Free Speech Is Frozen Out in Costa Rica:
The University of Peace versus Radio for Peace International

By Gar Smith / The-Edge
January 31, 2004

RPFI's James Latham stares from the inside of the barbed-wire-wrapped gate of his embattled radio station. Credit: Julio Lainez/Tico Times
Last November, the United Nations stood idly by while a band of armed men shut down Costa Rica's Radio For Peace International. RFPI wasn't any ordinary radio station: It was located on the campus of the University of Peace, the United Nations' alternative campus located 25 kilometers from the city of Colon.

The RFPI staff had been barricaded inside the studio since July, shortly after officials at the University of Peace (UPAZ) ordered them to evacuate the building. Once they left, the staff was told, they would never be allowed to return. Fearing the loss of $400,000 worth of equipment that had been painstakingly acquired over the years, the staff refused to budge. In response, UPAZ stationed armed guards around the facility. The standoff lasted nearly five months.

For more than 16 years, RFPI had broadcast an eclectic medley of progressive peace and social justice programming to millions of devoted listeners in South America and throughout the world. That all ended on November 3, when the station was forced off the air by machete-wielding university personnel who cut the power cables leading to the broadcasting studios.

Fortunately, the UPAZ groundskeeper ordered to cut the wires holding up the station's large transmission towers refused to do so.

The November 8 edition of Costa Rica's Tico Times wryly noted the curious spectacle of "two international institutions dedicated to peace, human rights and non-violent conflict resolution" resorting to sit-ins, sieges and lawsuits.

RPFI Station Manager James Latham also was struck by the incongruity. "[UPAZ] teaches Master's courses in conflict resolution." he told the Tico Times, "But if they can't do it here, it is going to be even harder in the Middle East."

Despite the police cordon, the staff continued to broadcast to their international audience. When local listeners learned of their plight, they managed to toss canned goods over the fence or slipped food through the station's front gate.

"That gate was built to keep cows from wandering into the facility," Latham laughs. "The iron bars were wide enough so the staff could walk right through." When UPAZ finally became aware of this security gap, they wrapped the building in bales of barbed wire. On November 4, Latham recalls, UPAZ "strung up enough barbed wire across the entrance to round up a herd of Texas longhorns."

The Strange Demise of RFPI
In December, Latham toured the US, hoping to raise funds to put his shuttered station back on air. On a rain-swept morning in San Francisco, Latham paused to speak with The-Edge about the strange demise of RFPI.

"When local listeners heard that our water supply was cut off, they tossed five-gallon buckets over the fence so we could collect rain water off the zinc roof." The embattled staff was able to gather up to 70 gallons of precious water, sufficient to last several days.

As word of RFPI's troubles spread around the globe, support flooded in from every direction. One of the first expressions of solidarity came from the short-wave broadcasters at Radio Havana. "RFPI also received strong support from the Pacifica network in the US," Latham smiled.

Some letters of support came from listeners who lived so far out in the jungles of the Amazon that it took them nearly a week to walk to the nearest post office.

One surprising surge of calls came from devoted listeners living aboard yachts floating up and down the Caribbean. "That was a whole market we never knew about!" Latham marvels.

"We got to know many of the guards quite well," Latham recalls. "When they learned that we had built these offices with our own hands, they realized the injustice of UPI's attempt to evict us." Many of the guards began to "look the other way" when RFPI's supporters arrived to sneak in food and supplies. They even allowed RFPI staffers to duck in and out of the wired-wrapped gate.

Unfortunately, as soon as UPAZ discovered that a guard had become sympathetic, he was removed from the site.

UPAZ Makes its Case
In July 2003, UPAZ gave RFPI 90 days to vacate, claiming that the station was operating illegally. The station's original 1987 operating agreement was signed between UPAZ and the US-based World Peace University. After WPU founded RFPI in the late 1980s, it left Costa Rica and changed its name. Meanwhile, RFPI continued to operate under the existing agreement.

UPAZ now claims that because RFPI was not a signatory to the original agreement, the station "has been operating ... without any legal status."

UPAZ's sudden impatience with its "illegal" boarder seems suspect. In September 1990, former UPAZ Vice-Rector Francisco Barahona penned an official letter in which he stated that RFPI was fully authorized to "construct a new transmitting building and antenna system at the campus of the University for Peace and has exclusive use of said installations."

