Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 221 | Diciembre 1999


Latin America

Let People’s Voices Be Heard In the New Millennium

Citizenship is the exercise of power. But a citizenry without a voice, without opinion, without its own media, is a weakened citizenry. The new millennium will be just like the old one in Latin America if this situation, which is a serious violation of human rights, does not change.

José Ignacio López Vigil

When we inaugurated Radio Enriquillo in southeastern Dominican Republic, we wanted to open its microphones to all voices. From the first day of transmission, we wanted to experience the audience's direct participation.

That was in 1977 when the station had a very small staff, and we all did everything. I was head of programming and also a street interviewer. I broadcast the words of children and old people, the opinions of peasant leaders and unemployed youth, the protests of market women and the prayers of Christians from the churches where they were worshipping.

The only people missing were the Haitians. Every year, hundreds of thousands of sugarcane cutters crossed the Dominican border from Haiti to earn a few pesos during the harvest months. Many of them set up home with their woman and kids on the edge of the refinery, in impoverished camps where they managed to live—or rather survive—on the pittance they received at the end of a grueling day's work.

An age-old silence

One afternoon, I went to the closest refinery with the mobile unit. I was surrounded by bewildered-looking, sweat-dripping cane cutters, still gripping their machetes, the direct descendants of blacks who were ripped out of Africa to be enslaved in America.

“How much do they pay you, how much do they gyp you when they weigh those stalks of cane?” I asked, and they, with their poor Spanish mixed with words borrowed from Creole, began to explain the difficult conditions in which they lived.

“And you, what do you think of all this, huh?” I directed my question to the other side of the circle, where the women, their children hanging to their waist, clustered behind the men, silently. I tried to cross the circle to get the microphone closer, but the women ran helter-skelter, covering their faces and laughing nervously.

“Don't go, wait...”

“Forget about them, Mr. journalist,” said one of the day laborers. “They don't got anything in their head. The only thing they're good for is breeding.”
But I stubbornly kept trying to get some kind of testimony from those black women. I went up to one who lagged behind, with four small naked children, their bellies distended, clinging to her skirt.

“The devil, daughter, run!” shouted an old woman in a tumbled-down shack to the frightened woman.

The devil is white. The devil is man. That interviewer, still wet behind the ears, was ingenuously trying to cut through an age-old silence, a double-knotted one, because the silence of blacks before whites is braided into the silence of women before men.

The weeks wore on, the months. And as the station made such an effort to get closer to the people, the people ended up getting close to the station. When I visited the sugar refineries, I no longer had to coax the words out of them. They were dying to talk. The Haitian men came up to denounce the injustices they were suffering in the refinery. And the Haitian women also came, to denounce the injustices they had to put up with in the house, where their husbands beat them, treating them with the same violence with which the refinery bosses treated the men.

Stating our opinions, we become citizens

I could tell a thousand similar anecdotes, like the miners in the north of Potosí, in Bolivia, and their union struggles through Radio Pío XII; the indigenous peoples of Guatemala speaking in Mam, in Quiché, in Nahualá, in Chortís, legitimating their many languages and ancestral culture through their radio stations; the peasant women in the south of Chile, speaking proudly through Radio Alegría of Lolol; the eternally good-humored Ica in Peru and their Radio La Achirana; the chronically unemployed of Río de Janeiro, sharing their opinions through Radio Favela; and the young people of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, through the persecuted but always flourishing community radios. And we could go on, touring the whole Latin American and Caribbean landscape. In all countries, from the dizzying heights of Puno to the depths of Amazonia, from the Mexican border to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, radio stations are trying to democratize the word to help democratize society.

The objective of all of these radios is to bring about grassroots participation, so that people can speak, express themselves, and by doing so become fuller people. Nothing humanizes us more than words. It was Barthes who said that language allows us to think, and Kant that we learn to reason by speaking. Thought is the child of the word, not the other way around. We become men and women through dialogue, through communication. We exist when we proclaim our existence.

