The majority of Nanncue Ñomndaa and mestizo communities in the municipality participate in the station’s operation through grassroots committees.
  • The station is supported by community work, listeners’ donations, assistance from solidarity groups, and the collective’s own activities. No government support has been offered or accepted.
  • The station defends the autonomy of the people which is enacted from "below and to the left," and has earned the respect of social organizations.
  • The strength and value of the culture, identity, institutions, and values of the Nanncue Ñomndaa people are encouraged by the station.

Working Together in Defense of Community Radio

Mexico is considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work in.6 Journalists and reporters are continually victims of acts of aggression, threats, and harassment, which have inspired the reporting of cases to different human rights bodies at a national and international level. In this context, the community radio sector is one of the most vulnerable.

Some recent initiatives have sought the legal recognition of indigenous community radio stations. Working from the National Congress of Indigenous Communication, which unites indigenous radio stations from around the country, an initiative has been undertaken with federal government representatives to facilitate the authorization of permits. However, at the last minute, the government halted the process and doesn’t appear to be willing to take on the agreements reached.7

This situation, along with many others, violates the guidelines of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR maintains that "the establishment of discriminatory legal frameworks that hinder the allocation of frequencies to community radio stations is unacceptable" and that "it is necessary to seek access to goods and services that will ensure basic conditions of dignity, security, subsistence, and development."8

In any case, it would be erroneous to think that it is the legal recognition alone which guarantees the integrity of radio stations. The journalism and communication work of these projects has an impact in conflicts defined by authoritarianism, the abuse of power, and the repression of social movements. They have an impact in the defense of human rights when facing public policies or impunity, drug-trafficking, or organized crime. The risk these radio stations face is, in some cases, very great, and any analysis should take into account the fact that their work affects, to a greater or lesser degree, the interests of actors with great power who may not always be connected to the State structure.

It is therefore necessary to develop defense mechanisms for this type of organization which cannot be reduced a mere legal response. These mechanisms should incorporate, among other things, both the strengthening of the organization which gives life to the radio station and its relationship with the community; elaborate clear communication strategies that adequately analyze the contents of programs and the editorial line, in the context of the conflicts where the station is having an impact; and, of course, the alliances with other radio stations, civil society organizations, human rights bodies, and national and international entities.

In Mexico, there are currently numerous networks and organizations which aim to create the conditions for the development and defense of these community radio projects. Among them are the Communicators’ Network Boca de Polen, the Network of Community Radios of the South-East, Networks for Diversity, Equity, and Sustainability, the National Congress of Indigenous Communication, AMARC, CENCOS, the Mexican Association for the Right to Information (AMEDI) and Article XIX.

Community radio stations have played an essential role in counteracting the hegemonic discourses disseminated by mainstream media and guided by the dominant policies and ideologies of our day. Radio Ñomndaa positions itself as one of these stations when it seeks to speak against the discourses of the powerful, both in Guerrero and in Mexico, and to have an impact in strengthening democratic structures and constructing a strong citizenry. It achieves this by working from its indigenous roots, and maintaining permanent dialog with other cultures and organizational processes.

The Demands of Radio Ñomndaa:

  • Respect for the Radio Ñomndaa projects, and respect for the integrity of the station and its members.
  • Respect for the national and international agreements signed by the Mexican State on the issue of recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples.
  • Recognition in the constitution and other relevant laws of the existence of indigenous radio stations, free radio stations, community radio stations, and people’s radio stations.

Online Resources:

  1. World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)—México, Radios comunitarias y contexto de conflicto en México, 2009 [www.amarcmexico.org].
  2. Peace Brigades International—Mexico Project, Human Rights Defenders in the State of Guerrero, México, December 2007 [www.pbi-mexico.org].
  3. Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Montaña (coord.), Agenda estatal para el desarrollo y la autonomía de los pueblos indígenas de Guerrero, Mexico, May 2005 [www.tlachinollan.org].
  4. Pronunciamiento: ¡Alto al hostigamiento contra la radio comunitaria Ñomndaa!, Organizaciones Civiles, July 11, 2008, [www.cencos.org/es/node/19023].
  5. Cierre de la radio comunitaria Ñomndaa: La sociedad civil, indignada ante la política de hostigamiento del gobierno federal, July 11, 2008, [www.cencos.org/es/node/19024].
  6. Campaña permanente de protección a periodistas en México: Te hace daño no saber: www.libertad-expresion.org.mx.
  7. Congreso Nacional de Comunicación Indígena [National Congress of Indigenous Communication]: http://mediosparalospueblos.blogspot.com/.
  8. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Annual Report of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Washington DC, 2002, [http://www.cidh.oas.org/relatoria/showarticle.asp?artID=138&lID=1].

 

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