Expanding access to information and countering information deserts: The vital pulse of radio
Americas Special Issue: Laura Vidal brings an access to information focus to her latest regional brief, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
In vast stretches beyond cities, the resonance of the radio fills a void. It offers access to information, to education, and to connection. In many parts of the world, and certainly in the Americas, radio has become more than a medium — it is a lifeline. Latin America provides a compelling testament to radio as a potent vehicle for information dissemination and education, especially in rural areas. But it is under threat.
“Not just mediums, but movements”
The omnipresence of radio in non-urban areas is no accident. Designed to reach remote corners, radio bypasses the need for internet connections, telephones, or even electricity, at times.
Indigenous community radio stations are not just mediums but movements in themselves. They champion the freedom of expression of indigenous populations, airing their concerns, triumphs, challenges, and, more critically, their plights.
Often the first to report incidents, these radio stations amplify the voices of agrarian leaders, providing perspectives on acts of violence and conflict that might otherwise remain unheard. The same is true for other local communities and groups dedicated to serving them. In some cases, radio stations are part of non-governmental organisations, functioning as their communications arm. They spread the word about services, gather reports and complaints, and connect listeners to people who can help them.
This subjects those holding the microphone — or speaking into it — to a variety of risks. For many of these communities, merely expressing themselves can be deemed illegal. Indigenous communities know this well. Recent incidents in Bolivia have shown how local indigenous radio stations can be targeted by different groups. Since August, in Bolivia, one station has complained to the National Association of Journalists (ANP) of a raid, and three more were taken off the air when their permission to use the airwaves (which in most countries in the region, belong to the State) was revoked — without much explanation.
A recent incident involving the Union of Cooperatives Tosepan, in Mexico, is another case in point. Affiliated with the Radio Tosepan Limaxktum and operator Wiki Katat, the community faced a setback when the Federal Judicial Electoral Tribunal mandated that the radio broadcast political propaganda. The community, viewing this as antithetical to their values and the radio’s indigenous social-use license, developed the campaign “ our radios our rules “ to protect their autonomy.
A relentless clampdown
Authoritarian regimes are keenly aware of radio’s influence. Efforts to mute these channels are rampant, with countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela spearheading relentless crusades against radio stations in recent years.
In a sobering testament to the waning freedoms in Venezuela, between 2003 and 2022 IFEX member Espacio Publico has counted the closing of 233 stations. In fact, 2022 saw an unprecedented shutdown of radio stations, with at least 95 taken off the air. This year continues the grim trend. From January to May, the Press and Society Institute of Venezuela (IPYS) reported on five more radio stations closed, in the regions of Portuguesa, Táchira, Anzoátegui, and Bolívar.
Two significant casualties were Radio Caracas Radio (RCR) and Éxtasis 97.7 FM. RCR, the oldest station in Venezuela, terminated its digital operations — the station had already been closed in 2019. Meanwhile, Éxtasis 97.7 FM, with nearly three decades of history, was silenced, on government orders.
The Atlas del Silencio report by IPYS Venezuela sheds light on the phenomena of “news deserts” — areas where the population lacks adequate press outlets. In a country where radio enjoys the widest reach, nearly half of the Venezuelan populace lacks assured access to local news. Táchira state leads with 28 such deserts, followed by the regions of Zulia and Sucre.
Adding another layer of concern is the timing of these closures, which tend to align with the nation’s political calendar. Venezuela gears up for its next presidential elections in 2024, and the opposition is already actively campaigning in the 2023 primaries.
Nicaragua mirrors its Venezuelan counterpart in the suppression of radio stations. Radios are either stripped of their spectrum-use concession or face closure due to the shuttering of parent organizations. A poignant example of the latter is feminist Radio Vos. Operating as part of a broader community assistance initiative, it fell victim to Daniel Ortega’s government in 2022, a year that saw at least 30 stations shut down by the regime’s directives. About half of the stations that fell under government orders were run by the Catholic church, another institution that has faced constant targeting by the government.
In an exclusive conversation with a Radio Vos source, who requested anonymity for security reasons, we delved into some of the details of the closure. Officially, the authorities justified it as a penalty for “not notifying about equipment repairs”. But our source tells of official paperwork signed under duress, while surrounded by police, and a stern warning that: “If you turn this equipment on again, you’ll be arrested.”
Since the closing of the station, the team has been struggling to continue transmitting, and they live under constant threat: “Every time I travel, my family arranges a farewell party; it’s impossible to know if or when they’ll forbid me to re-enter the country,” said the Radio Vos source.
An imperfect solution
Some broadcasters respond to the silencing of radio stations as a push towards a new frontier: the digital realm. Radio Vos and some other Venezuelan stations have transitioned online in response to forced shutdowns.
This pivot to digital is fraught with challenges.
Digital spaces aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. In many instances, the transition to online results in a substantial loss of listeners and sponsors. Online radio requires different protocols, and not all former radio listeners possess the necessary digital literacy, tools, or devices to access these broadcasts. The limitations are further amplified by inconsistent internet access, especially in regions with frequent service disruptions and slow speeds, as in Venezuela.
RCR’s journey illustrates the complexities of this shift. After being pulled off the air, RCR adopted the motto “radio you can see” and began broadcasting solely on YouTube. However, as journalist and former RCR broadcaster Nehomar Hernández shared with the LatAm Journalism Review, this digital pivot was not without its pitfalls. “A radio station that is not on the dial, either AM or primarily FM, is very challenging to sustain. By going digital, we lost a significant portion of our audience.”
The Nicaraguan source we spoke to from Radio Vos confirms these challenges: “Some stations can make the change to digital, but that is not always the case. Radio Vos did lose some of its audience when it became digital.”
Nevertheless, digital platforms remain a beacon of hope for many communicators. IPYS Venezuela has been offering training sessions for audio storytelling and recently released the second season of Radio Democracia, a compilation of “hyperlocal stories” aiming to counter the absence of media and information in remote areas. Yhoger Contreras explained that the project has benefited from productive partnerships with organisations in other countries in the region.
Contreras also highlighted that the trainings have enabled some journalists to reconnect with their work and produce interesting and relevant media pieces in a way that not only circumvents the many censorship strategies the government puts in place, but that can also be shared easily on WhatsApp, for example, where so many Venezuelans inside and outside the country have most of their online conversations.
Region in brief
- In the United States, a local newspaper “with a history of hard-hitting reporting” was raided in August this year. Katherine Jacobsen, from the Committee to Protect Journalists told The Guardian: “It’s still unclear exactly why local police felt so emboldened to conduct such a sweeping search of the town’s paper, [but] part of it of course is national rhetoric and the politicization of the media”
- Another journalist in Mexico was gunned down. Reporter Jesús Gutiérrez Vergara was killed in Sonora by a an unidentified group of armed men that also targeted a group of policemen present on the scene. Gutiérrez Vergara is the fourth journalist to be killed in Mexico this year, according to ARTICLE 19 Mexico and Central America.
- Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, along with other members of his cabinet, has been accused by the United Nations of committing crimes against humanity. According to a report prepared for the UN Human Rights Council, Venezuelan authorities are alleged to have collaborated in carrying out arbitrary executions and engaging in the systematic use of torture.