Fighting for Freedom of Expression on Guatemalan Radio

After Guatemalan government crackdowns, Suffolk Clinic advocates before Inter-American Court of Human Rights
After learning about Guatemalan government raids of indigenous community radio stations and the lack of access to radio for indigenous communities, Suffolk’s Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples Clinic (HRIPC) joined forces with indigenous community leaders and lawyers to bring forward a legal case nine years in the making.


Watch Nicole Friederich’s closing argument before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (at the 2 hour mark in the video).

On June 9 and 10, 2021, HRIPC Director and Practitioner in Residence Nicole Friederichs JD’03 and Adjunct Prof. Amy Van Zyl-Chavarro JD‘08, served as legal counsel for the Maya Kaqchikel de Sumpango and other indigenous communities in a hearing before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IAHCR). The court adjudicates alleged violations of rights enshrined in the American Convention or other relevant human rights treaties in the Inter-American System.

The case was led by the two professors and about 30 clinical students, some current and many of them now graduated, with the assistance of indigenous community members and advocates from across Guatemala. Partners in bringing the case included Cultural Survival, Inc.; Asociación Sobrevivencia Cultural; and Asociación de Abogados y Notarios Mayas de Guatemala, Nim Ajpu.

If the court decides in favor of the indigenous communities and against the Guatemalan government, the case will set a precedent for indigenous peoples across the western hemisphere regarding the right to access radio frequencies for community broadcasting and for the decriminalization of indigenous community radio stations.

The HRIPC played a critical role in bringing the case forward, initially to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which must rule in favor of a petition before it reaches the IACHR. Clinic students wrote portions of the merits brief, which analyzed how case law from the IAHCR applied to the community radio stations' matter. They also collected evidence, communicated with the Inter-American Court, and documented government violations of the American Convention on Human Rights.

The radio stations provide a way for indigenous peoples to share their cultures and health updates and communicate widely in many Mayan languages in communities where neither regular access to the internet nor facility in Spanish are a given.

The ripple effects would likely be international, says Friederichs, with new jurisprudence asserting that community radio broadcasting can be a form of protected expression that transmits culture and language and insures that indigenous peoples are able to participate in a larger democratic dialogue. The court’s decision may come as soon as the end of the year, Friederichs says.

In her closing argument to the court, she argued that community radio is for many in the indigenous community “the only means by which they can stay informed and participate in the public debates of Guatemalan society.”

The Guatemalan government argues that its telecommunications law makes it possible for community organizations to buy radio frequencies. “But it’s almost financially impossible for those seeking to operate a not-for-profit community radio station to compete in an auction against the substantial financial resources of commercial radio stations,” Friederichs says.

“Without the ability to promote cultural and linguistic diversity—without their voice—to counter a history of colonization and exclusion, the right to freedom of expression, a cornerstone of human rights is compromised,” she says.

Suna Garcia Guzman, Law School Class of 2022, served in the clinic last academic year, working on drafting the merits brief, responding to the Guatemalan government’s objections, and a collaboration agreement with Asociación de Abogados Mayas who will be assisting with enforcement of the court’s ruling.

“Assimilation shouldn’t be the norm,” Garcia Guzman said. “The world is filled with people of different beliefs, languages, customs & traditions, and people have a right to freely express those. Denying that is denying the rights of an entire culture.”

Santos Julian Bal, a Guatemalan spiritual leader, said the radio stations help maintain a spiritual fire that goes well beyond the typical use of radio frequencies for entertainment.

Suffolk Law Prof. Lorie Graham also provided written expert testimony to the court.