We are of course referring to the public word here. After all women talk a lot but in private, with friends in the kitchen and the backyard. And peasants, too, are loquacious, but not in front of the boss. How are the voices of the poor—that is, the voices of four out of every five Latin Americans, four out of every five Caribbeans—to be heard? We don't want to be the “voice of the voiceless,” because these people aren't mute. They know much better than we do what they want and need. The only thing they need is a channel through which to express themselves; that technological conch shell, radio.

The first challenge for a radio station with social responsibility is therefore to amplify the voice of the people, thus providing them with social legitimacy. More than listeners, we want interlocutors. More than passive receivers, we want a public that participates in the programming. That calls up and goes on the air live. That comes to the station to protest about something or ask for a romantic song. Better yet, we want radio to go out to find the people, offering them the microphone on the street, in the marketplace, at the bus stop, in the peasant home.

In this process of giving or, better, returning the voice to the people, socially sensitive radios put the finishing touches on what education is supposed to be all about: self-esteem, empowerment. This is the starting point for constructing a citizenry. Speaking, expressing ourselves publicly we become citizens.

The values of the citizenry

Citizenry. Like all words, this one too can be misunderstood. A first source of confusion would be to see it as equivalent to urban and thus exclude the peasantry. Another confusion would be to think only of adults, because they only give you an ID card when you get to a certain age. Citizenry could also hide a dangerous nationalism, excluding immigrants and dividing the world according to political borders.

But the citizenry, transcending its bourgeois origin and its French label, is none of the above. The modern concept of citizenry refers to the deep respect that each individual merits for simply existing. We are all citizens, regardless of race, gender, age, religious creed, political opinion or sexual preference. Being a citizen entitles one to rights, both those agreed to 50 years ago in the Universal Declaration and that whole set of new social, economic, political and cultural rights. Being a citizen also involves a number of duties, because my rights are circumscribed by the rights of others.

Citizenship is the exercise of power. It is moving from being simply inhabitants with an ID card to individuals who participate actively in the life of their community, their country. People who think with their own heads and add their weight to public opinion, who elect those who will govern them and also monitor their actions, who denounce corruption, who organize, who mobilize, who are not satisfied with representative democracy and therefore exercise participatory democracy. What better characterizes the mission of our radio stations than this concept of citizenship?
For half a century in Latin America these radio stations have been called community, grassroots, educational, free, participatory, alternative... Different adjectives for a single mission: to promote the values of the citizenry. That is why the new name citizens’ radio fits all of these socially-oriented radio stations so well.

Who is more valuable?

The values we are talking about here are those summarized in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Man is not more valuable than woman. Luckily, biology reminds all us machistas that our chromosomes are XY, that half of a man is a woman.

No race is more valuable than any other. Luckily, paleontology teaches us that all human beings come from Africa. That white is nothing more than washed-out black.

Adults are not more valuable than children nor the young more valuable than the old. Luckily, modern physics shows us that time is relative and that you could grow old faster than your grandparent or grow younger than your grandchild.

No single species is more valuable than Mother Nature in her entirety. Therefore, any development must be sustainable, on pain of ruining the only planet we have to live on, our common home.

By right, we are all worth the same. And by luck, we are all different, because variety is the spice of life, according to popular wisdom.

In these times of cultural homogenization and the imposition of the American Way of Life, citizens' radios defend the supreme right to be different and think differently, as well as the correlative duty of tolerance toward those who are not like us and do not think like us. For a long time, we were taught to love our neighbors when the more revolutionary thing would have been love for strangers, those who are different. This is the essence of the ethic of citizenry: different but equal, because we are all born with the exact same rights.

The most relevant right for us as radio workers is the one recognized in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This right is the cornerstone of citizenry and, therefore, of democracy. The right to public expression is what all those Haitian women recovered for themselves and what the whole citizenry should possess. It is one of the most twisted rights in our continent.

Many stations, little democracy

How many enjoy the right to communication exercised through the media? Mighty few. The majority of social sectors are so excluded from the public word that they have come to think that it is inaccessible, that this right is not for them.

