Community radio is the heart of rural communities across Guatemala and Latin America. These radios stations are spaces for the transmission of not just news, but spaces for sharing the voice of the people in their own languages, and sharing their culture. Yet community radio stations have increasingly come under assault, especially in communities that are in resistance to mega-projects in their territory.
On January 20, the indigenous radio station Snuq Jolom Konob, which means the Mind of the People in the local Q’anjob’al language, in the Guatemalan department of Huehuetenango was closed and their staff threated after supporters of the municipal mayor blocked staff from entering the station. The 50 supporters had demanded that the reporters hand over their keys, and surrender the stations equipment – the reporters refused.
“We ask the national and international community support for this outrage against our media that has violated your rights to freedom of expression of thought,” wrote radio management in a statement on Facebook.
There is little question for the leadership of the radio about where the censorship comes from.
“The mayor organized the people in the central park that blocked our access to the station,” said Lorenzo Mateo Francisco, the coordinator of radio Snuq’ Jolom Konob’. “We knew at that moment that the supporters would likely come for the members of the social movements (against the hydro and mining in the region), and they confuse us with members of the movement because we report on the movements; so we took refuge in other places to protect our families.”
The station has been an integral part in reporting on the social movement in the territory of the Q’anjob’al Maya on the northern border with Mexico. Since 2008, the communities have resisted mining interest and the construction of the Santa Cruz hydroelectric project being constructed by the Spanish construction firm Ecoener Hydro Energy in their territory.
As of writing, the station has remained off the air for 55 days.
The Impunity of Power
There was a lot for the station to report on that morning in January, as there had been several peaceful demonstrations in San Mateo Ixtatán, San Juan Ixcoy, and Barillas. The reporters had also prepared a report to denounce a violent attack that had happened early that morning near the center of Santa Eulalia that allegedly involved the municipal mayor.
The conflict began the night before in the municipal Center of the Justice Administration, after the judge ordered the release of two men that had been imprisoned by the National Police (PNC) the night before in San Mateo Ixatán.
At 4am, the Municipal mayor, his son Gomez Pedro, and several supporters opened fire on the residents of Santa Eulalia as they left the hearing at the Center of the Justice Administration in full sight of Guatemalan National Police, Prosecutors, and other residents. Two men, Pascual Basilio Pascual Diego, 17, and Armando Mateo Pascual, 38, were hit by gunfire. Pascual Diego is in critical condition in the General Hospital of Huehuetenango.
Soon after, reporters from the radio station were met by 50 alleged supporters of the mayor who had gathered in the central park and proceeded to block the journalists’ entrance to the radio station when they arrived to open the radio station.
When journalists attempted to open the station later in the day, they were met with more threats and violence. The station, which serves the northern parts of Huehuetenango and has reported on the various social movements against mining and hydroelectric projects in the region, remained closed through the day.
Many were attacked as they arrived in the center for their activities. One woman received a serious head wound.
The management of the station has expressed concerns that the supporters of the Mayor will either take or destroy the equipment of the station.
The attacks on Snuq’ Jolom Konob’ come about because of their dedication to reporting on the conflicts created by the expansion of the extractive industries within the territory of the Q’anjab’al Maya.
“We transmit to the people what has happened,” said Mateo Francisco. “This has caused much discontent with those allied with the transnational businesses in the region of (Huehuetenango).”
The mayor of the municipality of Santa Eulalia, Diego Marcos Pedro, who was elected mayor in 2012 as candidate of National United in Hope, had reportedly switched political parties, joining right-wing Lider, a party with connections to drug trafficking, and one that is generally considered to be the most likely to win the upcoming presidential elections.
The radio station has faced violent intimidation before.
“This is not the first attack by Mayor Diego Marcos Pedro against the radio station,” said Mateo Francisco. “During September 2014, he closed the access to the station, and ordered the suspension of energy to the station. He had given the order because the station had been broadcasting the meeting of community leaders, social movements, and municipal mayors about the movement against the hydroelectric project near the municipality.“
Despite the threats, Snuq Jolom Konob recently celebrated their 15th anniversary on December 28. Hundreds of community members turned out for the celebration, which featured food, music, and dancing. According to the team of broadcasters, “The goal of community radio is to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice.”
The celebration brought the deep connection between the community and radio station to front and center. Hundreds turned out for the celebration. The joyous atmosphere of the anniversary is today contrasted with the tense situation in Santa Eulalia.
The absent of the station has upset many community members; especially after a community member was found dead in Mexico. The absence of the radio station has impacted the community’s access to information.
“The communities are demanding to know what is happening,” said Mateo Francisco. “We are waiting to hear.”
Attacks on Freedom of Speech Across Guatemala
The attack on Snuq’ Jolom Konob’ is indicative of the situation journalists face in Guatemala, especially as the country enters a presidential election year.
According to a report issued by the Paris, France-based watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders on global press freedom for 2015, journalists face a worsening situation across the globe, with increased threats against their lives, especially in Central America and Mexico. The situations of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras are considered to be “critical,” and reflect the increased violence from paramilitaries, organized crime, and state repression.
Journalists in Guatemala face an uncertain future as the country enters an election year. According to data from The Guatemalan Journalist Observatory, and The Center for Informative Reports about Guatemala (CERIGUA), an organization that monitors the freedom of journalists, in 2014 there were 50 attacks on journalists in Guatemala. In January of 2015 alone, there have already been nine documented attacks on journalists.
The attack on the freedom of expression of Snuq Jolom Konob brought together the independent and alternative media, and the mainstream journalists from across Guatemala.
On Jauary 23, journalists from from Prensa Comunitaria, Center for Independent Media of Guatemala (CMI-G), la Oficiana de Prensa Para America Latina (OPAL), and other alternative journalists, as well as human rights organizations condemned the attacks and intimidation in Huehuetenango. The point at the heart of the situation is the assault on the freedom of expression in Guatemala. Journalists in Guatemala face a precarious situation.
“The situation that community radio stations currently face in Guatemala shows that the state does not comply with its obligation to respect, protect, and promote the right to liberty of expression,” the organizations wrote in a press statement. “Today is the case of Radio Snuq’ Jolom Konob’ in Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango.”
Less than two months later the situation took an even more tragic turn. On March 10, two reporters, Danilo López from the national newspaper Prensa Libre, and Federico Salazar of Radio Nuevo Mundo, were murdered in broad daylight in the central park of Mazatenango in the department of Suchitepéquez on the Pacific coast. It is unclear who is responsible for the murder of the journalists, but according to a report from the television station Guatevision, journalist Danilo López had reported threats from the mayor of San Lorenzo Suchitepéquez, José Linares Rojas.
The day following the murders on March 11, journalists, photographers, broadcast hosts, and supporters from across the media spectrum took to the streets of Guatemala City, Quetzaltenango, Santa Cruz del Quiche, and Coban to demand better protection for journalists, and justice for murdered journalists.
“I believe we are beginning a period that is very complicated,” said Ileana Alamilla, the director of the Guatemalan Journalist Observatory. “The electoral period is a period when there is an increased aggression against the press. Because we know that the relationship between the press and politicians is one that is in conflict.”