Mayan Radio in Guatemala: Fighting for Identity

A Mayan woman walks with her child in Guatemala.

by Jeff Hutter
Special to Sutradhar’s Market

Access to information and media is particularly challenging for Guatemalan citizens. The country’s topography and infrastructure preclude the distribution of newspapers to areas outside of Guatemala City. The country’s high illiteracy rate compounds the problems for dissemination of information to rural communities, as a majority of the country’s population are indigenous people speaking one of the 21 Mayan dialects. Local indigenous radio in rural areas thus serves as one of the only effective means to distribute information from the capital to these communities. The flow of information from urban centers to rural communities is vital for the strengthening and preserving democratic institutions. Without access to information, these, mostly indigenous, communities are not privy to the goings on of the country and consequently lack the knowledge requisite to monitoring the actions of elected officials. Media’s dissemination of information also is necessary in order to understand the platforms of candidates seeking office as well as the policies and actions of present elected officials. Monitoring the government ensures that officials are accountable for their actions and dutifully seek to protect the rights and interests of their constituents. It is important to note that for populations that rely on communication in their indigenous language, community media also play a role in rural development and cultural preservation. But, for the scope of this piece I will focus on analyzing the role of information flows and media broadcast in indigenous languages and democracy in Guatemala.

Before addressing the implications of rural communities’ access to information in a democratic system, it is necessary to first determine how media and democracy are related.  Modern democracy and mass media are intrinsically related as radio, television, and newspapers link those who govern with those who are governed.

Josef Trappel and Tanja Maniglio write: “Political ideas and initiatives, in turn, are disseminated among citizens by the mass media and individual opinion formation and voting are largely based on political information provided by mass media.”

The free flow of information also requires consumers to have access to different sources of information. Access to multiple sources allows citizens to consider the ideas of the current regime as well as those of opposition voices. This is especially important in making elected officials accountable for their decisions. “The lack of information on government policies, programmes, schemes, benefits, and deliveries makes corrupt practices thrive,” S. K. Tiwari writes.

For burgeoning democracies, especially those recovering from years of political instability, awareness of government action is critical to preventing authoritarian or dictatorial rule. For minorities and the poor this is particularly important, as they are typically excluded from the direct decision-making process that is left to wealthy elites. Democratic development requires that marginalized populations be provided access to relevant information so that they can form their own decisions about officials and the direction of their countries and communities.   The dissemination of relevant information in Guatemala is particularly challenging as a result of ethno-linguistic and topographic obstacles that render many communities dependent on radio and village leaders.

Guatemala’s diversity of dialect, high illiteracy rate, turbulent history, and allocation of bandwidth contribute to the difficulties facing communication and participation in democracy for rural indigenous communities. With indigenous people comprising two-thirds of the population, a more than 30 percent illiteracy rate, and a variety of spoken dialects, it is clear that radio serves as the ideal medium for a majority of Guatemalans.   This does not even take into consideration the problems the country’s poor infrastructure and terrain create for transportation of physical forms of communication from nodes in urban centers to outlying rural regions.

As Marvin Alisky notes, “For many Guatemalans, radio becomes the only link with the outside world.”   Possessing adequate equipment to listen to radio broadcasts is also a problem.  In many cases, rural communities rely on a village leader for information as he owns a radio, hears a newscast from Guatemala City, and shares the information with others.  As a result, information is refracted and reflected and is at the mercy of multiple gatekeepers that can potentially adulterate that information.  The adulteration of information through various gatekeepers precludes the free access of information requisite to functioning democracies. Reliance on communication that is transmitted and repackaged from the original source detracts from a citizen’s ability to act as what Trappel and Maniglio call a “watchdog against the abuse of power.”

