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Alternative information in the service of political and social mobilizations

quarta-feira 9 de fevereiro de 2011, por Terezinha Vicente , Terezinha Vicente Terezinha Vicente Terezinha Vicente

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Translated from Portuguese by Diane Garceau

Through the initiative of Ritimo, a French organization oriented towards communication, in the service of international solidarity and sustainable development, and of the Brazilian organisations Ciranda and of Intervozes, a seminar was set up to bring together alternative media from various countries, during this first day of self-organised activities in the WSF Dakar. In the search for the construction “of a world without inequality, that gives voice to those who are excluded,” says Myriam Merlant of Ritimo, “these organizations are essentially a counterpoint to mainstream media.” The objective of the seminar, which consisted of three parts, was the exchange of experiences and the proposal of joint actions that would lead to the organization of a new World Forum of Free Media.

In the first part of the seminar, a panorama of new media in the continents was developed, bringing together diverse experiences from Africa, America Latina, Asia and Europe. In France, where there are good laws to guarantee the freedom of expression, “the reality shows that freedom of press is not that great now,” says David of the Citizen Report. The classification of this query, mediated annually in this European country, shows a drop from 34th place to 44th place, according to the journalist. “Half of all French citizens say today that things do not happen the way that the media says, 66% find that the major printing-presses are under the dominion of the politicians, and principally the common people believe less in less in mainstream media.”

The concentration of the media is also something that has been happening in France in the last few years, including the new decrees by Sarkozy, one of which determines the nomination of the board of directors of public television by the government. “In the last thirty years, the vehicles of small media will cease to exist,” says David, and information will be concentrated in the major media outlets whose donors are, for example, two large firms that manufacture arms and airplanes; another media investor and a mineral trader from from Africa. “We are becoming more and more dependent on mainstream media, but that is not the only problem”, continues the citizen reporter. “Before, social movements used to like when the media appeared, today these movements want the media to keep their distance, and people ask why news coverage is all the same.”

We know that story too well in Brazil, and the similarities do not end there. “They are trying to produce the news in the cheapest way possible, there is no longer any reporting; journalists have the same social background, the majority of them come from the higher classes, study in the same schools.” Besides, according to David, there is the “myth of the individual”, where personalities are valued for one reason or another. “The individual constructs society, it is not society that constructs the individual, for the media; events are favoured but not the historical context and a utilitarian way of thinking is propagated. The reader is a consumer, not a citizen.”

Latin America, Africa, all the same

In Latin America, it is American private media and not European private media which provides the communication model, says Sally Burch, of ALAI, Agencia Latinoamericana de Información. “Community media seeks to fulfill the role of public media, but are even smaller and more marginalized, they are principally radios. "In this southern hemisphere, “we are talking more about the right to communication than information,” in these last fifteen years, when a movement fighting for that essential right has grown. Large firms, more than governments, are concentrating communication and the debate is increasing with the new more left-wing governments. Sally cites examples from Argentina and from Venezuela, where large-scale mobilizations influenced this agenda and where the theme has just reached the social movements, which perceive the necessity of creating their own media.

As a participant of the communication commission of the WSF, the coordinator of Ciranda, Rita Freire, stresses the importance of WSF’s role as a voice for democracy in communication media. Presenting the contrasts that exist in Brazil, Rita drew attention to the criminalization of poverty and the commercialization by the media, distorting reality, the image of women, hiding the majority of African descent, attacking the rights of children. “In Brazil, in order to modify this situation, there is a growing movement which emerged from communication activists, alternative media, and journalists tied to social movements; and which thas transformed itself into a call for Brazilian society to understand that this communication structure is unnatural, undemocratic and needs to be changed.

This movement convinced the Brazilian government to convene a national conference on communication, this during the last WSF, in Belem. As Rita remembers, “This conference demonstrated how much we are surrounded and controlled by mass media in Brazil, who endeavoured for a year to prevent this conference from happening.” The journalist even remembers that in the last period three thousand community radios were shut down in Brazil and mainstream media tried to criminalize popular media, so today there exists a concrete process of coordinating small media, which are a means of defending the new policies of communication in our country.

Alternative information in the African continent

For Alymana Bathily of Amarc – Senegal, “today, the media scene in Africa consists of information pluralism; but this came about in the middle of the 90s thanks to the struggle of social movements and to the revolutions, some violent, like the one in Mali, or the conquest of the end of apartheid in South Africa. We saw the birth of pluralistic media, we have state media, which until recently had been the only ones, there had been no private media. Here in Senegal we have fifteen daily newspapers; in 1995 we had ten community radio stations in all of West Africa, today we have 200.” Private television stations have been developing in all of Africa, in Senegal alone there exists a half a dozen channels, which Alymana considers a lot for a small country (12 million inhabitants). There is a lot of diversity, according to the activist, there are journals that are pro or anti government, editorial, religious, etc.

