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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Wed Mar 15 06:08:39 2000
Date: Mon, 13 Mar 2000 21:38:43 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: COMMUNICATION-BRAZIL: Community Radios Fight for Legal Status
Article: 91108
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Community Radios Fight for Legal Status

By Mario Osava, IPS, 12 March 2000

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 12 (IPS) - Thousands of community radio stations in Brazil are fighting commercial stations and government agencies in a guerrilla war for radiowaves and audience share.

Around 80 percent of the underground stations have filed formal applications for legal status, in accordance with a law on community radio broadcasting in effect since February 1998.

The number of stations is estimated by the Ministry of Communications at 10,000, and at 20,000 by the Brazilian Association of Community Radios (ABRACO).

The stations are demanding legal standing in the name of democratisation of the media, the right to information and freedom of expression.

But two years after the law went into effect, the slow progress made by the Ministry of Communications in extending licences means almost all of the stations remain clandestine. Meanwhile, the government continues its crackdown, closing the stations it manages to locate, complained Emmanuel Emir, head of the Rio de Janeiro branch of ABRACO.

Last year, 2,871 pirate stations were closed down, according to official statistics from the National Telecommunications Agency, responsible for regulating and monitoring telephones and radio and television broadcasting.

But although the repression has continued with the same intensity since the law went into effect, authorities admit that most of the stations return to activity shortly after being shut down. ABRACO advises its members to turn to the courts to recover their equipment.

The Ministry of Communications, which studies the requests for legal status, has granted authorisation to around 100 community stations so far - a figure that will rise to 160 within the next few days, said ministry spokesman Eduardo Balbino. Another 300 must provide additional documents before their requests are approved.

But final authorisation for the stations to operate legally depends on approval by Congress.

Recognising the role played by community radio stations in education, services, culture and the traditions of local communities and ethnic groups, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso set the target for his government to legalise 4,000 stations by the end of its term in 2002.

But ABRACO argues that the law is too strict, limiting, for example, the broadcasting range of the stations to just one kilometre - a very short range in the case of any neighbourhood, and ridiculously short when it comes to widely dispersed ethnic or other communities, said Emir.

Moreover, the authorised 25 watt-capacity allows a station to broadcast up to a distance of eight kms, he pointed out.

The Ministry of Communications adopted regulations that further narrowed the law - in violation of its own law, charged Emir.

He mentioned the ban on commercial advertising, and added that the law stated that community radio stations must be financed by donations falling under the category of cultural support.

According to Emir, the restrictions arose in response to pressure from the owners of commercial stations, grouped in the Brazilian Association of Radio and Television Stations (ABERT) which, he said, fear more democratic competition.

Congress approved the narrow limits because many lawmakers are owners of radio and television stations, he maintained.

In the past, especially in the 1980s, the concession of broadcasting licenses to political leaders was one of the ways the government bought votes to ensure passage of government- sponsored bills in Congress.

ABERT, meanwhile, is calling for even stiffer measures against pirate stations that interfere with the broadcasting of its member stations, use a higher number of watts than permitted and sell publicity at extremely low prices.

The government has not complied with its duty to shut down all of these illegal stations, more of which pop up than are closed down, said president of ABERT, Joaquim Mendonza. The number is especially high in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro - Brazil's largest cities - where the airwaves are congested and measures against pirate stations are weak, he said.

This is a problem common to all Latin America. Argentina, for example, legalised some 2,000 community radio stations, and another 2,000 cropped up, said Mendonza.

In cities in Brazil's interior there are sometimes three or four pirate radio stations for each legal station, which is often crowded out of existence by the unfair competition, he added.

Mendonza said his worry was that radio broadcasting would be condemned to the same fate suffered by commerce, due to the explosive expansion of the ranks of street vendors, or urban transport, which has become increasingly chaotic with the proliferation of illegal vans competing with bus companies.

The Brazilian movement of community stations - or free stations as they were originally known - got underway in 1970, but picked up steam in the 1980s, especially once the 1988 constitution anticipated their existence and the establishment of regulations.

Community radio stations can only be created by non-profit institutions based in the same area where they broadcast, and can only provide services to local residents. With the ban on commercial advertising, they depend on sponsors for survival.

Besides the important role they play in giving a voice to local communities, as an interactive medium, community stations provide 150,000 jobs throughout Brazil, Emir pointed out.