Press Release

IACHR Brings Guatemala Case before the IA Court

September 25, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - On April 3, 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court) over the case of the Maya Kaqchikel de Sumpango indigenous peoples and others, concerning Guatemala.

The case concerns the obstacles faced by four community radio stations operated by indigenous peoples in Guatemala in freely exercising their right to freedom of expression and their cultural rights. The radio stations in question are Kaqchikel Maya, Achí Maya de San Miguel Chicaj, Mam Maya de Cajolá, and Maya de Todos Santos de Cuchumatán. The obstacles are due to legal barriers to accessing radio frequencies, the discriminatory standards that regulate broadcasting, and a policy of criminalizing unauthorized radio stations in Guatemala.

In its merits reports, the IACHR deemed that the rights of indigenous people to establish community media outlets and to enjoy and exercise the right to freedom of expression through these outlets by accessing a radio frequency are protected by article 13 of the American Convention. The IACHR established that indigenous peoples in Guatemala are living in a situation of structural social inclusion, discrimination, and poverty, which is manifested in their participation and representation in the media. The IACHR noted that the General Telecommunications Law establishes the highest financial offer as being the only criterion for allocating radio frequencies and overlooks the fact that indigenous peoples lack economic resources and are not competing with commercial media for radio frequencies on equal grounds, which has generated a situation of de facto inequality. The IACHR concluded that these regulations discriminate indirectly against the four indigenous peoples included in the case while also violating their right to create their own media outlets, express ideas, and broadcast information and their cultural worldview through “any procedure of their choice.”

Likewise, the IACHR deemed that the existence of legal obstacles to accessing the radio spectrum has prevented the indigenous peoples who are the victims of the case from preserving, maintaining, and promoting their culture and indigenous languages and from broadcasting their music and traditions through community radio stations, which are essential tools for achieving these ends.

The IACHR deemed that the state has not adopted any positive differentiation measures (such as legislation, practices, or policies) to remove the barriers or obstacles that indigenous peoples face to accessing radio licenses on equal terms. Similarly, it drew attention to the lack of mechanisms to address this situation and the existence of high levels of concentration in the ownership and control of radio and television stations on the part of a small group of media companies in the region.

Finally, the IACHR observed that there is serious criminalization of the operation of community radio stations in Guatemala, even though the state’s own actions are what have prevented them from operating legally. The IACHR was of the opinion that the application of criminal concepts such as theft to sanction the use of the radio spectrum by two of the indigenous peoples involved in the case run counter to the requirements established in article 13.2 of the American Convention on the subsequent imposition of liability. Consequently, the IACHR deemed that searching and seizing property in cases such as the ones in question constituted a form of censorship and was a disproportionate violation of indigenous peoples’ right to freedom of expression.

For all of the above reasons, the IACHR concluded that the state is responsible for violating the rights to freedom of expression, equality before the law, and cultural rights to the detriment of the four indigenous peoples included in this case.
In its Merits Reports, the IACHR made the following recommendations to the state of Guatemala:

1. Legally recognize community media in domestic legislation and adopt measures to promote diversity and pluralism within the media.
2. Adopt the measures needed to regularize the status of the petitioner community radio stations that are currently operating without an appropriate regulatory framework.
3. Adopt any measures that may be needed to guarantee that indigenous peoples have effective access to radiofrequencies on equal terms, in accordance with the state of Guatemala’s international obligations regarding freedom of expression and guaranteeing the principle of equality and nondiscrimination.
4. Refrain from applying the criminal code to criminalize the operations of community radio stations run by indigenous peoples and refrain from making raids on and seizing equipment from indigenous community radio stations that are currently operating without an appropriate regulatory framework.
5. Provide comprehensive tangible and intangible redress for the human rights violations described in the report. The state should also adopt measures of economic compensation and redress for the four indigenous peoples who are the victims in this case, which should include reparation for the damage caused by raids on two of these community radio stations and for the equipment confiscated from them.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 232/20