Community radio is a voice for the poor | #mediadev | DW | 01.08.2016
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Community radio is a voice for the poor

Find out how a woman who suffered domestic violence in Guatemala uses media to inform herself about her rights and share this information with others, as part of #mediadev's international series on people using media.

At six o’clock in the morning, Sandra Gómez switches on the stereo perched on top of her refrigerator. She tunes into Radio Qawinaqel, a community radio station in the rural town of Palín where she lives, some 40 kilometers from Guatemala City.

Sandra listens as she prepares breakfast for her two daughters and three grandchildren who live with her. She likes Radio Qawinaqel, which broadcasts in both Spanish and the indigenous Mayan language of Poqomam, because of its mix of local information and entertainment.

She loves hearing marimba music (music played on a traditional Guatemalan percussion instrument that looks like a xylophone) and finding out about local cultural activities. Despite only having attended elementary school, Sandra also regularly listens to a show analyzing the political, economic and social problems of Palín.

Sandra says her family trust the information they hear on Radio Qawinaqel, which was originally founded to promote the indigenous Poqomam Mayan culture. "[The reporters] investigate and go directly to the people who are part of the news; we can hear the voices of the interviewees," the 46-year-old says.

Lack of local independent news

It's a different story with the five other radio stations in Palín, says Sandra. None of the stations (three are commercial, one is government-run and one is a religious station) showcases the residents’ complaints and problems, or investigates corruption.

"They need to have a good relationship with the mayor and therefore don't investigate him because he generates a lot of money through publicity, money that should be invested in the needs of the people," says Sandra, referring to the common practice in Guatemala of journalists’ being paid by individuals or organizations to report on events. Journalists who report critically are subsequently not invited to cover an event, losing a source of income.

Apart from Radio Qawinaqel, it's difficult to find trustworthy sources of local news about Palín, explains Sandra. The monthly magazine "El Chiltepe" covers local stories but it's written by people from Palín who no longer live in the village and often contains "falsehoods", she says.

"Those who write the magazine rely on what they are told by other neighbors that live here as they are not there to check it and they do not review if the information is correct."

Internet is out of reach

Once her daughters have headed to work and grandchildren to school, Sandra crosses the street to sell mango, pineapple and oranges from a stand opposite her house. The 46-year-old used to hawk magazines and other products door-to-door but six years ago, she hurt her leg in an accident and can no longer walk longer distances.

Sandra currently earns 30-50 quetzal ($4-7) a day. Despite only ever having worked informally, Sandra managed to educate her five daughters. They are now teachers and secretaries and help with the monthly expenses.

But money is still tight. Sandra doesn't use the Internet at all because she can't afford it. The radio is her primary, though not her only, source of information.

Knowing about women's rights

Sandra also reads the feminist newspaper "La Cuerda", a monthly publication covering topics such as sexual and reproductive rights, political participation of women, equality and recognition of diversity.

Knowing about such issues is important for Sandra, whose life has been scarred by domestic violence. Her father was an alcoholic who hit her mother until, Sandra says, she was "purple and green from the beatings he gave her."

When Sandra was 14, she fell pregnant to a man 10 years older. She moved in with him only to discover that he too was violent. She had five children with him, but when he tried to strike one of them, Sandra decided to stop the cycle of physical abuse and left him.

The women's association that publishes "La Cuerda" gives Sandra 25 free copies every month to distribute to women attending a women's school Sandra founded. The school provides training to strengthen gender equality and women's political and organizational abilities.

Sandra is also active in promoting gender equality and awareness of domestic violence through another organization she co-founded, Jawal Tinimit (which means Spirits of the People in Poqomam). The apolitical organization works on social, cultural and environmental matters affecting the local population.

Poor need a voice

Sandra believes that it's important to be informed about the local and national situation in the country and to monitor those who govern Guatemala, because corruption affects the poorest people.

"How many hospitals have no medicine? And who pays the consequences of what the authorities have stolen? We, the poor," says Sandra.

She thinks that strengthening alternative media such as Radio Qawinaqel and expanding their coverage is essential, as is allowing radio to become a space where different parts of society can have a say.

The Guatemalan telecommunications law only foresees commercial and state radio stations. Radio frequencies are auctioned off to the highest bidder, which means that even non-profit stations have to find the funding to buy a frequency.

This forces many community stations to operate illegally, without a license – they then face the threat of being shut down. In other cases, community stations have bought a frequency – an expensive undertaking for what are usually volunteer-run organizations.

When it was founded in 1997, Radio Qawinaqel, for example, paid around $27,000 for the frequency and took ten years to pay off the debt.

Sandra sighs as she hands an orange from her stand to her five-year-old granddaughter. "The media in Guatemala operate like this – they work in favor of those with money."

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