Criminalization of free speech and freedom of the press is 2015 Luncheon theme
180 people gathered at the 2015 CRLN Annual Luncheon to hear guest speaker Lorenzo Mateo Francisco, an indigenous Q’anjob’al radio journalist from Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Lorenzo spoke about official suppression of Guatemalan Indigenous communities’ rights to free speech and freedom of the press. He also pointed out how the Guatemalan government criminalizes leaders in the movement to provide community radio stations, which broadcast in Indigenous languages, preserving and deepening cultural ties, providing momentum for community organizing, informing people of their rights and responsibilities as citizens, and covering events that affect their communities.
Taking his own radio station, Snuq’ Jolom Konob’, as an example, Lorenzo described how volunteer announcers covered the Q’anjob’al community’s opposition to government concessions granted to a transnational power companies to build hydroelectric dams in the area without prior consent from the affected communities. Prior consent is a right granted to Indigenous communities by both the United Nations Charter on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and by International Labor Organization’s Convention 169. Radio was crucial in educating people about the scale of the projects, the likely effects on the communities, and publicizing the protests organized to oppose the dams.
However, on January 19, 2015, the the mayor of Santa Eulalia and his supporters gathered outside the radio station and violently attacked members of the journalism team as they tried to enter the building, injuring several people. They cut off electricity to the station and closed it for its role in publicizing the protests. The mayor also brought false criminal charges against several members of the radio station, who languish in jail awaiting a trial that keeps getting postponed. The government is abusing the justice system to sideline and silence journalists.
The 1996 Peace Accords between the Guatemalan government and those who were fighting against it in the 36-year Guatemalan civil conflict contained a provision to legalize the establishment of community radio stations so that all Indigenous communities would have access to a radio channel broadcast in their own language. However, the government did not honor this agreement and instead passed a law granting almost automatic renewal of licenses to commercial radio stations already in existence, functionally restricting the amount of bandwidth available to community radio stations.
Bill 4087, which would provide for equitable distribution of radio bandwidth among commercial and community-based public radio stations, sits in the Guatemalan Congress, but it is not currently moving. Those attending the CRLN Luncheon were asked to sign petitions to the U.S. Embassy, asking them to urge the Guatemalan government to back the bill and honor their commitment made in the Peace Accords. The petitions will be delivered personally to the U.S. Embassy by Martha Pierce and those traveling with the CRLN delegation to Guatemala in January.
In the meantime, Snuq’ Jolom Konob’ has moved to an online reporting format, since they are still prevented from entering their radio station and using its broadcast equipment. While many local people do not have access to the internet, Lorenzo has found a new audiences on the internet—Q’anjob’al migrant communities living in the U.S. Snuq’ Jolom Konob’ is now playing an important role in cultural preservation among those who have had to leave their homes to try to make a living in another country.
There is hope that Lorenzo and his team of journalists will be able to reclaim their radio station in January. In the November elections, the people voted out the mayor who closed the station and elected a mayor who ran on the promise of reopening it. The journalism team is concerned that their equipment may have been damaged by being shut up in a room during the hot and humid season.
CRLN staff always take up a collection at the Luncheon to be divided 50/50 between the human rights work of CRLN and the work of the organization represented by the Luncheon speaker. In an amazing surprise this year, an anonymous donor offered to match funds donated up to $5,000. To date, CRLN has collected $4,750 in payments and pledges toward this goal. If you can help push that number up to the full $5,000 of the match challenge, please send a check to CRLN, 4750 N. Sheridan Rd., Suite 429, Chicago, IL 60640-5078.