Argentina's Community Media Fights for Access and Legal Reform
Marie Trigona here explores Argentine groups that have emerged to produce alternative and independent media for television, radio, and video in an effort to counter what she describes as misinformation and lack of access in the mass media. "Together, these community television stations are transforming the media landscape throughout the Americas. This redefined space for independent media has three vital functions: disseminating alternative information; providing a space for popular voice and especially the voice of groups underrepresented in the media; and building community. In Argentina, citizen media groups simultaneously fight to build self-run, autonomous media and for reforms in media laws that will allow them to operate legally."
As Trigona details, today's video activism has deep roots in the cinema and arts movements in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s. Lack of restrictions on media ownership and the death of public policies to promote media diversity during the military dictatorship at that time exacerbated today's virtual media monopoly. Clarín, Telefónica, and Telecom are the largest conglomerates; between them they run television channels, news publications, cable, internet, telephone, and radio. Argentina's radio broadcasting law dates back to 1980, when Dictator Jorge Rafael Videla was still in power. According to Trigona, this law guaranteed private media holders large profits, promised support for the dictatorship from media outlets, and silenced journalists from reporting on the systematic genocide taking place in the nation. The law also placed the few television stations existing at the time in the hands of the military. She claims that, since Argentina's return to democracy in 1983, only minor reforms have been made to the law, but always to promote private media ownership and concentration. According to the law, Trigona asserts, non-profit groups, universities, cooperatives, or community associations do not have the right to apply for a broadcast license. Thus, corporate groups have homogenised much of the nation's media coverage.
As detailed here, beginning in 2008, more than 300 social organisations, union groups, human rights groups, small businesses, and community media organisations formed an official advisory committee to debate a new media law. In short, citizens are demanding that the media be democratised, making the airwaves accessible to all citizens. They want to build a network of community television and radio stations featuring content produced for and by the people. The resulting Coalition for Democratic Broadcast Regulation led a letter campaign presenting a formal letter to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner providing guidelines for a new bill proposal. Trigona states that the Coalition played an important role in developing the 21-point bill on March 18 2009. Trigona indicates that many journalists, actors, and media figures have supported the president's initiative, called the Audiovisual Communication Service law (SCA, by its Spanish initials). If passed, the law would reserve 33% of airwaves for non-profit groups. (Editor's note: For an update on the status of the law, see the English service of Télam, National News Agency of Argentina and "Community on the Airwaves: End to Dictatorship Media Law in Argentina", by Marie Trigona, October 19 2009.)
Apart from these legislative developments, Trigona argues that "[m]edia activists in Latin America have dispelled the myth that you can create media only with state-of-the-art equipment and corporate financing....Argentina had a 24-hour pirate television station called Utopia that aired in the 90s. Brazil is home to Radio Favela, broadcasting radio in the nation's Favela's (marginalized shanty towns) since the late 80s. Many documentary producers in the Southern Cone utilized film and even intercepted TV signals to resist repressive dictatorships during the 70s. Relatively inexpensive digital technology like digital video cameras, audio recorders, computers, and editing software has shifted the paradigm even further. Today, amateur filmmakers can record, edit, and distribute their projects to a global audience over the Internet."
Trigona looks more deeply at one effort to establish a permanent community television station, Utopia TV, which functioned as a 24-hour TV station broadcasting in Buenos Aires from 1992-97. Programming included a daily hour-long news show highlighting struggles against neoliberalism during the administration of former President Carlos Menem. Diverse groups participated in the station, hosting music and arts programming that focused on local activism. Trigona states that "Utopia never had any legal standing and the police constantly raided the station...but the media activists of the station learned to build their own transmitters, allowing them to quickly replace any broken or confiscated equipment. Often times while in the streets filming, participants were arrested and police broke cameras. The station ultimately closed down due to relentless police persecution."
She also discusses Ágora TV, a community television production collective that currently reaches a global audience of grassroots activists and citizens through the Ágora TV website. The site features video productions from all over Latin America dealing with issues including labour conflicts, social movements, indigenous struggles, and experimental video art. The Buenos Aires-based video collective Grupo Alavío built the website as an organising tool and alternative media space for groups that would not otherwise have access to the airwaves. This illustrates Trigora's claim that many of the Argentina's community television projects are adapting to new audiences and technology through, for example, live video streaming via the internet. For instance, the collective Antena Negra filmed and immediately streamed a subway strike in Buenos Aires.
According to the author, "All of these independent TV and video projects have consciously worked to train women in community media production. They regularly produce videos and content covering women's issues and the women's movement throughout the region. Another goal is to correct the gender bias in mainstream corporate media and ensure a gender perspective in reporting on current events."
Effective strategies and tactics, from Trigona's perspective, can be summarised as follows:
- Providing hands-on skills training for grassroots organisers on how to build their own media and video production creates a multiplier effect.
- Self-managing and self-financing grassroots media helps to prevent any "conditions" from being placed on content, production, and/or exhibition.
- Building alternative circuits for video exhibition in places where grassroots activists work, live, and organise increases access and audience.
- Organising video screenings generates critical debate and reflections on social movements' practices, achievements, and challenges, and the importance of independent media.
- Using the internet to upload video and live streaming reaches a global audience.
- Making technologies and skills accessible and available to workers and the economically poor helps democratise audiovisual production.
- Creating critical viewers and a feedback loop with audience members consolidates media projects.
- Building a network of community television stations throughout Latin America strengthens them through the sharing of skills, training materials, and productions. For example, groups throughout Latin America send in links to their videos online to put on Ágora TV. Another illustration is Grupo Alavío, which has made efforts to build relationships with other Latin American community television stations like Catia TVe in Venezuela and Canal 3 La Victoria in Santiago, Chile.
- International linkages, such as international coalitions like the World Association of Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) and international meetings on how to include support for community media in the region's goal for regional integration in spaces like the World Social Forum, have bolstered the development of community and participatory radio, along the principals of solidarity and international cooperation.
Trigona concludes that, "[w]ith greater media concentration in the hands of private corporations, citizens see the media as a basic right. They want to build community television and radio stations to present many under-represented stories of the continent. Citizen-run TV stations strengthen civil society by coordinating efforts, sharing knowledge, and improving the self-esteem of the citizens participating in it. Many pirate TV stations are doing just that - building a space for exhibition and interaction to motivate organizations and social movements to tell their own stories with video. Until laws barring community television change, activists will continue to have to work independently to reclaim their right to access TV."
The CIP Americas Program's series of 10 Citizen Action Profiles on Communication Rights, sent from Ricardo Ramirez to The Communication Initiative on January 10 2010; and email from Marie Trigona to The Communication Initiative on April 28 2010. Image credit: Marie Trigona