When a radio station helps fight poverty—and speaks the truth

Marisella Ramos got so many death threats, she fled the country briefly. She is now back in El Salvador and reporting for Radio Victoria. Photo: Chris Hufstader / Oxfam America

Radio reporters in El Salvador face threats, but remain committed to their message.

If you have never thought of a radio station as a way to fight poverty, think again. Over the years I’ve worked at Oxfam I have visited and spoken with staff at community radio stations in Mali, Peru, and Mozambique. I’ve always found the work of these stations to be a fascinating and powerful means to promote development: They bring the voices of people in isolated places out into the media, make their concerns known to the powerful, and push for change. 

These stations are driven by a community agenda, so they are different from most commercial media companies funded by businesses, or the government. The best community radios recruit reporters in villages in their listening area, train young people to become journalists, provide an important alternative to the government and corporate messages, and broadcast in local languages.

In some places, projecting the voice of the people when it is at odds with powerful interests can lead to conflict and tragedy. You don’t have to be reporting from a foreign war zone to face life-threatening danger. For community radio reporters in El Salvador, it comes to your home.

I’ve just met with staff at Radio Victoria in Cabañas, which has been under siege since it started reporting on a proposed gold mine in the region in 2006. In 2008, a mining company called Pacific Rim offered the station $8,000 a month to help them promote a “Green Mining” public relations campaign in Cabañas, designed to counter environmentalist critics concerned about water pollution and other potentially negative effects of the proposed mine.

“Okay, $8,000 would have solved a lot of problems for us,” says Elvis Zavala, one of the founders of the station after El Salvador’s civil war, when they had a small transmitter and an antenna on a bamboo pole.  “We could pay staff and buy new equipment.” But the station had been researching Pacific Rim’s mining proposal and found that their listeners were against it—the station could not accept Pacific Rim’s money and be true to their mission.

According to Marisella Ramos, a 29-year-old married mother of a young daughter and a reporter at Radio Victoria, this was also the time that the station had been covering the work of a local environmental leader named Marcelo Rivera. He was leading protest marches and workshops to educate people in communities about the dangers of mining to local water sources like the Rio Titihuapa, which flows into the Rio Lempa, El Salvador’s main source of drinking water.

That was when the anonymous threats began. “We got messages that we were on death lists,” Ramos told me. “In June 2009, Marcelo disappeared. We assigned two reporters to investigate his disappearance, and the threats increased to the point that we had to take our staff out of the department [of Cabañas]. We got threats over the cell phone, letters slipped under the door of the radio station and at our homes.” Someone damaged the station’s transmission lines, and tried to knock down its antenna.

A mural of environmental activist Marcelo Rivera is on the town’s cultural center in San Isidro. He was an ardent critic of a proposal to mine for gold in Cabañas, and received numerous death threats before he was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in 2009. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.

Rivera’s body was found 12 days later at the bottom of a well. A woman I interviewed near the Titihuapa river, a friend of Rivera who did not want to be named in this story, told me he had been scalped, his face ripped off, and his penis cut off and put in his mouth. “This was to send a message,” she said, “to silence us.”

Radio Victoria’s media coordinator, who was frequently on air reporting on the search for Rivera, got so many threats she had to leave the country with her son, and is still in Europe today. Although she was worried to do so, Ramos took over the media coordination role. Every press release the station issued bore her name. She was the main speaker at press conferences. And the threats shifted to her.

The emails she and others received were signed “extermination group.” Sometimes, Ramos says, “There were long, obscene messages describing what happened to Marcelo, implying it could happen to me.” One message gave her a deadline of May 3, 2009, saying they would come for her and her daughter. “Friends took me away to another place,” Ramos says, saying it was a location she thought would be safe. “When I arrived I got a text message saying they knew where I was, and everyone panicked.”

Shortly after that Ramos and her daughter went to Ecuador for a few months. “I had to decide if I wanted to keep being a radio reporter,” she says, back in Victoria and reporting again. “A lot of my colleagues suffered these threats, but I came back and talked with them. We feel united and strong together.”

Elivs Zavala, Marisella Ramos, and Salvador Escobar of Radio Victoria discuss the threats issued to the staff of their community radio station. Escobar was one of the founders of the station. Photo: James Rodriguez / Oxfam America

The threats have trailed off recently, but the controversy around the proposed mine continues. Pacific Rim has not received a permit to start mining, and has sued the government of El Salvador for $301 million. It recently sold its interests to an Australian company called Oceana Gold, which is pursuing the suit in a special tribunal at the World Bank, where such “investor disputes” are settled. Radio Victoria’s listeners in Cabañas are also leading a movement to create legislation that would ban all metal mining in the country, and Oxfam is supporting a coalition that brings together all the groups in the country working on the mining ban.

Elvis Zavala says one of the scariest moments in the violent period also led to a sign of hope. It came on a day when just one staff person was at the station and they got a threat that it would be set on fire. Zavala and others said they called their friends, and there was immediately a group of people with machetes surrounding the station. “When we saw them at the station, we felt like we were not alone,” Zavala says. “They told me, ‘If they are going to burn the radio, they are going to have to kill us first.’”

Every radio station should have such dedicated listeners. 

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