#Radical Media: Communication Unbound

New media forms are being applied by diverse actors, slowly tipping the balance of media power in favor of the active, engaged citizen across the continent.

Mario A. Murillo

 

It’s been over eight years since NACLA published its last volume dedicated to the many issues related to media in Latin America. Back then, one of the NACLA editors’ fundamental objectives was to explore how the high concentration of media ownership throughout the Americas, north and south, was undermining what most observers consider a fundamental right of citizenship: access to information and the means of communication. In the introduction to the issue, the iconic Uruguayan novelist and thinker Eduardo Galeano was cited for his prescient observation that “the dictatorship of the single word and the single image, much more than that of the single party, is imposing a life whose exemplary citizen is a docile consumer and passive spectator.”1

1351
Today, the continuous monopolization of the word by powerful corporate interests and the dramatic polarization between the haves and have-nots are more acute than ever, accompanied by the global media’s unrivaled capacity to downplay and distort the historic democratic processes taking shape across the hemisphere. At the same time, we have seen a number of advances in recent years that point to an increasing democratization of the means of communication—the emergence of social media, blogs, live streaming, the expansion of smartphones as a tool of media advocacy, and even the “human mic,” just to name a few. The recent democratic revolutions and popular movements, from the plazas of Madrid and the streets of Tehran to Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park, captured the world’s imagination because of their innovative use of these and other communication tools now comfortably in their hands.

However, less attention has been given to the use of media in the many mass protests and acts of civil resistance that have unfolded in Latin America in recent years, such as the popular minga of 2008 in Colombia, the national march to defend Bolivia’s TIPNIS in 2012, and the ongoing protests by indigenous communities and environmentalists against the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil since 2006. Therefore, as NACLA revisits the theme of communication in this issue, we feel it’s important to emphasize how these new media forms—combined with measures regulating the so-called old media of community radio and television—are being applied by a broad array of diverse actors at the grassroots level, all of whom are slowly tipping the balance in favor of the active, engaged citizen across the continent.

In 2004, we lived in a different world, technologically and politically, and certainly in terms of the diversity of the so-called marketplace of ideas. Think about it: Only a few months before NACLA’s last media issue came out, in February 2004, a young Mark Zuckerburg started Facebook out of a college dorm room in Harvard, creating a communication tool that is now used by almost a billion people worldwide and that, along with Twitter, has been credited with helping facilitate some of the most dramatic popular uprisings of recent times.2 A year later, YouTube was launched, rapidly emerging as one of the premier sites for grassroots video activists to openly confront the simplistic narratives emanating from the major national and transnational television networks, transforming how we share and view videos globally. Despite the inevitable commercial turn these new media have since taken, there is no doubt that their application and use by a broad range of actors has helped rupture, perhaps permanently, the establishment media’s oligopolistic grip on mass communication.

As NACLA highlighted in 2004, Indymedia was considered the model of revolutionary, bottom-up, alternative channels of communication at the time, and it continues to play a diminished yet important role in disseminating the perspectives of popular voices from around the world.3 Yet today we can point to hundreds if not thousands of other examples of creative and effective forms of media production in which practitioners and activists from a diverse range of local contexts are using audio, video, text, and social media to tell their own stories and document their struggles. Individually and collectively, these experiences share an expanding space of solidarity and mobilization, while simultaneously challenging the narrow, hyper-commercial vision of the dominant global media. This indeed is a positive advance in the decades-long push for media democratization, which is why we have chosen to highlight some of them in this issue.

For example, in this Report freelance journalist Luis Gómez covers the radical Mexican student movement #Yosoy132, which, with the use of social media and street protest, is calling for an end to the corrupt political system and the democratization of media. Anthropologist Carlota McAllister introduces us to the powerful work of Radio Santa María, a community radio station in Aysén, Chile, which helped to unite residents during the February regional uprising. In Colombia, the highly coordinated and disciplined communication work of the Nasa indigenous movement in the southwestern department of Cauca has been recognized nationally and internationally, both for the consistent quality of its work and for the profound courage of the mostly young people producing it amid the relentless threats from all the armed actors in the conflict.4 As activists Vilma Almendra and Manuel Rosental describe in their reflexive essay about this experience, it is no coincidence that over the last 10 years, indigenous organizations have been at the forefront of the popular movement’s struggle for social justice in Colombia.5

And indigenous communities are not the only people using these tools to confront injustices and expose rampant human rights violations. Currently, in Brazil, locally produced video is being used to document and challenge the ongoing displacement of hundreds of residents in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and other cities as the country prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. This ongoing effort is described in NACLA’s interview with Rio-based media activist Tiago Donato included herein.