From a distance, one might be forgiven for thinking that this problem doesn't exist in Latin America. Our continent has the greatest number of radio stations. Without even counting the thousands that do not have broadcast licenses, we could speak of some thirty thousand stations in our region fighting each other tooth and nail for audiences.

But this is not as positive as it might first appear. This plethora of stations does not indicate greater democratization of the radio waves or contribute to informational pluralism. Why? Because the immense majority of them are assigned to profit-driven private enterprise. And when the objective is to make money, the cheapest formats—bread and circus—are endlessly repeated. In Latin American cities, you can spin the dial to get a sense of what is being offered, and will get the strange sensation of listening to photocopies of the exact same station, especially on FM. The same disks played over and over, the same news taken straight from the international wire services, the same vacuous national production.

The monopoly of the word

Latin America copied the US commercial model whole cloth and never took the slightest interest in the European concept of public service. At least in the United States a segment of the spectrum is reserved for cultural and community stations. In our countries, however, the frequencies have been turned over to political friends and to businesses eager to increase their earnings with no social criteria whatever.
But the airwaves do not belong to the state or to individuals. As the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) explains so clearly, the frequencies on this electromagnetic spectrum are a collective public good, the common patrimony of humanity, according to the Union's Torremolinos Treaty and article 33 of the International Telecommunications Agreement, later adjusted in a meeting in Nairobi. They are a natural resource like air or the ozone layer. They belong to all of us, to the planetary citizenry. States, which are the administrators of the frequencies, are supposed to assign them in the most equitable manner to promote the right of all social sectors to communication.

This inevitably raises the question: how many owners of the word and the image are there in Latin America and who are they? The concentration of control says it all: 85% of the radio stations, 67% of the television channels and 92% of the written media belong to commercial private enterprise. Barely 7% of the region's radio stations and 10% of its television channels are cultural or educational.

If this situation seems bad, the trend is worse: if it goes on like this, from five to 10 gigantic corporations will control the majority of the main newspapers, magazines, books, radio and television stations, films, recording companies and data networks in only a few more years. Ever fewer opinion-makers and ever more people whose opinions are made for them, acidly concluded Eduardo Galeano.

A citizenry without media is a weak citizenry

Information monopolies. These are the giants that Jóse Martí warned about, those who go in seven-league boots swallowing up whole worlds while the villagers entertain themselves with rustic things.

These monopolies presented the NATO bombing of Kosovo as an act of solidarity and have spent 40 years trying to convince us that the blockade against Cuba is necessary to keep socialism from contaminating the rest of Latin America. Verily as we gather here, the great news chains are trying to get us to believe that the United States should intervene in Colombia to protect us from an evil—drug traffic—that they created and sustain through the enormous earnings reported by the US cartels, the never-mentioned head of the octopus.

This monopolization of the media and of information gives cause for concern, because it is no secret that power today is built in the media. In Ecuador, it used to be said that the candidate who filled the Plaza of San Francisco was shoe-in for President. Now politicians are abandoning the balconies and running to the TV stage sets and radio interview cabins. If you want a political career in Latin America today, you don't study politics; you become an announcer or a singer or get an acting job in a soap opera.

Things being as they are, if civil society doesn't have its own public voice and image, it will have no power either. A citizenry without its own media will be a weak citizenry. Or better said, a weakened one. In the case of the Haitian women, they finally spoke out, but I was the one with the microphone. Why not think about a station at the refinery, run by those same women?
We want, we demand many citizens' radio and television stations; stations in the hands of women, of youth, of indigenous peoples, of universities, of ecology groups, of unions, of the greatest variety of social movements. There are enough frequencies, if they are divided up well. We can all fit on the dial, as our Salvadoran colleagues say. There's room for commercial stations, for state stations, and there has to be room, and equitable, significant room, for independent citizens’ stations that are not geared to profit and don't make political propaganda.

