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Government imposes prior censorship on community radio stations' electoral coverage

(AMARC/IFEX) - AMARC strongly condemns the Colombian government's decision to violate freedom of expression and information by imposing prior censorship, through restricting in an arbitrary and unconstitutional manner community media's right to cover various electoral proposals, conduct interviews and promote debates between the different political parties.

In a 9 August 2007 government press release, the ministry of communications ordered community radio stations to "abstain from including in their programming candidates' speeches, political debates and political advertising from the current electoral campaign." The decree, signed by Minister María del Rosario Guerra, states that "any such action will be understood to be political proselytism."

AMARC believes that the government is confusing, in an alarming manner, proselytism or the biased use of a media outlet to benefit a particular religion or political candidate or sector, with community radio stations' right to inform society, and the right of the communities they serve to do so as well.

Also, this measure violates the public's right to receive the information necessary for their full participation as citizens; this is particularly serious, given that community radio stations are the only media outlets operating in many municipalities in the country's interior. It directly contravenes the American Convention on Human Rights and the Organisation of American States (OAS) Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression, of which Principle 5 stipulates that "Prior censorship, direct or indirect interference in or pressure exerted upon any expression, opinion or information transmitted through any means of oral, written, artistic, visual or electronic communication must be prohibited by law. Restrictions to the free circulation of ideas and opinions, as well as the arbitrary imposition of information and the imposition of obstacles to the free flow of information violate the right to freedom of expression."

AMARC notes "Colombia's community radio stations have played an important role in making communications more democratic, which has been acknowledged across the world," according to Mauricio Beltrán, director of the Communication for Peace System (Sistema de Comunicación para la Paz, SIPAZ) and also AMARC-Colombia's national coordinator. Through the decree the government has "just endangered this institutional pillar and a tradition that this country has systematically respected. Silencing sources of information and the debate of ideas during the upcoming electoral processes is a flagrant violation of rights," he added.

The decision to impose prior censorship also runs contrary to Colombian legislation regarding the role of community radio stations, which recognises that "programming on community radio stations is aimed at generating spaces for expression of opinions, education, communication, cultural promotion, conscientisation, debate and the creation of social consensus, which lead to encounters between the various social and cultural currents in the community, aimed at encouraging integration and solidarity among citizens, and especially the promotion of democracy, participation of various social sectors, and the fundamental rights of Colombians that will assure their peaceful coexistence with each other."

It is impossible for community media outlets to fulfill their mandate if they cannot discuss politics and elections, informing citizens of the different proposals being presented or opening spaces for debates among the different currents of opinion.

During the 10 years of their existence in Colombia, community radio stations have provided a space controlled by citizens, one that is diverse in nature, which has fulfilled the key principles of democracy by being transparent, pluralistic and participatory in nature. Community media outlets have been, and continue to be, real and effective allies in the construction of peace in Colombia, but they cannot play that role if this draconian censorship measure is enforced.

The measure also forbids the broadcasting of political advertisements by the political parties, a restriction which AMARC members have respected, but disagree with. This restriction was lifted during the elections which President Uribe won, and then re-imposed for the municipal and departmental elections.

AMARC urges the minister of communications and the government to reconsider this most lamentable decision, which violates the fundamental rights of community media outlets and all Colombian citizens.

SIPAZ-AMARC Colombia represents 20 regional networks including 370 community radio stations throughout Colombia.

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