Mexico’s Indigenous Radio Bill: Trojan Horse or Public Service?

A teenager operates the sound board controls of a low-power indigenous radio station in Mexico's Yucatan.

by Rick Rockwell

Earlier this month, Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies passed new legislation, which will open up more of the country’s radio spectrum to indigenous voices.  But like many pieces of legislation in many countries, the main purpose behind the bill might mask the real reason it passed.  Sometimes the key details are buried in the legalese.

Mexico actually has a long history of using radio for education and literacy in indigenous areas, dating back at least to the 1930s.  During that era, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, by its Spanish acronym) was interested in a populist and leftist agenda of land reform, expropriating properties from U.S. oil firms, and income redistribution.  Using radio to create a national identity and further the reaches of the all-powerful party were part of the PRI’s goals and those goals included outreach to indigenous areas.  In the 1980s, the Mexican government reorganized such outreach and linked together a network of indigenous radio stations.  Today, the country has a network of 20 indigenous stations, and four low-power operations for indigenous youth, spread out across 15 of Mexico’s 31 states.  This network of stations broadcasts in 31 indigenous languages.

But that is not enough.  Indigenous communities have asked for more resources to reflect the needs of their small towns and villages, especially in southern Mexico, which has a high percentage of the country’s indigenous population.

Indeed, in the indigenous south, radio stations in the semi-autonomous Zapatista zone operate without permission from Mexico’s central government.  Those stations look more toward Zapatista authorities, who are leaders in the indigenous communities in the state of Chiapas.  Indigenous activists also say the Mexican government’s stations don’t really answer to the indigenous communities, instead broadcasting in a paternalistic way with a bureaucratic vision of what indigenous communities should hear instead of integrating the views and needs of their listeners in heavier ways into the programming.

Just as in Guatemala, (for more, please see “Mayan Radio in Guatemala: Fighting for Identity”) indigenous communities have set up their own illegal pirate stations as a means of expression.  Mexican troops shut down two such stations in the state of Michoacan in 2009.  Perhaps the most famous of the pirate stations is Radio Ñomndaa in Xochistlahuaca in the state of Guerrero, which has operated for seven years and broadcasts a leftwing political philosophy.  Blogs have relayed reports from the station that Mexican troops were sent to close the operation last year, but were unsuccessful in locating the station or transmitter.  As Guerrero is a state where the government in Mexico City has long had trouble exerting control, this story is not as unbelievable as it might sound.

So it is not without need that the Chamber of Deputies drafted a bill to make it easier for indigenous communities to develop their own radio stations, unaffiliated with the government network.

However, the bill, pushed by the PRI-dominated lower chamber of Mexico’s Congress also contains provisions that look like gifts to the pro-PRI television duopoly that rules Mexico’s airwaves, Televisa and TV Azteca.  Loopholes in the new law would give the television networks the ability to run ads during the official dates for the presidential campaign.  A presidential election campaign is underway in Mexico with the PRI’s candidate Enrique Peña Nieto already far ahead (almost 20 percentage points) in the polls.  Mexico’s current electoral laws, drawn up by President Felipe Calderon’s party (the National Action Party, PAN by its Spanish acronym) place restrictions on advertisements and campaigning on television and the internet during campaign season.  (No over-saturated political TV atmosphere for advertising in Mexico, unlike the days when the PRI dominated politics.  What would the Super PACs in the U.S. do in such a political climate?)

Mexico’s indigenous radio bill is moving forward but it likely has little chance of passage in the PAN-dominated Mexican Senate.  And although many criticize President Calderon as inept, he likely has read the fine print in this bill and knows it should be vetoed.

So the indigenous radio bill is dead on arrival thanks to the poison pill inserted amidst its good intentions to allow communities to acquire a public service tool in the form of a radio station.  And this means indigenous communities are left waiting, watching and hoping the next effort to lend them a hand is not so obviously part of a disingenuous political ploy.

(The photo is from Mexico’s National Commission for the Development of Indigenous People, CDI by its Spanish acronym, and is in the public domain.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
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