Published on October 6, 2006 by the Inter Press Service
Radio Waves Incite Rebellion in Oaxaca
by Diego Cevallos
OAXACA, Mexico - "Compañeros, the enemy is the State." That was Thursday's wake-up call to its listeners from La Ley, a private radio station taken over by activists in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, which is fuelling social unrest that has the state government backed into a corner.
Taking over a communications outlet by force "is a serious crime, we know that, but they left us with no alternative," "Selvis", a teacher who is running the radio station, told IPS.
The radio station is guarded by about 300 demonstrators who are encamped around it, surrounded by defence works built of sandbags, wiring and burnt-out buses.
"If the government decides to send in the troops, we know that the radio station will be attacked first. They know that La Ley helps us to maintain the struggle, and that it's strategic for us," said the teacher, who uses an alias because he fears for his life.
La Ley, which belongs to the private Oaxaca Radio Programmes company, has been under occupation since Aug. 21 by the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO).
In recent weeks, the building that houses it has been attacked at night three times by unidentified armed men, who killed activist Lorenzo San Pablo.
The APPO movement is made up of more than 350 social organisations in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico. It was formed in June, in the heat of protests by a local teachers' union, which declared a strike on May 22 demanding better wages.
Since June, APPO has occupied most of the public buildings in the state capital, Oaxaca, and has set up encampments and barricades in several parts of the city, especially in the centre. Its leaders state that they will not budge until the state governor, Ulises Ruiz, resigns. They accuse him of corruption, repression and murder.
"Compañeros, victory is our destiny. We must not falter, we must unite and continue the struggle," a broadcaster at La Ley radio station announced.
APPO uses the radio station to keep its followers informed about its strategies and call them to attend rallies, and it receives dozens of telephone calls from sympathisers. Social activists, workers, homemakers and even children take turns at the microphone to speak out in favour of the popular uprising.
Its broadcasters, who never give their names, call on people to keep up the protests, and lash out at the government of conservative President Vicente Fox and Governor Ruiz of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000 and continues to govern Oaxaca state.
The station also airs songs by singer-songwriters identified with the left, as well as speeches by leftist leaders like Cuban President Fidel Castro, and comments praising Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's "anti-imperialist" stance.
"It is illegal, but it was valid for APPO to take over the radio, because it's been one of their most effective weapons, and without it perhaps it would have been a different story," Anabel López told IPS. She is the spokeswoman for the non-governmental Services for Alternative Education, a group that has been working in Oaxaca for 12 years.
López regretted, however, that the radio broadcasts express "fundamentalist leftwing positions that are very narrow-minded." But it must be understood that "they occupied it in a spontaneous manner, and are still learning how to use it," she added.
The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), an association of newspaper owners from Latin America and the Caribbean that held a meeting this week in Mexico City, urged the Fox administration to take measures to help the owners recover control of their radio stations in Oaxaca, while the Association of Mexican Newspaper Editors accused APPO of hijacking private radio stations for use as "instruments of sedition."
"As you can see, all the equipment here at La Ley is intact, since our sole interest is to keep communications open with the people. If they cut off that possibility, we would find ourselves in difficulties," Selvis said.
In most of the APPO encampments, there are radios tuned to La Ley. The broadcasting installations, about seven kilometres from the city centre, are zealously guarded by protesters.
Security was beefed up even further on Wednesday, when there were persistent rumours that the police and army troops were about to take the city by storm and dislodge APPO, which in the event did not occur. On Thursday, after several failed attempts at negotiations, the Fox administration and APPO reopened talks.
To get into the La Ley building, all visitors must go through several security checks and wait in line along with a large number of people. The doors are flanked by signs bearing slogans against Governor Ruiz, and denunciations of forced disappearances and imprisonment of activists.
Inside, the corridors are stacked with boxes of food and bottled water, as are many of the offices, which are occupied by about 50 people. Most of them have been sleeping on the premises for several weeks.
"We're not technical experts, but many people who do know about radio have shown solidarity and helped us to run the station; others have given us food, and help guard us. We cannot forget that there are people, Ruiz's hired killers, who want us dead," Selvis said.
Leonarda Reyes, director of the non-governmental Centre for Journalism and Public Ethics, told IPS that those occupying La Ley deserved punishment, as "it's an affront to freedom of expression."
However, she argued that this fact should be seen in the context of a serious political and social problem, in which many media outlets denied APPO a voice, or were biased in favour of those who attacked the organisation.
The Oaxacan Human Rights Network, made up of several groups including APPO sympathisers and some APPO member organisations, such as "Flor y Canto", the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights and the Ñu'u Ji Kandi Human Rights Centre, said that a majority of the private local media are aligned with the authorities.
Reyes said this was a shame, and undermined media independence, but said the same thing happened within APPO, which is using La Ley to give a voice to only one sector --- that is, those who are opposed to the local and national authorities.
One of the directors of La Ley, who asked that his name be withheld for security reasons, told IPS that APPO had threatened to destroy the radio station if anything is done to stop them operating it.
"This occupation is trampling on free enterprise and free speech, so we are bringing criminal charges against these people," he said.
Under Mexican law, forcible occupation of a media outlet is a serious crime, punishable by a minimum prison sentence of five years.
Journalists in Oaxaca have found it hard to do their work in recent years. Since 1995, the local newspaper Noticias has suffered attacks and faces a union conflict which it attributes to the paper's critical stance towards local authorities.
In addition, several reporters for local and national media have experienced aggression at the hands of police and members of APPO in the last few weeks. The IAPA condemned the incidents and called for investigations.
"Communication is a basic weapon, especially in such a serious conflict. APPO understands that," said the spokeswoman for Services for an Alternative Education.
In May, the teachers' union set up a community radio station, "Radio Plantón", with a range of barely two kilometres. The station ceased to operate on Jun. 14, when police attacked the union in Oaxaca's central square which they were occupying, and also destroyed the radio equipment.
The same day, students who later joined APPO occupied the local "Radio Universidad" station. Eight days later, bullets were fired at the station by masked men dressed in black. The attackers poured acid on the transmitters, rendering them useless.
APPO then decided to take over -- in early August -- the Channel 9 television station belonging to the Oaxaca state government, making several broadcasts until Aug. 21, when heavily armed police shot at people guarding the television antenna, wounding one activist and destroying the transmission equipment.
"Don't think for a minute that this is easy; we are risking our lives here," said Selvis.
The attack on Channel 9 "aroused indignation, so the compañeros spontaneously seized a dozen private radio stations, which in any case had been attacking us unfairly, calling us violent and accusing us of not actually representing anybody," the activist said.
Most of the radio stations were returned to their owners shortly afterwards. Two of them, however, which were capable of transmitting at several different wavelengths and with frequency modulation (FM), remained in the hands of APPO. On Wednesday one, "Radio Oro", was vacated because its equipment had broken down, and now only La Ley is still operating.
"Compañero, you're a journalist and you should support us. Tell people that La Ley has to stay on the air, and tell Ruiz's thugs not to come and attack us, because we'll respond with plenty of hard blows. Now, as never before, we won't be taken by surprise," Hilda, a woman who spends her nights camping out and guarding the radio station, told IPS.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service