Free media: issues, challenges and proposals

Violence and criminalization against community media, their impact on freedom of expression and the constant political challenges of the sector

, by AMARC International , HAMMOE Sofia

In this article we present an overview of the community media landscape in Brazil, and the violence and criminalization that is being directed towards it. First of all, it should be said that there is no structural crisis in the community radio sector.

The pressure on community radio broadcasters drive them to create “ways out”, seeking new types of action and different ways of operating in order to remain socially and politically relevant in the communities where they are present.

The movement’s structural changes have been developed out of their daily praxis; i.e., in a context where their ways of operating clash with reality and require appropriate strategies to deal with new social, political, economic and technological challenges to avoid potential historical annihilation. Community radio is in no way extinct; it is an active, alive part of communities, and comes in many different forms, so that it sometimes appears that it is not community radio at all. We must trust that these transformations are an appropriate response to a rapidly changing reality.

These changes have occurred in a context of various forms of constraints, violence and criminalization in Brazil, as well as in the rest of Latin America, in the Caribbean and other regions around the world.

One type of violence is the legal organizational model, which community radio stations must conform to: their scope (the requirement to be low-power radio stations), their content (requirement of proven educational content), their management and governance model (community radio stations have to get approval from a community council), as well as limitations regarding the number of existing radio outlets in a certain area. These are the main constraints imposed on community radio outlets in Brazil.

In the licensing process, certain community radio models prevail over others, as negotiations with other sectors of society take place, either due to the political strength of its proponents or because certain legal frameworks are better than others. In some cases, the legislation may prevent different models from being established. There are rare cases of complex and comprehensive laws such as in Canada, where there are four types (and subtypes) of licenses and access to all bands is possible. There is also the possibility of temporary licenses and different forms of funding, including access to public funds.

In most countries, the governance and legal models have to be accepted by and justified for society as a whole. This leads to serious constraints on the autonomy of community radio stations: communication rights are only granted as long as the radio station in question has a so-called socially-acceptable purpose.

The mechanism that dictates how communication rights should be enforced with regards to community broadcasting is based on a utilitarian and moralistic approach, which is fueled by an elitist and discriminatory view of the people who implement it. Taken for second-class citizens due to their social status, those who claim a share of the disputed electromagnetic space are only granted it when they can prove it is for a justifiable and unsuspicious purpose.

It becomes even more evident (as reflected in laws, methods and actions) at State level. In Brazil, the first-known sentence favorable to community broadcasting occurred in 1994, when Judge Casem Mazloum made a significant ruling in the case of Radio Reversão. Even though the ruling referred to the communications monopoly and the authoritarianism of the legal framework, it also mentioned the "low power" of a community broadcaster, created for "cultural activities”, and also states the “context of such purposes". These arguments can also be found in recent jurisprudence.

In the persecutory scope, criminalization of community broadcasting goes hand in hand with the criminalization of poverty, as evident in the regulatory agency (Anatel) reports on their “very risky” surveillance actions, illustrated with photos of riverside communities and favelas to delineate the link between illicit operations, community radio and poverty.

A summary of the presentation made by the World Community Radio Association (AMARC) Vice-President Damián Loreti at the IACHR’s 162nd session (May 2017) highlights some of the constraints and attacks on community broadcasting in the Latin American and Caribbean region:

Criminalization and persecution of community broadcasters.
Persecution and murder of journalists and human rights defenders.
The digital switchover going ahead without the input of community media or public hearings, disregarding diversity and plurality in audiovisual media.
Discriminatory and criminalizing laws that apply to the media of community, peasant and indigenous populations, mainly driven by commercial activity which doesn’t promote the inclusion of diverse sectors or a diverse and plural media system in the region.

Use of the official state advertising guide in a discretionary manner without the participation of community media, peasants or indigenous peoples.
Regulatory frameworks for broadcasting that do not encompass a human rights perspective or incorporate standards of good practice on freedom of expression.

In Brazil, one of the most frequent complaints voiced by community radio broadcasters was the unreasonable amount of time taken for a license to be granted. As we see in Graph 1, 88% of community radios stations that took part in the survey had to wait for more than three years to obtain legal authorization to operate. In 24% of cases, this period exceeded ten years (a community radio in Bahia has been waiting for 18 years for a license).