From a political standpoint, Latin America has also changed dramatically since we published our last media issue. In 2004, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was two years removed from the failed coup that was reversed—some say partially, at least—because of the popular outrage expressed by local community radio stations in the poor regions of Caracas. These broadcasts were spontaneous expressions of resistance from people who would not stand for the distorted and deliberately false messages transmitted by Venezuela’s dominant media, which immediately took the side of the coup backers in April 2002.6 The community-radio practitioners were credited with directing masses of Chávez supporters out to the streets to confront the architects of the coup head-on, ultimately resulting in the president’s triumphant return to the National Palace.

A lot has changed in Venezuela since then, for better and for worse. On the one hand, there is the increasingly intense polarization between the major channels of information—the private, anti-Chávez establishment media represented most visibly by the powerful conglomerate the Cisnero Group in one corner, versus various state-controlled, yet much smaller, public channels in the other. The resulting media wars make the battles leading up to the coup seem tame in comparison. This permanent communication tug-of-war has transformed what was an already fractured public sphere once dominated by the commercial, private channels of the elite into a highly partisan, ideologically distorted vision of the country’s reality, as Venezuelan scholar and journalist Maryclen Stelling describes at length in this volume.

On the other hand, over the last 10 years under Chávez, Venezuelans have witnessed the consolidation of community-based public radio and television stations throughout the country. With the support of various state entities that deal with culture and communication, local civic organizations, block associations, and youth groups have been given the technical training and regulatory protections to establish their own spaces for media production and dissemination. The formal and informal grassroots media networks that have emerged as a result of this process provide local communities with an essential tool to build on Venezuela’s unfolding experiment with its brand of participatory democracy.7 Despite criticism from anti-Chávez forces, which accuse these projects of being manipulated by the government, there is no doubt that the creation of radio and television stations for communities traditionally marginalized by the Venezuelan media is a significant gain for democratic communication amid a sea of profound political division.

NACLA’s last media-focused issue was also published two years before Evo Morales was elected the first indigenous president of Bolivia, ushering in the latest of what had become a wave of progressive leaders elected in Latin America, all representing governments that for obvious reasons directed much of their political discourse against the biased, corrupt, and inaccurate representations of the mainstream media in their respective countries. This open, scathing critique of the establishment media allowed the new leaders to mobilize public opposition against them as symbols of the political-economic elite’s hypocrisy and inherently undemocratic tendencies.8 For example, the Chávez government justified its decision not to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, a privately owned TV station in Caracas (and later another one, Globovisión), because of its direct involvement in the 2002 coup. These outlets provided the orchestrators of the coup an open platform to disseminate misinformation, failed to accurately report on the popular rejection of the coup leadership by Chávez supporters, and refused to allow government representatives on the air to present their perspective during those three historic days.

It is not surprising, therefore, that today the “defense of the communication rights” of the powerful, conglomerate media serves as the foundation for the establishment’s backlash against Chávez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina.9 The ongoing accusations about attacks on press freedoms in the “left-leaning” countries of Latin America have been echoed repeatedly by U.S. officials, mainstream media pundits, and professional institutions like the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA). They point to measures like Venezuela’s 2004 Law of Social Responsibility on Radio and Television and Argentina’s anti-media monopoly law passed in 2009 as evidence of the authoritarian, undemocratic nature of these governments. In an interview in these pages, Argentine media scholar and journalism professor Carlos Ciappina attributes the IAPA’s critical posture toward Venezuela, for example, as evidence of a growing concern on the part of the major media of losing its monopoly in the marketplace as the government opens up more spaces through regulatory measures for local, community-based media. He argues that for the IAPA and other sectors of the dominant commercial information industries, media democracy is acceptable as long it does not challenge the status quo and their own dominant positions.

The truth is that the reality on the ground is a lot more complex than both critics and supporters of either position might think, as Bolivian communication scholar Alfonso Gumucio explains in his nuanced essay about Bolivia’s media system under Morales. Gumucio argues that this dual strategy of ostracizing the media as enemies of the people on the one hand, while attempting to promote a government agenda through friendlier media channels on the other, can be a mixed bag, both for the government itself and for the defenders of so-called democratic communication. The bottom line in Latin America is that over the past decade, a number of countries in the region have taken bold steps to democratize the media by giving access to more people who have traditionally been marginalized and ignored. (See “South America: A Panorama of Media Democratization,” by Alexandra Hall, on page 56, for a comprehensive rundown of some of these laws throughout the region.)

