Chile’s community radio law didn’t even pass the “purity test.” After years of work, radio stations have received a result that leaves them in the same conditions as before. This is a promise that sounds like failure.
Raúl Rodríguez* / Chile, June 2014
Nearly seven years after Chile’s Congress received the community and citizen radio bill and four years after the law was passed without the regulation in full execution, community radios have declared that they are in a state of alert regarding a process that they describe as arbitrary and discriminatory against the social sector.
Even President Bachelet, who is in her second term (2014-2018), promised to “open up opportunities for coverage of community radios, which could even have regional reach, thus ending limits on levels” at the launch of the bill in late 2007.
However, according to the National Association of Community and Citizen Radio Stations of Chile (ANARCICH), nearly 70% of the community radio stations (160 out of 232) that submitted applications for expanded coverage under the new law were rejected. This forced them to remain at the same level they were at prior to the passage of Law 20.433, that is, with 1 watt and a 6-meter tall antenna, rather than 25 watts and an 18-meter antenna, among other dispositions.
The radio stations had just ten days to respond to the comments issued by the Office of the Undersecretary of Telecommunications (Subtel), which forms part of the Ministry of Transportation and Telecommunications. Subtel took two years to assess the proposals to migrate to the new segment that was assigned (105.1 to 107.9 FM depending on the area of service), which were submitted on November 15, 2012. Finally, after a meeting between ANARCICH and Undersecretary Pedro Huichalaf, the parties agreed to create a technical group, grant a 20-day extension for presenting responses, and conduct a study of the feasibility of adjusting the available frequencies.
As such, while at the time it looked like an opportunity to correct past mistakes and move towards greater democratization of communications in our country –despite the criticism of the project expressed by AMARC Chile and the AMARC ALC project and the legislation that noted that there should not be “prior or arbitrary limitations of coverage, power or quality of broadcasts”- in practice this law became a new barrier to the development of non-commercial media. Note that commercial media hold 90% of the radio frequencies in Chile, with clear signs of oligopoly concentration.
Despite the recommendations of the rapporteurs of freedom of expression of the OAS and the UN, which issued alerts on the concentration of the media, persecution of community radio stations, and the situation of media workers in the context of social conflicts since 2011 in their annual reports, both the “new” center-left governing coalition known as the New Majority and previous administrations have avoided the discussion of a new media law that would ensure access and representation of all social sectors in the handling of frequencies with and without the intention of generating profit.
In fact, in its recent 2013 Report, the Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the OAS warned about the improperness of criminal sanctions against unlicensed community radio stations and the latest procedures to eliminate them in Chilean legislation. The authors state that “the government is required to establish a regulatory framework that promotes free, open, plural and uninhibited discussion. The private media must have guarantees for adequate operation and should not be treated in a discriminatory manner. In this sense, community media should be protected by the State, as many of them express the positions of excluded communities and social groups which are often absent from public debate and whose inclusion is an imperative for all democratic governments.” (Our translation.
While a new media law or a three thirds law that would grant up to 33% of the spectrum to the public, commercial and social sectors under equal conditions is not even on the political horizon of President Bachelet’s new administration, government spokesman Álvaro Elizalde identified three major challenges at the inauguration of the Andean Subregional Conversation organized by the Carter Center Americas Program and held at the Fiedrich Ebert Foundation in Santiago. These are: to strengthen freedom of expression in Chile, to achieve greater “editorial” diversity in the media and to ensure better distribution of government media presence, as 70% is concentrated in the Chilean press duopoly El Mercurio and Copesa due to the priorities of some ministries.
Though the direction may be an auspicious one, the 180% turn that the government proposes does not only come up against this breakdown resulting from the Community Radio Law. It also runs contrary to various touchstones, which has been the way the Chilean government has understood and related to the social media since the return to democracy. Partial communications laws have been implemented since 1990, such as the 1992 TVN law, the 2010 community radio station laws and the 2013 digital TV law. None of them has fully addressed the concerns of the media system. This system suffers from a lack of democratic space, scant regulations –including questioning the coverage-, insufficient public funding for developing the social and local sectors, and doubts regarding the entry of radio into the digital sphere, among other issues.
For now, the promise of a law for developing and promoting community radio works against the effort to democratize the dial with a freeze that fails to meet international standards, expectations and the meaning of the law of granting a space for the development of radio experiences for the social world.
The spectrum study was not conducted in order to ensure that the promise of up to 25 watts was kept. Though it would be far from matching the commercial sector, this would at least have allowed for greater reach. There is also no word on when the processes to assign community radio frequencies would begin or whether there will be space available for the entry of new stakeholders or civil society organizations. This is another promise that cannot be kept and that the technical group formed by ANARCICH and Subtel will have to address.
*Raúl Rodríguez is a journalist, faculty member at Universidad de Chile, researcher with the Freedom of Expression and Citizenship program, and representative of AMARC Chile.