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Open-source software offers Latin American community radios a new tool for exercising their right to freedom of expression, says journalist Santiago García Gago. He has been working with local radios for decades.
Open-source software and freedom of expression - what's the connection?
In Latin America, radio plays an important role in allowing people to exercise their right to free expression. This is especially true for socially disadvantaged groups, such as indigenous populations and those living in rural areas. Community radios previously had difficulties accessing radio technologies, especially broadcasting licenses. The Internet, however, offers them a digital alternative for broadcasting their programs. Still, license fees for using commercial software are expensive, and as a result, the voices of civil society, farmers and indigenous people aren't being heard.
What is the situation for media in Latin America?
If we look at Guatemala, for example, 25 percent of the radio stations there are in the hands of a single businessman, Ángel González. He decides on which information gets broadcast, and it's said that he also determines who becomes president. It's more or less the same in other Latin American countries, as well. What's happening in Guatemala shows just how important it is for media landscapes to become more democratic and to give local and indigenous radio stations a voice.
How can open-source software help make the process more democratic?
There are many cases in Ecuador and elsewhere, where community radios have been silenced because they were seen as too critical. Officials, for example, often cite "copyright infringements" as reasons for closing Twitter accounts. In Chile and Colombia, critical local stations are often shut down for ostensibly using "pirated content". But that argument doesn't hold if stations are using open-source software. There's also the issue of data protection.
Practicing presentation skills. DW Akademie trained local staff from various community stations in Bolivia
How does open-source software help with data protection?
Journalists, just like civil society, have to be aware of how commercial software uses their data. Edward Snowdon showed us that proprietary software often has backdoors for registering and passing on our data. Open-source software allows you to bypass large technology companies, and this reduces the chances of being spied on.
How does your organization, Radialistas Apasionadas y Apasionados, support the use of open-source software?
One of our goals is to raise awareness. Many people are skeptical about open-source because they think it's the same as hacking - but it isn't. We've also created a network for community radios and open-source software. We produce educational videos, offer workshops and organize conferences like the one that just took place in Ecuador. This was the second Latin American meeting with the motto "Open Source Software = Security + Freedom", and almost 80 community radios took part. For three days we discussed the opportunities and challenges of open-source, and in workshops showed the practical applications of open-source software to community radios.
What kind of problems do you encounter in your work?
One is that open-source software isn't always compatible with commercial software; another is that much of the open-source software is programmed by individuals, usually in their spare time. Our aim is to create a pool of programmers so that the programs can evolve and be improved.
How would Latin America's media landscape benefit if all community radios used open-source software?
Community radios don't only have to stand up to big media companies, but to the lobby of big technology firms, as well. If open-source software gained broader acceptance, it would weaken the influence of large technology companies, and would force the media sector and politicians to discuss how to apply, equally, the right to freedom of expression.
Santiago García Gago was born in Spain. Prior to joining the non-governmental organization (NGO) Radialistas Apasionadas y Apasionados in Ecuador, he worked for five years as a journalist and audio technician for a community radio station in the Amazon rainforest in Venezuela. The NGO has, among other projects, created a portal called Radioteca.net for Latin American radio stations to exchange audio material. For more than eight years, García Gargo and the NGO have been promoting the use of open-source software by local radios in Latin America. Santiago García Gargo was a speaker and workshop leader at the second meeting of open-source community radios in Quito, Ecuador, and co-organized by DW Akademie.