Although Radio for Peace built its $200,000 two-story transmitting station with its own labor, using funds raised from grants and listeners, UPAZ refused to offer any indemnification for the property. The university's attorneys insisted that they could not pay an indemnification to a "non-existent" entity.

Businessperson and UN mover-and-shaker Maurice Strong.
The Era of Strong-arm Tactics
In late 1999, Maurice Strong (the Canadian businessperson who spearheaded the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro) arrived on the scene, looking for a new headquarters for his Earth Council organization. Strong "dangled a carrot," Latham recalls. He offered to bring new money and increased professionalism to the operations of UPAZ and RFPI.

In his introductory speech to a crowd of 100 staffers, Strong promised that there would be no staff changes but he soon set about purging the ranks of UPAZ's board of advisors and installing his own people. As Latham remembers, "It was sort of a witch-hunt."

Initially, the change brought many positive changes under the reign of provisional Rector Dr. Browdowski, an expert in the field of environmental sustainability. But the excitement began to dim as Strong set about shutting down a number of established UPAZ projects, including the respected and very successful Gandhi Film Project.

Labor disputes erupted and lawsuits were filed as long-time staff was terminated. "In Costa Rica, the law requires that you get severance," Latham explains. "One month's pay for every year worked." But, since Costa Rican law did not cover UPAZ, the fired employees were offered no severance packages.

From Free Speech to Frozen Speech
Over the years, UPAZ had been a stable operation, Latham relates. The campus "had only five administrators over the past 16 years." Throughout this pre-Strong era, RFPI broadcast what Latham proudly characterized as "Pacifica-style programming" -- i.e., a range of pacifist and politically challenging progressive views inclined to rock the status quo.

"Peace, justice and the environment were our concerns," Latham said. He remains unapologetic for airing programs that were critical of US militarism. "Over the past three years, we broadcast a lot of programs on the issue of the globalization of the planet," Latham adds. One of RFPI's most popular broadcasts was Amy Goodman's US-produced talk show, "Democracy Now."

After Strong arrived on the scene, Latham alleges, "there was a distinct lack of communication. Control was a problem." Several UPAZ staffers cautioned the RFPI staff that some powerful people had been disturbed by the "anti-US flavor of your broadcasts."
"The first action they took was to cut our high-speed Internet access. That immediately cut out Pacifica and Amy Goodman," Latham recounts, "but we were able to reestablish a connection using microwave hookups."

The-Edge asked Latham if he sensed any link between the "mainstreaming" of UPAZ and the installation of the unelected Bush administration in Washington. At first, Latham dismissed the suggestion but, on reflection, he did recall how he came to feel "a fear running around the whole faculty. It seemed that anyone who spoke out got terminated." And, for some members of the UPAZ faculty, Latham confided, there was a "palpable fear" of incurring the wrath of the Bush administration.

Was a Land Grab behind the UPAZ Move?
The Tico Times observed that "the most important issue at the root of the eviction order is the fact that [UPAZ] wants its land back." UPAZ officials confirmed these reports by issuing a statement explaining that the university was "expanding its activities ... to meet the needs of a growing number of students."

"UPAZ never had a large student body," Latham explains. "There were never more than 70-100 students." Given the size of the student body, The-Edge wondered why the campus would attract someone like Maurice Strong. "It is an odd thing," Latham concedes. "Why did this person come in?"

The answer may lie in UPAZ's unique autonomy. Because of its UN ties, it is not obliged to follow the laws of its host country. It is sovereign unto itself -- an autonomous political fiefdom, somewhat akin to the Vatican.

Within this parcel of privileged territory, UPAZ officials could build whatever they wanted without the oversight of Costa Rican authorities. As Latham explained, those working within the campus also enjoyed "autonomy from the United Nations since the programs were independently funded."

