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***************************************************************** ARENA Party Passes New Telecommunications Law in El Salvador

September 13, 1996

San Salvador

After 3 hours of discussion late last Wednesday night, Gloria Salguero Gross, President of El Salvador's Legislative Assembly and member of the rightist ARENA party, called for a vote to end debate on the controversial new telecommunications law. With 23 people waiting to speak on the legislation, ARENA deputies of the Assembly had enough votes to end debate and bring the bill to a vote in the form as it was presented by the Commission for Economy and Agriculture. With a simple majority, coming primarily from ARENA deputies, the law was passed. Outraged, nearly all representatives of the opposition parties - including the FMLN, PD, PDC, PRSC, CD and MU - walked out of the Assembly in protest.

Among the political and social sectors of El Salvador shunned by the legislation is the Association of Participative Radios and Programs of El Salvador (ARPAS) and the Union of Technical Workers of telecommunications Business of El Salvador (ATTES). Both of these national organizations worked and lobbied for months to incorporate proposals into the new telecommunications law which would provide basic regulations and guarantees for the public sector.

In the case of ARPAS, the future of eleven rural community radios and other non-profit radios hinged on the provisions presented in their proposal, which would have given El Salvador an exemplary legal framework for democractic rights in the area of telecommunications. Numerous international communications organizations, including the Federal Communications Commission of the United States, were consulted by ARPAS as they worked with various political parties in the elaboration of the 'Proyecto de Ley de Radiodifusion Comunitaria,' which was presented to the Economic and Agricultural Committee on August 21. Nothing from this proposal was included in the law that was passed by the ARENA majority in the Assembly, and which now only needs the signature of Salvadoran President Dr. Armando Calderon Sol, also of the ARENA party, to become law.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of State in July, thirty-five U.S. Congressional offices voiced their support for ARPAS' efforts to establish regulations for non-profit radios in El Salvador. In a response, the Department of State expressed that "we hope that El Salvador will update its telecommunications law, including provisions for the important services provided by non-profit broadcasting." Congressmen Joseph Moakley (D-MA) and Xavier Becerra (D-CA) sent a letter to President Sol just prior to this week's vote in the Assembly, urging him to support the inclusion of the Proyecto de Ley de Radiodifusion Comunitaria in the new telecommunications law. However, it seems unlikely the President will go against the legislation passed by his own party.

Wednesday's vote caused wide-spread criticism in San Salvador of the ARENA party's maneuvers. In a surprising display of division among the political right, the conservative DIARIO DE HOY newspaper reported that "the prevailing opinion is that the passage of the law will set an unseemly precedent that hurts, among others, the principle of freedom of expression, the freedom of business, and it puts independent radio and television broadcasting under the risk of being submitted to tricky politicians."

The DIARIO DE HOY also quoted perspectives from opposition parties:

Dagaberto Marroquin, PCN: "I have not read it; they just gave me the document... its a law without consultation and there should be more discussion."

Francisco Mena Sandoval, PD: "It is a rushed law and it gives you a bad feeling because if things are done in a transparent and crystalline fashion and in good faith, there is no reason go around doing them on the run."

Jorge Villacorta, CD: "This law is a hard blow to the Constitution and national interests."

Roberto Lorenzana, FMLN: "Article seven of this document directly attacks the principle that the State should protect public interest over private interests, as contemplated in article 110 of the Constitution of the Republic...The new law deregulates the market of telecommunications instead of regulating it, since it leaves costs of services to the discretion of the owners of the new telephone companies that will grow out of ANTEL."

Arturo Argumedo, PDC: "There will be a tremendous political cost for ARENA to pass a law of this magnitude with only a simple majority."

Dr. Francisco Jose Lacay, Director of UNESCO, an international agency which has provided technical support to radio affiliates of ARPAS, was also quoted in the same newspaper as saying that, "Every law brings with it the consequence of elaborating norms and rules, which is very important. There are areas, like that of radio broadcasting, which evidently have not been addressed in an in-depth fashion, which is to say that this is a law which does not address the whole universe of telecommunications."

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