The indigenous communities’ dependence on radio as the primary medium for information necessitates programming in Mayan languages. The 21 different dialects spoken by the indigenous populations exacerbate the difficulties of providing comprehensive information flows. Development of Mayan language programming has gradually developed since the early 1990s as the country’s civil war drew to a close. “During Guatemala’s bloody 36-year (1960-1996) Civil War, illegal community radio outlets were the only providers of critical and otherwise inaccessible information on the armed conflict and resulting peace process, functioning as a subversive resistance against the government,” writes Sanjay Jolly.  The 1996 Peace Accords included a clause that allowed for the indigenous population to operate community radio stations. Despite the government’s assurance that such stations would be created, bandwidth allocation has become a source of contention.  Purchasing a frequency license is expensive and most likely not a reality for most Mayan broadcasters.

It can be argued that lingering racism or classism plays a role in the allocation of frequencies to broadcasters. Rick Rockwell and Noreene Janus write: “Broadcast spectrums are increasingly closed to alternative voices… and media chains… reinforce the power of the country’s longtime business families or represent outside forces in collusion with the Guatemalan government and the military.” Regardless of the intentions or reasons, the fact remains that despite growing popularity, Mayan language broadcasts are forced to operate illegally by pirating already occupied frequencies. Indigenous rights to community broadcast have not been pursued in domestic law as Guatemala’s Congress has resisted action.   Many politicians rely on support from media conglomerates for funding and ad space to campaign for election. Thus, reallocating space to community broadcast or creating competition for existing outlets would be detrimental to the ruling party.   The precarious relationship between politicians and the media elite in Guatemala demonstrates not only a media-democracy relationship gone afoul, but also necessitates the creation and broadcast of opposition voices.

Essentially, in a fragile democracy, additional media are necessary to counteract the negative affects of entrenched traditional media. One way of doing so is for excluded populations to harness control of information structures themselves to create broadcast opportunities to support their interests. In Guatemala, indigenous populations have grown restless waiting for public-funded stations or allocation of bandwidth and have developed a network of pirate radio stations broadcast in the mountainous regions of the country.  Pirate radio stations broadcasting in one of the various Mayan dialects continue to operate under the constant threat of being discovered and shutdown, with operators facing fines and jail time. But, their existence is vital to ensuring that indigenous communities have the means of accessing relevant information in politics as well as cultural interests aimed at educating and informing communities.

In a country like Guatemala, where a majority of the population lives in rural areas, cannot read or write, and functions mostly in a different dialect, mass communication is difficult. These factors render written forms of communication ineffective. Thus, radio becomes, in many cases, the sole source of information flows from urban centers and the capital. Accessing such information directly is also challenging for communities that do not understand Spanish language broadcasts. These factors demonstrate the importance of community radio broadcast for dissemination of relevant information. Access to information is vital for a thriving democracy, especially in a country like Guatemala that has suffered from decades of war. Providing outlets for voices of opposition and media coverage of government initiatives ensure the functioning of true democracy. The failure to provide access to the means of communication for poor and minority communities is a failure of democracy, especially when these needs are neglected in favor of measures that benefit political and business elites. In Guatemala, political instability and ownership of media by a few families has generated conditions conducive for the development of a precarious relationship between elected officials and media conglomerates. Pursuits of communication policies that favor the business elite, such as allocation of frequency licenses to media conglomerates, inhibit the development of community broadcasting in rural areas. In a democracy, granting fair access to a finite resource, like the electromagnetic spectrum, requires consideration of the cultural and entho-linguistic needs of an entire population. Without fair access to the means of disseminating information and creating outlets for broadcast of a diversity of opinion, the Guatemalan government places its fragile democracy in jeopardy by marginalizing its indigenous population. However, it is important to consider Guatemala’s history from colony to independence to civil war. Its turbulent history has influenced the development of its media system and the relationship between this system and its government. In newly independent countries or countries recovering from political conflict, control of media and information is utilized as a means to control dissent and maintain stability. While the Guatemalan media system and its relationship with the government may be rationalized in a historic context, the preservation of democracy requires elected officials to reexamine communication policy and consider the implications of obstructing indigenous peoples’ rights to access information and establish media in their own language.

(The photo is by Robert Crum of Portland, Oregon via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.  To see a video about the pirate indigenous radio outlet Radio Ixchel, please check below.)

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