Latham came to believe that Strong and other UPAZ officials were more interested in expansion than education. He quickly cited several "real estate actions that were very questionable." These included:

  • A plot of commercial property in Costa Rica that a woman donated as a new home for Strong's Earth Council. "But when plans for the Earth Council dried up," Latham said, the land was "transferred to Strong and other UPAZ officials." The donor was reportedly quite upset when she discovered the transfer.
  • Finally, there was the $2.8 million artist colony donated to UPAZ by its aging founder, Bill White, who wanted the university to assume management of his long-established artists' retreat. White was taken aback when he realized that the lawyer he was dealing with did not represent UPAZ but actually represented the interests of one of the UPAZ rectors.
Is Short-wave Really Obsolete?
UPAZ officials provided a technological justification for giving RFPI the boot: "In the expansion and internationalization of its programs, [UPAZ] is emphasizing the use of state-of-the-art technologies and the Internet to disseminate knowledge and teaching materials worldwide. As such, [UPAZ] sees no role for the short-wave transmissions of [RFPI]."

Latham scoffs at the suggestion that short-wave radio is an antiquated technology. "Such comments show an arrogance toward the rest of the world that is not connected to the Internet and falls on the other side of the digital divide," he says. "In Southern countries, not everyone has access to the Internet. It's very costly. Internet cafes are only found in large cities.

"There are 600 million short-wave radio listeners worldwide. There are 17 million SW fans in the US alone," Latham notes. "RFPI was the only alternative media that many people could tap into. Our audience was growing." RFPI's strongest signals are in rural areas in Latin America and the Caribbean. He claims the attempted shutdown of the radio is a form of censorship and a violation of press freedom

There are somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 SW stations broadcasting around the globe and, for the majority of the world's poor, SW remains the medium of choice for sharing music, news and knowledge across borders. Latham believes that SW will remain the Third World's major communication tool "for decades to come."

Latham notes that "satellite and digital broadcasts are on the horizon and this technology can also be applied to SW, bringing FM-like quality to all SW broadcasts over the next 5 to 10 years."

The Station's Appeals Fail
RFPI's board of directors filed papers asking Costa Rica's High Court to block the eviction notice and allow the station to continue its worldwide broadcasting. Among the signers was UPAZ Founder Rodrigo Carazo.

After numerous appeals, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan finally responded to RFPI's appeals and instructed the local office of the UN Development Program (UNDP) to intercede and resolve the standoff. But when the UNDP contacted the university, UPAZ officials refused to negotiate. At that point, Latham says, the UN "backed off" from the dispute.

UPAZ finally agreed to let the staff leave in exchange for a promise to let them take all their equipment with them. RFPI's assets are now scattered all over Costa Rica. Much of the equipment is stored in San Jose. The transmitters are being held in a farmhouse located at an altitude of 10,000 feet. The station's books and records are secured in a room in Ciudad Colon.

A Final Insult
Latham is proud of RFPI's Peace Journalism training program, which has turned out 320 graduates over the years -- ranging from activists and rank amateurs to professional journalists from National Public Radio and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. But what could have become one of RFPI's greatest accomplishments turned into one of Latham's worst nightmares.

Encouraged by Strong's admonition to "think big," the RFPI staff devoted many hours writing an inch-thick proposal for a Media and Peace Institute. "Strong brought in a fellow named Keith Spicer to review all the proposals," Latham recalls. "His response was negative." (Or so it seemed so at the time.)

Six months later, the RFPI staff stumbled across something startling on the Internet -- the announcement of a new project called the Media and Peace Institute. Its founder was none other than Keith Spicer.

Latham was incredulous. When he discovered that the institute had been funded with a $250,000 start-up grant from Maurice Strong (who now serves on the Institute's management committee with UPAZ Rector Martin Lees), he was furious: It was clear that Spicer's institute was copied "basically on the plan that we had produced."

RFPI protested to UPAZ but the only consolation they received was an agreement from Spicer to change the name of his organization to the "Institute for Media, Peace and Security." []

Help RFPI Return to the Air
RFPI broadcasts on a frequency of 7445MHz, an international band registered with the High Frequency Coordination Committee. Latham told The-Edge that RFPI's old frequency is still available.

Latham hopes to raise sufficient funds to purchase land in Costa Rica where the staff can build a new RFPI headquarters. When RFPI rises from the ashes, it will be operating under a license issued by Costa Rican authorities.

For more information on RFPI and details on how to help, check: (donations accepted here)

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