LA PLATA, Argentina

Community radio played a crucial role in the aftermath of Chile’s devastating earthquake last February, a noted broadcaster said last week.

“Communications collapsed in Chile, but radio stations in general continued to operate, and community broadcasters in particular played a social role bringing services to people affected by the quake, and trying to re-establish dialogue in a fragmented society,” said Perla Wilson of Radio Tierra in Chile at the 10th World Assembly of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) here Nov. 8-13.

This is the first time the AMARC gathering has been held in South America.

“Community radio stations in Haiti play an indispensable role during catastrophes, and so do women, who can identify the most urgent needs of families during the reconstruction of the country,” said Marie Justine Gurlein of Radio Refraka in Haiti. She was discussing her experiences at a round table that brought together women radio reporters working in situations of conflict and emergency.  

AMARC has more than 4,000 member stations and is represented on every continent. Some 400 community broadcasters from 110 countries participated in the 10th world assembly, whose theme was bolstering the effectiveness of community radio stations to help achieve greater social justice.

In workshops, seminars, round tables, teleconferences, videos and assemblies, the participants are discussing how to contribute to reducing inequality, fighting climate change, and strengthening disaster prevention and preparedness.

Referring to the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the Haitian capital and claimed at least 250,000 lives, and to the more recent effects of hurricane Tomas and a cholera epidemic, Gurlein stressed that “women have a key role to play in keeping families together in these conflictive situations.”

To improve the way they operate, she said, community stations in Haiti should share their experiences and know-how with broadcasters in other countries of the developing South.

Community broadcasters in Haiti also need more training on gender issues, and should learn Spanish “to work better in the region,” she said in French.

Other women from community stations working in complex situations also took part in the round table. Suyapa Banegas of Radio Marcala in Honduras described her experiences during the June 2009 coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya.

“We suffered repression, persecution and threats of closure by the army,” she said.

Radio Marcala, which has helped bring women visibility in Honduras, broadcasts from the town of Marcala, 110 miles west of Tegucigalpa in a region inhabited by the Lenca indigenous people.
Banegas is the director of programming for the radio station, which is on the air from 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

“In the face of so much inequality, you feel the need to change things, but without resources, the only way is through a media outlet,” she said.

The problem is that in Honduras, like in other countries of Central America, broadcasting frequencies are assigned by auction. “Whoever pays the most, gets the airspace,” she complained. “Inequality is strongly marked even in the distribution of frequencies.”

But the group of local women managed to get a license to operate. The broadcaster is registered as a commercial station even though its aim is not to turn a profit, but to give a voice to the voiceless.

Banegas and her fellow activists and colleagues have put on the public agenda issues like women’s access to land, which has traditionally been limited, and women's sexual and reproductive rights.

Women from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mozambique, Nepal, the Philippines and Uganda also discussed the situation in their communities.

Benilde Nhalevilo of Radio Forcom in Mozambique described the still-lingering effects of the country’s 1977-1995 civil war on women.

“Community radio stations have a responsibility to draw the government’s attention to the problems of women,” Nhalevilo said.

Wilson  Radio Tierra in Chile told about the role in emergencies played by stations like her own in Chile, which she said was the first feminist station in Latin America. It emerged at the end of the country’s 1973-1990 dictatorship, as the brainchild of La Morada, an NGO dedicated to improving the lives of low-income women in Chile.

The station provided women with a space for participation during the transition to democracy, and has generated debate and raised awareness on issues like gender violence and sexuality. It has also given a voice to other marginalized groups.

Radio Tierra aired, for example, the first program by a homosexual minority in Chile, and the first produced by the country’s Mapuche Indians in their own language.

After Chile was struck by a massive earthquake on Feb. 27, followed by a tsunami, Radio Tierra went back on the air despite the damages suffered, as did many other community broadcasters that are still waiting for the same formal recognition that commercial stations already enjoy.

Wilson also pointed out that while TV stations basically just showed what had happened through repetitive images, community radio stations, even with their extremely precarious resources, put themselves at the service of people affected by the quake.