Discriminatory legal frameworks

What’s going on in Latin America? With precious few exceptions, there are no laws that promote or even permit the birth and development of citizens' radio. Those exceptions include the honorable case of Colombia, whose communications ministry last year assigned over 400 frequencies to community radio, and Bolivia, whose telecommunications superintendence is helping to legalize indigenous radio stations. The other governments, however, show a surprising degree of intolerance toward community media.
In Argentina, civil, non-profit organizations are explicitly excluded from the airwaves, while in Chile, community radios are only authorized to have one watt of power. If that weren't ridiculous enough, these stations are prohibited from advertising on the one hand and denied any subsidy on the other.
In Brazil, the community radio law limits them to 25 watts, prohibits them from accepting advertising, forbids them to transmit as a network, and only provides a couple of frequencies for the whole immense Brazilian territory. All the community radios that manage to get broadcasting authorization have to crowd together in that tiny space on the band.

In Uruguay, the Ministry of Defense oversees the country's telecommunications. Concessions are provided at the ministry's discretion and a handful of families control the whole spectrum.

In Ecuador, community radio stations were placed under the national security statute. The indigenous stations have spent years duly presenting their papers but have so far received no response whatever to their requests.
In Peru, in Mexico, in the majority of our countries, the frequencies are being assigned virtually by auction, with the only criterion for getting a station being the amount of money the bidder puts on the table. In Guatemala, the bidding is way too high for an indigenous community. For example, frequency 95.9 for the town of Totonicapán was auctioned off at 382,000 quetzals (US$76,000). Does freedom of expression have a price?
It is often said that there is no democracy without freedom of expression. To be fair, however, the phrase needs to be expanded: there is no freedom of expression without democratizing the current telecommunications laws, which are obsolete and discriminatory, leaving the citizenry out of the game. With the same strength some use to demand freedom of the press, we demand freedom of the antenna.

I'll let you in on something: the OAS Relateur of Freedom of Expression, Santiago Canton, has just asked AMARC for reports on the norms that operate in the hemisphere for assigning radio frequencies and on the points of article 13 of the San José Pact that are violated in the process. In brief, we expect to have a hearing before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to denounce the serious violations occurring in this regard in the majority of our countries, because the distribution of frequencies on the radio band is not so much a technical problem as a human rights issue.

Toward the new millennium

In the coming years we will be able to make radio and television with better technology, but this will not be the millennium's great development. We will be able to produce with digital quality, with thousands of channels simultaneously, to surf the Internet and race along all the information super-highways at the speed of light. But this will not be the hoped-for innovation.

The future's greatest breakthrough will be to give the communication media back their primary vocation, that of serving the citizenry. Beyond that, it will be to return the media themselves to the citizenry so that all social sectors can have equal access to the radio and television frequencies.

The great novelty will be to see thousands of community and citizens' radio and television stations flourish throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, in all of Ibero-America, all over the world.
The millennium will not be new, but just a continuation of the old if the current information monopoly persists. The millennium will be older than the one we are ringing out if the citizenry does not obtain its own independent media, which constitute the greatest guarantee of freedom of expression.

This meeting of radio enthusiasts is an especially propitious moment to suggest an alliance of those of us who oppose media monopoly and support the universal exercise of the right to communication. An alliance between local community radio stations and commercial ones because both run the same risk of being engulfed by the big chains. A coalition between lay media and religious ones, among university radios, grassroots and municipal stations, in union with UNESCO and its Regional Communications Office for Latin America, which has supported us so much in this struggle, in union with the other United Nations bodies, all progressive social movements and all entrepreneurs with some degree of social sensibility.
It is an invitation to join in the common mission of democratizing communications, of “citizen-izing” the radio frequency. A complicity of good will is urgently needed so that the words of those women from the refineries and those of all nations on earth can fly free, like the yellow butterflies of Aracataca, and cover our whole blue planet.

José Ignacio López Vigil is regional Coordinator of the World Association of Community Radios (AMARC) for Latin America and the Caribbean. The above was the keynote speech in the III Ibero-American Meeting of Radio Broadcasters, held in Havana, Cuba, October 19-21, 1999.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Crossroads at the Century’s End

El Salvador
The Subversive Memory Of a Country’s Martyrs


Governance in Nicaragua

Summing Up Hurricane Mitch: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

América Latina
Let People’s Voices Be Heard In the New Millennium
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development