Aleida Calleja is democratizing Mexico’s electronic media as part of a larger effort to give voice to civil society and empower the Mexican people. By building a strong network of community radio stations, training and consulting with them on digital technology, establishing legal recognition for the stations, and working to reform public media policy, Aleida hopes to revitalize the rights to information and freedom of speech protected in Mexico’s Constitution.
The New Idea
Aleida Calleja’s vision is straightforward: a thriving community-run open access radio network in Mexico that encourages citizen sector participation in the democratic process. Currently, Mexico’s media is almost exclusively corporate and government owned, leaving little room for public participation in the national discourse. Through a series of efforts, led by the formation of multiple community radio stations, Aleida plans to restructure Mexico’s media in a way that encourages and protects citizen participation and freedom of speech.
The progress of democracy in Mexico is at stake. Without freedom of communication and access to information in local communities, democracy is but an abstract goal. Currently, Mexican citizens are far too removed from civic participation, and far too cynical about the democratic process itself. However, Aleida has found a concrete way to promote democracy. Beginning with the founding of community radio stations that celebrate and encourage Mexican diversity and dialogue, Aleida is working to transform the way citizens contribute to public policy in Mexico. She hopes that through her efforts, the Mexican people will gradually come to realize the power of their own voice, and the potential of communities of individuals determined to produce change.
Mexico’s Constitution guarantees the right to information and to freedom of speech. However, the laws that govern the written press date back to 1917 and those pertaining to electronic media have been on the books for over 40 years. These outdated laws and policies hinder an increasing citizen demand to actively shape and influence the media and preclude them from operating their own media outlets.The Federal Radio and Television Law, for one, is riddled with loopholes which have allowed large private corporations and the State to monopolize the media. Today, 80 percent of the radio stations in Mexico belong to just 13 corporations, 19 percent are controlled by the State, and only 1 percent are in the hands of the public. As a result, citizens have little voice in Mexico’s national dialogue, and little legal ground to defend themselves against decisions made by the authorities.
Community and open access radio are fundamental for mass communication and information in Mexico, because they allow indigenous communities, peasants, women, ecologists, youth groups, and many others to address the informational needs of their communities. However, instead of encouraging the spread of local radio outlets, Mexico’s federal government has done the opposite, sometimes even shutting down stations due to pressure from big radio businesses. For these businesses, information is considered merchandise that is owned, bought and sold—not a public right. Many media corporations feel threatened by the emergence of widespread citizen radio and are using their money and influence to shut down what they can. Community radio is particularly vulnerable not only because it is low-technology and low-budget, but also because it lacks the proper legal ground on which to justify its existence.
For 70 years, the Mexican government was in the hands of one party—the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party)—during which time intricate alliances and obligations between the party and the heads of the mass communication consortia were formed. These alliances were so strong that most efforts to create democratic laws on telecommunications were deferred. And even when the new government of the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party) passed new legislation in this area, it failed to directly tackle the issue of media monopolization. While Mexico’s current law gives the federal executive branch great discretionary power for granting media permits, nearly all efforts made by community radio stations to obtain such permits have been thwarted. Federal authorities either impose high technical and financial requirements that they know cannot be filled, or they simply ignore petitions altogether. This situation plainly contradicts article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights (Pact of San Jose) which declares that States, in their role as administrators of the radio electric spectrum, cannot be guided solely by financial and technical criteria when assigning broadcasting frequencies. However, until Aleida Calleja, little was being done in Mexico to undo these injustices. In the interest of freedom of speech, and in the interest of democracy, citizen sector participation in Mexico’s radio media must be encouraged and protected.
