Community radio faces dangerous hazards in Mexico

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In 1999, a group of radio hosts at Neza Radio, a small community station in the Mexican city of Nezahualcoyotl, began transmitting content for about 1 million people living just past Benito Juarez International airport and over the Mexico City line.

With little radio experience and virtually no budget, the hosts used transmitters and antennas built by local engineering students and broadcast on Saturdays and Sundays for listeners up to 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) away. At times, they caught an intermittent signal and went off-air, or they found themselves dancing around the radio dial to prevent interference with other transmissions and guarantee their physical safety. (Legal proceedings have been carried out against a number of community radio stations, while others have been subject to violence or forced off air.) The station’s raison d’etre, says Rocio Roman, the station’s operating director, was “to communicate the good things about Neza.”

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Like other community radio stations—independent outlets often known for broadcasting perspectives against the government, or content different from those of state-influenced commercial stations—that was not enough to convince Mexican authorities to grant it legal permission to operate. Mexico’s Communications and Transport Ministry, former telecommunications regulator Cofetel, and then successor IFT, all denied permit and concession requests made by Radio Neza, citing a saturated radio spectrum, inter-frequency separation requirements of 800 KHz, and a wave of stations already migrating from AM to FM, as some of the reasons the station could not be officially recognized.

But about 15 years after the radio began requesting permission to operate, in July 2017, the station won a legal challenge against IFT’s 2015 permit rejection, and finally received a 50-watt signal to operate on 97.3 FM. “They look for a way not to give concessions,” says Luis Fernando Garcia, a lawyer at Mexican digital rights group R3D, who handled Radio Neza’s case. “In a personal sense, I was exhausted, very tired,” adds Roman, who began working with the station as a single 24-year-old, but is now 45 and married with one daughter.

For decades, hundreds of community radio stations like Neza Radio were denied recognition under Mexican law. But in 2013, Mexico’s constitutional and legislative reform of the telecommunications and broadcast sectors authorized radio licenses for commercial, public, private, and social use—opening a path to legality for such stations.

We’re going to keep trying to make the radio a motor that moves authorities to action, so that they respect citizens and human rights.

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While some community stations have gained access to the airwaves, however, many experts say reforms have largely failed to foster significant competition in the radio sector. The existence of community radio stations also still remains uncertain. “There’s a lot left to do so that there’s more plurality,” says Gabriel Sosa, a professor of media studies at Metropolitan Autonomous University in Xochimilco.

In the Mexican radio market, an estimated 70 percent of privately operated radio stations are still owned by roughly 10 media conglomerates, such as Grupo ACIR and Grupo Radiorama, and many are still said to be hostile against community stations that require space on the radio spectrum. “People thought it would bring about a very noticeable change in Mexico once it took effect,” adds Alma Rosa Alva de la Selva, a political science professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, about the law. “But in terms of radio structure, it’s still concentrated.”

An unenforced part of the 2014 Telecommunications and Broadcasting Law, which requires officials to give one percent of federal funds spent on advertising to community radio stations, along with an application process less accessible to indigenous communities, are also cited as difficulties.

“Most communities must go to [Mexico City] to request information directly from the IFT, since there are no offices in the interior of the country. For areas that are farther away, that means spending on the trip, investing in bus or plane tickets, and making a journey of hours or even days,” wrote the Mexico branch of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters in a 2014 report, parts of which still hold true.

In a phone interview, Rafael Eslava, head of concessions at telecommunications regulator IFT, says that overhauling the broadcasting sector and upping the number of legal community radio stations takes time. “It’s been complex, as much for the applicants as for the regulator, to understand what the law requires us to do in terms of community radio concessions.”

While hundreds of such stations are legally recognized in Latin American countries such as Brazil and Argentina, about three dozen are currently legal in Mexico. But Eslava expects more stations to gain permission in coming months. He notes about 70 community stations currently in the process of applying for radio concessions, none of which are required to pay the roughly 7,000 pesos ($378) in fees normally required.

He also notes that the regulator recently had its first open bidding process in 20 years for commercial radio station frequencies, and he points to a forum with indigenous and community radio stations held in August as signs that reforms are underway. “We’re overhauling an old system,” he says. “Our law has mechanisms that permit us to diversify the nature and use of radio concessions.”

Indalecio Benitez, who runs Radio Calentana in the city of Luvianos in the central state of Mexico, agrees that there have been improvements. “There is more certainty, more trust,” he says. “Before it was a scary situation.”

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In the past, Radio Calentana, which shoots signals to an antenna attached to a 100-foot tower, has broadcast programs related to crop yields, family relationships, and local corruption, among other topics. But it has also found itself vulnerable to organized crime and government authorities.

In 2014, Benitez’s son was shot and killed in an attack on the station, forcing him to flee with the rest of his family to Mexico City. But while there, Mexican marines and IFT officials confiscated the computers, microphones, and transmission equipment of the community radio station and shut it down. “It was like they were looking for El Chapo Guzman,” Benitez says of the operation, referring to Mexico’s notorious drug kingpin.

The station ultimately received an official concession in June 2016, after about three years, and will now broadcast on XHLUV/96.5 FM.

But events like the IFT forum on indigenous and community radios have also helped to create more trust, Benitez says. “We now have legal certainty, which gives us the security to work without someone closing down the radio,” he says.

He adds the station will continue broadcasting as it had even before it was granted a concession to operate. “We’re going to keep trying to make the radio a motor that moves authorities to action,” he says, “so that they respect citizens and human rights.”

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Natalie Schachar is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City.