Friday, September 7, 2012

Freedom of expression?

So, readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that the situation in Guatemala has not improved -- at least as far as the majority of the population is concerned -- under the government of Otto Pérez Molina. I don't yet have enough perspective to opine on the "big picture" but can offer some snapshots from my somewhat limited vantage point, or the vantage point of the people with whom I speak. It hasn't been good, in short. The congress has been stalled for most of the year; only 12 bills have been passed and no one seems to think that any more will be acted upon for the remainder of the year. Congressional committees and hearings are suspended frequently because there is not a quorum. Meanwhile the president and the Ministry of Mines seem to be only too eager to hand even more of the country over to mining companies. The government imposed a so-called fiscal reform, one of the effects of which has been to clamp down on civil society organizations that receive support from international sources -- especially if it seems that any of those funds are used to support political action. One of my colleagues said the government had basically said that they would oppose any organization that based itself on the provisions of the peace accords.  In the early part of this year the peasant and indigenous organizations were able to mobilize thousands of people in large and long marches across the country, but I'm not sure that level of popular mobilization is going to continue.  It also seems as though the 2015 elections have already begun. Apparently Sandra Torres, the former wife of the former president (they divorced so she could qualify as a candidate but her candidacy was thrown out), is already trying to make alliances for 2015; she was candidate for a centrist party, and she has reached out to some of the left parties.

Closer to my particular interests is the continued assault on community radio stations, and the lack of any initiative that focuses on indigenous people. The government seems determined to roll back anything that has to do with the peace accords, as I noted above, and so there has been a proposed reform of the constitution that has changed the language dealing with indigenous people. I don't have the document with me, so I will paraphrase and not quote. One proposed change is that the new document will not talk about the 24 languages but will say that Spanish is the official language and that the country ought to protect the languages of the Maya, Xinka and Garifuna -- but it doesn't accord official status to the indigenous languages. Further, it does not mention anything about indigenous peoples' rights to their own means of communication.

But more worrisome is the direct attack on community radio. The representatives from the LIDER party (which lost the presidency but has a pretty substantial bloc in congress) have introduced a bill, 4479, that criminalizes the use of the airwaves without authorization and imposes harsh prison sentences (6 to 10 years) on those who violate it.  This goes against all of the international conventions that protect indigenous communities' right to have their own media, and the Guatemalan Peace Accords, among other national and international legal conventions. It also is a slap in the face to the community radio movement, that has been fighting to gain legal status for the last several years, and that has promoted a bill that has been stalled in Congress, # 4087, that would grant legal recognition to community radio stations.

So, I spent part of my first Tuesday in Guatemala (August 21)  with my colleagues in the community radio movement talking about the current situation and how to move the agenda of the movement -which is to legalize community radio. The assessment is that the congress is not going to do anything and that working through the congress is probably not going to be terribly effective. There was a long discussion about what legal avenues to pursue, with a charge of inconstitutionality against the government. I didn't follow the discussion entirely since I haven't fully kept up with the legal actions, but much of the conversation revolved around pursuing a legal remedy, and also what political pressures ca be brought on the Congress from outside, since there does not seem to be much will inside the Congress.

So, we drafted a denunciation of the proposed law, and then I translated it into English, and sent both versions on to Cultural Survival so that they could start a letter-wrting campaign to key members of the Guatemalan congress.  Here is a link to the CS website:

On the one hand I am very admiring of the people in the movement for their steadfastness in the struggle .. but on the other hands, the odds seem to be worse. This may reflect the overall situation in Guatemala: a step up in militarization, neo-liberal policies, along with a phase of renewed social activism.

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