While much has changed for media in the Americas since 2004, much has also remained the same. The political-economic power and market dominance of the regional media giants—Organizações Globo in Brazil, Grupo Televisa in Mexico, Grupo Clarín in Argentina—remain unchanged. Always a pervasive factor in the development of Latin American media systems since the first quarter of the 20th century, the influence of U.S.-based transnational media corporations, from satellite and digital distribution to the well-known broadcast network brands, has not waned either. CNN and Fox continue to lead cable news in the United States. They also maintain a small yet significant market share in several Latin American countries, despite the creation of multinational media projects such as Telesur, which began broadcasting in 2005 as an alternative news channel from a progressive Latin American perspective.

What we call “the media” in Latin America are not a homogenous entity. It has many forms, expressions, and models, both within each country and the region. For every powerful monopoly, like Brazil’s Globo, Venezuela’s Venevisión, and Argentina’s Clarín, there are examples of courageous independent outlets, such as Página 12 in Argentina and La Jornada in Mexico. While massive broadcast networks like RCN and Caracol have dominated Colombia’s media market for generations, there are also spaces like the independent television channel Canal A and the national investigative TV program Contravía, which consistently provide alternative perspectives to Colombian audiences.

And with new technologies and an expansion of regulatory measures designed to open spaces for community-based, alternative, and independent media, Latin America has undergone some of the most progressive transformations in the field of communication the world has seen over the past decade or so. These concrete gains are the result of years of struggle carried out by a strategic convergence of the social justice and media democracy movements in the respective countries, and have as precursors the inspirational tradition of the original community radio broadcasters in the 1940s and 1950s, from the miners in Bolivia to the peasantry of Colombia.

As prominent communication scholars have pointed out, even under some of the most repressive circumstances, a limited tradition of truly independent journalism has thrived in Latin America for years.10 Throughout the Americas, there is a vibrant, diverse world of communicators—journalists, commentators, academics, researchers, activists—telling compelling stories that collectively represent at least a fragment of the reality of the region.

Over the years, the news media in several countries have echoed the denunciations of human rights groups, social movements, independent researchers, and whistle-blowers by publishing and broadcasting reports about corrupt military and political officials, corporate malfeasance, and illegal foreign interventions. For example, in Argentina in the late 1980s and early 1990s, despite attempts in the media to whitewash the atrocities of the military junta, the work of award-winning investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky in the pages of Página 12 resulted in the first public confessions of retired Navy officer Francisco Scilingo for his role in the infamous death flights, one of the ugliest chapters in Argentina’s dirty war against so-called subversives.11

More recently, in Colombia—one of the most dangerous places in the world for the practice of journalism—the national commercial press should be applauded for its role in breaking and keeping alive the parapolítica scandal, which in 2006 and 2007 exposed the pervasive links between right-wing paramilitary leaders of the AUC and members of then president Álvaro Uribe’s administration.12 The scandal was exposed at almost the same time that Uribe accused other investigative journalists of being “accessories to terrorists” for their reporting on the internal conflict, unleashing a series of paramilitary death threats on members of the press.13 From reporters covering Mexico’s drug gangs to investigative journalists exposing the corruption of the leaders behind the illegal coup in Honduras, committed media makers continue to face serious attacks for doing the public-service work of speaking truth to power throughout Latin America. In these pages, Carlos Lauria, senior Americas Program coordinator for the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists, highlights these ongoing threats in a brief survey of the region.

However, for the most part, the mainstream news media tend to give minimal attention to the lives of thousands of ordinary people, particularly peasants, indigenous, Afro-descendants, and the poor. This is a direct result of the media’s fascination with high-profile personalities, be they politicians, members of the economic and social elite, beauty queens, celebrities, or athletes. It is also a reflection of journalists’ over-dependence on either official sources who are allowed to frame the national debate or sources who are clearly within the journalist’s social comfort zones.