Aleida’s strategy involves three main efforts: creating a strong network of community radio stations and marketing their presence and importance, reforming Mexico’s media policy and ensuring legal protection for the equality, dignity and sustainability of local radio outlets, and closing the technology gap which will be produced by imminent technological change.Through her organization, Comunicación Comunitaria (Community Communication) Aleida is making progress on all three fronts. By regularly speaking at venues and promoting her ideas, Aleida has placed the subject of community radio in the national spotlight. She has persuaded well known columnists and journalists to address Mexico’s need to democratize the media and develop better citizen participation in local and national political issues. Aleida also organized the Community and Citizen Media Fair, which brought together more than 200 Mexican radio and video makers. Because of its sheer convening force, the Instituto Mexicano de la Radio (Mexican Radio Institute) designated one of its frequencies to the broadcasting of programs produced by civil society, thus establishing the first “public-civil” radio alliance. Aleida was invited to become a member of its Citizen Council, thus giving the community radio movement a unique opportunity to have a bearing on public policies. She will continue to publicize her strategies as much as possible, because as visibility and public awareness increases, so does her chance of widespread success.
Aleida must engage lawmakers and policymakers in her efforts, a task she will take on with the help of Mexico’s Citizen Initiative for a New Law on Electronic Media. Already, this group has helped turn citizen proposals into national bills passed by Mexico’s Senate. Aleida has also organized the National Network of Community Radio, composed of 53 social organizations, which encourages political debate, offers technical training for local media outlets, and provides legal defense for its frequencies at the national and international levels. Furthermore, Aleida is reaching out to international bodies, including the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights and United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights for support and legitimacy when approaching the Mexican government. Aleida recognizes that for community radio to make much progress in Mexico, the Mexican government and policymakers must be working with her, not against her.
Finally, Aleida is convinced that an effective democratization of radio broadcasting media in Mexico is largely dependent on closing the technological gap between Mexico’s largest and smallest media channels. Open access broadcasters must be trained and prepared to work with new digital technologies. These new technologies are vastly more efficient and would also lay rest to the widespread notion that citizen sector community radio is outdated and backwards. Aleida plans to fund technical training and support through public grants for community radios.
Aleida Calleja grew up in a peasant family from the state of Puebla. When she was a young girl, her paternal uncle was murdered because he dared to speak out against the government regarding large sugar cane estates thriving in Puebla. He was found dead with a sign on his forehead that read “because he is a communist.” As a student, Aleida remembers her teachers discussing the student uprisings of 1968, and how the Mexican media had either been unable to gather accurate information about the events or had deliberately concealed information in secret agreement with the government. Thus her interest in freedom of speech and public policy was already instilled and developed before she went to college.
With great self-assurance, Aleida saved money to pay for only one year of university studies, since she was sure that she would be granted a scholarship to continue studying. She won the scholarship and completed her degree in communications in a private university. In 1992, she was hired by the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (National Institute for Indigenous Peoples) with the mandate of creating a radio broadcasting station, “Voz de la Sierra Norte”, in Cuetzalan, the mountainous region of Puebla. Aleida came into contact with indigenous communities from the state, recognized their resistance to community radio, civic participation, and the possibility of change. She worked hard to change people’s minds, offered training courses and town-hall discussion seminars, and finally succeeded in convincing the community to embrace the project as their own. That same year, Aleida attended the Assembly of the Asociación Mundial de Radios Comunitarias (World Association of Community Radios), where she learned about the concept of community radio, as well as of its characteristics, capabilities, initiatives and demands. She also began to see the great possibilities in using community radio as an agent of democracy in Mexico. Ten years later, in 2002, she was elected Mexico’s representative to the Association.
Aleida’s passion for freedom of communication and her fine skills as a negotiator have lent her great success with Mexican senators and government officials. Because of her commitment, for the first time in history, officials from the Secretaría de Gobernación (Department of State) will visit many of Mexico’s community radio stations and initiate agreements with the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes (Ministry of Communication and Transportation) to finally stop the shut-down of more radios and instead promote the granting of more legal permits. Much more work can and will be done, continuing to strengthen democracy in Mexico as a result.
Aleida's recent work aims to monitor the position of pluralism and diversity within the media systems of Mexico and Latin America in order to evaluate the conditions of freedom and expression and the right of access to information. This information facilitates organizations and activists in their advocacy work for changing public policy and regulations which require transparency, as well as inclusion of independent media and the denunciation of information monopolies which significantly affect the democratic debate. Work is also carried out to achieve audiovisual literacy and digital participation for children.