Students Win Human Rights Victory With Indigenous Broadcasters in Guatemala

After Guatemalan government crackdowns, Suffolk clinic wins case before Inter-American Court of Human Rights

A team of Suffolk Law students from the school’s Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights Clinic successfully defended the freedom of expression of several Indigenous Guatemalan communities after the government raided two Mayan language radio stations and criminally prosecuted community radio producers.

After Guatemalan court orders in 2006 and 2012, state authorities confiscated radio transmission equipment and prosecuted Indigenous radio producers for operating without a state license.

In December 2021, the clinic, its partners, and the Indigenous communities named in the suit won their hard-fought case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). The court ordered the Guatemalan government to halt its raids, stop criminal prosecutions, adopt measures to ensure the recognition of community radio, and reserve parts of the radio spectrum for Indigenous community stations.

The raids silenced a critical source of community news and cultural expression, says attorney Nicole Friederichs, director of Suffolk’s Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples Clinic (HRIPC). Nine years ago, after being contacted by Cultural Survival, an Indigenous rights organization, Friederichs and her clinic students began representing Guatemalan Indigenous communities in their battle for legal recognition.

“Imagine for a moment that your favorite local radio station was shut down by the government. And that station was the only source of media that covered your community’s news—the only station broadcasting in your language and reflecting your culture,” Friederichs says.

Indigenous peoples in Guatemala—who comprise nearly half of the Guatemalan population—have little access to the internet and generally don’t speak Spanish as a first language. Radio programming in their own languages, such as K'iche’, Kaqchikel, and Mam, is often the only gateway to local news and music, and to debate about local and national issues, Friederichs says. But legally accessing radio frequencies has been impossible for Indigenous communities because of the high cost of state-issued licenses.

Friederichs and Adjunct Professor Amy Van Zyl-Chavarro JD’08 served as legal counsel for the Maya Kaqchikel de Sumpango and other Indigenous communities. Professor Lorie Graham submitted expert testimony, on which the court relied in its analysis. Over the nine years, a few dozen students worked on the case, and five of them were recognized for their contributions to the brief before the court.

The court victory is the first known international case to recognize Indigenous peoples’ right to operate their own media, Friederichs says. The IACHR determined that Guatemalan regulations are a “de facto almost absolute prohibition on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression…”

The case sets a precedent for the rights of Indigenous peoples in this hemisphere to access radio frequencies for community broadcasting, as well as for the decriminalization of Indigenous community radio more broadly, Friederichs adds.