Graph 1 – Time to obtain a license

Less than a year
Between 1 and 3 years
Between 3 and 5 years
Between 5 and 7 years
Between 7 and 10 years
10 years or more

Source : (Malerba, 2016, p. 215)

In 2014, there were about two thousand Anatel inspections to verify spectrum use, 55.5% of these inspections were due to denunciations.2 The two main reasons for Anatel inspections were technical inadequacy (51.2%) and improper use of advertising (28.5%). A small percentage of these inspections were to monitor the program content (4%), which illustrates the extent to which the Agency is distrustful, and also raises the issue that Anatel inspections are swayed by other interests.

The study illustrates the illegal way in which community radio shutdowns are happening. The majority of community radio broadcasters (60%) were shut down without legal authorization.

Table 1 – Total of non-licensed station shutdowns (2002-2015)

Source: Malerba´s analysis of Anatel reports, 2002-2015 (Malerba, 2016, p. 494)

Graph 2 – Non-licensed station shutdowns each year (2002-2015)

Source: Malerba´s analysis of Anatel reports, 2002-2015 (Malerba, 2016, p. 494)

The current chairman of AMARC, Emmannuel Boutterin, at the 11th Assembly, held in Ghana in August 2015, commented on two main changes in the community radio landscape: improvements in legislation and support on the one hand, and telecom companies’ dissatisfaction of the limited electromagnetic spectrum on the other.

Opponents of community radio outlets are no longer (only) national oligarchies, in unlikely alliances with transnational corporations: now the corporations themselves are playing a key role in the debate. In Brazil, for example, it does not seem to be a coincidence that the General Telecommunications Law (LGT) (1997) came before the community broadcasting legislation (1998) and even long before the new general communications law in Brazil. The approval of the LGT and the subsequent creation of Anatel resulted in a restructuring of the Union’s regulatory and repressive power.

In Argentina, the strategy taken by the new President Mauricio Macri was to overturn the Media Law by adopting changes regarding social media control. In the case of Uruguay, most of the lawsuits against the new Uruguayan media law (SCA) were filed by the local branch of the Spanish telephone company Telefónica. These examples show that governments are creating a legal environment that favors Telecom companies.

Legal improvements in community broadcasting – which only happen after pressure from civil society – usually fail to take into account the social challenges and technological changes of progress.

In the history of community radio’s struggle for autonomy, technological progress enabled broadcasters to expand their actions in a promising way. Through the hybridization of the media, the appropriation of multiple platforms and new forms of linkage, they act in an apparently contradictory movement: they are online at the same time as they are (re)territorialized; they can make use of sophisticated communication tools or choose technological "poverty"; they claim state grants to provide the Internet and fight for autonomy by using part of the electromagnetic spectrum. As noted previously, if we trust in the paradoxes, perhaps we can understand the new social challenges that are unfolding.

An emblematic case is the creation of Tunisian community broadcasting: satellites, webradio, TV, FTP servers, parabolic… a variety of technological adaptations and subversions has converted, for example, TV into a radio receiver and the Internet into a broadcast radio station. But before this development, long before the first signal was broadcast from Tunis-Rome-Milan-Tunis, activists fighting for freedom of expression who, out of a common desire to put an end to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s censorship, joined forces in an international and multi-platform conjunction, to bring freedom of expression back into the region.

From this point, international organizations such as AMARC and IFEX have focused on establishing communication laws in Tunisia and other Arabian countries. It should be emphasized that technological paraphernalia was not a platform, but an intermediary step. The "network" was a component of political action; the (technological) network was only one aspect of network politics which led to an orchestration in international politics. It emphasizes the power wielded by community radio stations when they take action, not only when they provide information.

We already know what political activists nowadays reject: hierarchy, sovereignty, representation and injustice. We already know how they take action: by collaborating and cooperating in an effective and timely way. We also know where this work comes from and where it goes: the greatest challenge (and also a matter of great political concern) is how to identify and build the commons –commons that enable political activists to communicate that which makes them distinctive. The engines that appropriate the commons are merely a form of negative power: they shackle and usurp it. There may be a lot that we do not know, but it can only be revealed through political action.


This text is an edited summary made by Sofia Hammoe from João Paulo Malerba’s PhD thesis. Sofia Hammoe has obtained authorization from João Paulo Malerba to reproduce parts of his thesis. Hammoe and Malerba work at AMARC.

Malerba, João Paulo. 2016. "Community Radios on the Limit: crisis in politics and dispute for the commons in the era of media convergence". PhD Thesis (Communication and Culture). School of Communication (ECO), Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Available online: