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In Mexico, an indigenous community telco will continue to operate — for now

Image from Rhizomática Wiki used under a Creative Commons license.

Indigenous Community Telecommunications (ICT), a civil society association in Mexico, has withstood an important legal battle for the right of indigenous communities to establish and manage their own community networks of mobile phones and internet.

ICT, which provides voice and data services at affordable costs in remote areas of southern Mexico, obtained a special legal protection (or amparo, in Spanish) exempting it from a fee of around one million pesos (approximately US $50,000) to use the radio spectrum for its operations. This fee is typically assessed by Mexico's Federal Institute of Telecommunications (the regulator for radio broadcasting and telecommunications) for corporate enterprises. ICT is a non-profit.

The Collegiate Circuit Court on Administrative Matters, Specialized in Economic Competition, Broadcasting and Telecommunications ruled that this does not exempt ICT from payment, but it does instruct the Federal Institute of Telecommunications to reconsider the required fee. As a not-for-profit, ICT argues that it should not be treated the same as the commercial service providers.

In the ruling, the Court recognized that ICT's services relate to the defense of indigenous peoples’ human rights including freedom of expression. It also acknowledged that the pro homine principle (pro persona) must be applied when reviewing human rights issues to encourage the broadest protection of individual and group rights at all times.

Organizations such as Rhizomática and Networks for Diversity, Equality and Sustainability who helped establish ICT published a press release welcoming the Court's decision and thanked supporters who joined them on this difficult journey.

Inequity and discrimination within the licensing process

Global Voices (GV) spoke with Erick Huerta, deputy general coordinator of the Networks for Diversity, Equity and Sustainability, advisor and legal strategist for ICT, about the challenges that lie ahead:

Nosotros sentimos que el fallo del Tribunal es un parteaguas en cuanto a los derechos a la comunicación de los pueblos y comunidades indígenas y en cuanto a cómo debe realizar sus funciones la entidad autónoma [el Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones].

El artículo 1 de nuestra Constitución es muy claro respecto a que todas las personas gozarán de los derechos humanos, sin discriminación, y, en caso de que exista alguna duda, la interpretación de las normas debe hacerse de tal forma que se favorezca la más amplia protección de los derechos humanos. Esta interpretación es una obligación que le corresponde hacerla tanto al poder judicial, como al poder ejecutivo y a los órganos autónomos.

La sentencia del Tribunal es muy bonita en ese sentido, ya que le señala al ente autónomo que está obligado a interpretar la ley en favor de los derechos humanos, y a considerar la situación especial de los pueblos indígenas y sus derechos específicos a la comunicación.

En otras palabras, no por aplicar estrictamente una ley fiscal [en este caso, aquella que determina que debe pagarse por el uso del espectro radioeléctrico], vas a negar un derecho básico.

Para nosotros, el que tuviéramos que pagar un millón de pesos significaba que dejaríamos de operar y se les negaría a las comunidades, entonces, su derecho humano a la comunicación, simplemente por un tema administrativo.

La sentencia dice ‘Toda ley está sujeta a interpretación. Es más, las leyes fiscales son de interpretación estricta, pero eso no quiere decir que no se interprete’.

No puedes aplicar las leyes a rajatabla, tienes que ver cómo se ubica dentro del sistema, si es equitativo o no.

We feel that the Court's ruling is a watershed in terms of the communication rights of indigenous peoples and communities and how the regulator [the Federal Institute of Telecommunications] should perform its functions.

Article 1 of our Constitution states very clearly that all people shall enjoy human rights, without discrimination, and if there is any doubt, the interpretation of the rules must be done in such a way as to support the broadest protection of human rights. This interpretation is an obligation of the judiciary, and also of the executive and regulatory bodies.

The Court's judgement is very good in that sense, since it indicates to the regulator that it has an obligation to interpret the law in support of human rights, and to consider the special situation of indigenous peoples and their specific rights to communication.

In other words, the judgment indicates that regulators should not strictly apply a tax law [in this case, the one that determines what should be paid for the use of the radio spectrum] which would deny a basic right.

For us, having to pay a million pesos would have meant that we would stop operating and the communities then would be denied their human right to communication, simply because of an administrative issue.

The sentence says “Every law is subject to interpretation. Moreover, the tax laws are strictly interpreted, but that does not mean that they are not interpreted.”

You cannot apply the laws strictly, you have to see how they are in the context of the system, whether they are equitable or not.

According to Huerta, the regulatory body has already issued a resolution to interpret the law in question, but a payment exemption will not be granted until ICT obtains the status of “authorized grantee” by the Tax Administration Service, given to civil society organizations or trusts to receive tax-deductible donations. Given the situation, Huerta says that ICT may be forced to reject the Institute's ruling.

Additionally, ICT filed for another special legal protection against inequity and discrimination in the process of granting licenses in broadcasting and telecommunications.

Huerta explains:

Para radiodifusión, no hay pago del derecho por el uso del espectro, ni en concesiones sociales ni en las comerciales. Su derecho se paga en tiempos fiscales [espacios de transmisión que ocupa el Estado Mexicano].

Para las radios comunitarias e indígenas no hay pago en tiempos fiscales. Entonces, no tendría por qué haber un pago por el uso del espectro radioeléctrico para concesionarios que están en la misma categoría. Si existe la misma razón [brindar un servicio de índole social, comunitaria, indígena], debe existir la misma disposición.

Desafortunadamente, hay varios ejemplos en los que si se trata de beneficiar a un particular, con gran poder económico, todo parece muy fácil y hasta se llegan a violar principios. En otros casos, en donde incluso existe una resolución judicial como es el caso que nos ocupa ahora, la autoridad se presenta muy poco flexible.

Estos distintos parámetros evidencian discriminación.

For broadcasting, there is no payment for the right to use the spectrum, neither for community licenses, nor for commercial ones. Their right is paid in the form of time periods that are reserved for public service broadcasting.

For community and indigenous radio there is no payment in public service broadcasting. So, there should not be a required payment for the use of the radio spectrum for providers that are in the same category. If the same logic is applied here [to provide a social, community, indigenous service], the same provision must exist.

Unfortunately, there are several examples in which, if it is to benefit a private individual with great economic power, everything seems very easy, even if principles are violated. In other cases, even where there is a judicial resolution, as is the case that concerns us now, the authority is very inflexible.

These different parameters show discrimination.

ICT's future stands for indigenous rights

ICT, known for its independent, disruptive and innovative initiatives that follow in the footsteps of indigenous technology projects like the community cell phone network, has never wavered in its virtues and has vowed to continue to fight for indigenous rights.

Huerta believes:

Hay quienes se posicionan para favorecer a los poderosos. Nosotros seguiremos los caminos necesarios, confiando en que, al final, lo que se privilegie sean los derechos de los pueblos y comunidades indígenas.

There are those who position themselves to support the powerful. We will follow the necessary paths, trusting that, in the end, what is privileged will be the rights of indigenous peoples and communities.

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