The resulting hierarchy of coverage is especially apparent in the highly sensationalist TV news programs, in which sounds and images are used in dramatic ways to convey sympathy for the victims of violence and common criminality, taken completely out of context, while shining the bright lights on celebrity and consumerist culture, much of which is alien to vast swaths of the viewing public. Profound social and economic inequities that continue to systematically marginalize millions of people tend to be either misrepresented or ignored.14 Most news accounts of popular resistance to the status quo are framed either as aberrations in an otherwise comfortable democratic order or as acts of criminality that should be forcibly shut down, at least until the next commercial break.

The inherent disconnect between the major commercial media and the everyday realities of the vast majority of Latin Americans does not mean people automatically reject the relentless torrent of messages they receive every day on their television sets. Indeed, audiences in the remotest villages or in the shantytowns of the metropolis—living with the bare minimum of resources and without any hope of accessing true centers of power—are captivated by the flickering image on the screen, by the perverse scenarios that are hatched before them, and by the commercial messages they have become accustomed to despite being so far removed from them.

Nevertheless, there is a desire for more, which is why the diverse experiences of grassroots, independent, community-based citizen’s media—in radio, television, print and online projects—continue to be among the most exciting aspects of the media reality in the region today, and why we chose to showcase several case studies in this issue (although it would be impossible to include the full range of experiences and analysis in these pages).

As the world continues to witness radical social transformations spearheaded by popular movements that are deliberately confronting the highly filtered, top-down messages of the corporate, mainstream media, it is imperative to take a different look at where Latin America is and where the region might be going in the coming years in the area of communication and democracy. Some of these developments have been facilitated by technological developments of the past decade, as mentioned above. The role certain governments might be playing in expanding the spaces of deliberation for local communities is equally important.

After all, if another world is possible, a necessary prerequisite is a robust and democratic media system that facilitates the process of grassroots participation and civic engagement.

 


 

Mario A. Murillo is Professor of Communication and Chair of Radio, Television, Film Department at Hofstra University in New York, where he also serves as co-director for Civic Engagement.

 


 

1. NACLA Report on the Americas, “Media in the Americas,” 37, no. 4 (January/February 2004): 14.

2. Jose Antonio Vargas, “Spring Awakening: How an Egyption Revolution Began on Facebook,” The New York Times, February 17, 2012; Jared Keller, “Evaluating Iran’s Twitter Revolution,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2010.

3. Teo Ballvé, “Another Media Is Possible,” NACLA Report on the Americas 37, no. 4 (January/February 2004): 29.

4. EFE, “Reina Sofía entrega premio a indígenas colombianos,” September 6, 2010.

5. See Mario A. Murillo, “Un tejido de comunicación: medios comunitarios y planes de vida en el norte del Cauca,” Comunicación, desarollo y cambio social (Bogotá: Editorial Javeriana, 2011), 157–89; Mario A. Murillo, “The 2008 Indigenous and Popular Minga in Colombia: Civil Resistance and Alternative Communication Practices,” Socialism and Democracy 23, no. 3 (November 2009): 117–37.

6. Greg Wilpert, “Community Airwaves in Venezuela,” NACLA Report on the Americas 37, no. 4 (January/February 2004): 34.

7. Martha Fuentes-Bautista and Gisela C. Gil-Egui, “Community Media and the Rearticulation of State-Civil Society Relations in Venezuela,” Communication, Culture & Critique 4 (2011): 250–74.

8. See, for example, Philip Kitzberger, “The Media Activism of Latin America’s Leftist Governments: Does Ideology Matter?” German Institute of Global and Area Studies Working Papers, no. 151 (November 2010).

9. See, for example, G. Philip Hughes, “Obama’s Remarkable Silence on Latin American Press Abuses,” U.S. News and World Report, May 29, 2012; The Economist, “Shooting the Messenger: Threats From Criminals and Governments,” October 21, 2010.

10. See Silvio Waisbord, Watchdog Journalism in Latin America: News, Accountability and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2000).

11. For a compelling account of this history, see Horacio Verbitsky, The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior (The New Press, 1996).

12. Committee to Protect Journalists, “Colombia: Where Journalists Go Unpunished,” webpage, available at cpj.org.

13. The National Security Archives, “ ‘Body Count Mentalities’: Colombia’s ‘False Positives’ Scandal, Declassified,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book no. 266, January 7, 2009, available at gwu.edu/~nsarchiv.

14. See Waisbord, 93–101.

 


 

Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2012 issue: "#Radical Media: Communication Unbound."

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.