The other novelty, according to him, is the internet, although it has very little penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa (5 or 6% of the population), in comparison to North Africa. “The internet is developing slowly, but is well utilized by community radio stations (62% access) and by social movements. The other thing is cell phones, half of the African population has access, and this makes an enormous difference, even though they cannot be used in a very creative way. Until recently, it has been difficult for journalists to go out and pass information to the editorial office.” The last election was an example of this, when journalists were able to provide coverage in all locations and this permitted the opposition to win. On the other hand, there exists an arsenal of laws about defamation and slander against chiefs of state, a fact which leads journalists to practice self-censorship. Also the training of journalists is another problem, as well as the lack of equipment, principally for community radio stations.

Mohammed Legtas, through e-Joussour of Morocco launched a project for social movements in order to coordinate actions in North Africa and in the Middle East. In this region, "the atmosphere is hostile towards the rights of women and freedom of expression. Conventional media is totally controlled by the state. Journalists are often sent to prison.” The development of alternative media, like the internet, generated new militants who learned to develop new platforms, and filmed, for example, soldiers receiving corruption money. Mohammed remembers that in recent events in Tunisia, the cellular phone played an important role, yet 3G had only just arrived about eight month prior to that. Promoting television and radio via the web is very important due to illiteracy.

E-Joussour is not only an information site. “We are very active in the mobilization of social movements; we are working a lot with video and cellular media and also with translation in order to allow information to reach the Arab population. We are using free software, the easiest possible, and we are offering instruction on editing and publishing.” It was in this way that much of what occurred in Tunisia and Egypt was published. Video-maker in Egypt, Mahmoud El-Adawy, tells us that the path was forged by the Tunisians. “For a long time we could not imagine that a revolution could happen in Egypt, we fought by way of Facebook, exchanging information that we had access to, and this is more than a little ironic, but we discovered that this allowed us to accomplish our dream of joint action.” See Mahmoud’s exclusive interview for Ciranda about Egypt.

Maris de la Cruz, of Network for Transformative Social Protection, Philippines, says that her network works for the dignity and life of the people, but recognizes the importance of fighting for communication. The work which commenced in 2009, joins various movements, involving Thailand, Tunisia, and Vietnam, in addition to the Philippines. The idea is to achieve “guaranteed rights, to strengthen the social movements, and to help the poor to conquer collective economic and political forces starting from concrete benefits, and transforming them into actors in the social movement.” For her, the process of information has been fundamental in the fight for any other right. The 1987 constitution guarantees people’s right to information and declares that it is necessary to have complete transparency in the state, but until now congress has not regulated this legislation. Since 2000, civil society has fought for this, “we are fighting in order to build an alternative media, but the influence of private firms on the government constitutes a very strong barrier, mainstream media only disseminates information that is useful for them.”

Assembly of Convergence and new World Forum on Free Media

Such a large convergence of situations in relation to mainstream media demonstrated the importance of augmenting our world networks and the urgency of establishing a new World Forum on Free Media, with the proposals to make it happen before the next WSF. Mario Lubetkin, of the IPS-Terra Via, of Rome, insists that it will be accomplished in the Rio + 20, which will take place in the next year in Brazil, taking advantage of the presence of people from all over the world.

A proposal was also defended by Renato Rovai, of the Magazine Forum of Brazil. He claims that we should already have accomplished this meeting of free media proponents so that we would feel more empowered. “We need many avenues, including those that diverge from each other, in order to have a vision of diversity. It is fundamental that we dispute information, but that we do not build our avenues on the same foundation as commercial media, our means are not vertical, not commercial, they don’t use information like a merchant.” The debate saw the proposal by Fazila Farouk of Sacsis Agency, South Africa, of a collaboration that advocates working in conjunction with existing media, since we are not able to compete with them, and “we are spending too much time talking to each other.”

Still participating at the tables, Michel Lambert of Alternatives, in Canada, from France, Agnes Rousseaux of Basta, and Anne Laurence Mazenq of RadioForum, and Bia Barbosa of Intervozes, Brazil. For the direction of the proposal of a new World Forum on alternative media, Bia proposed to put together a set of documents that would be raised at the assembly of convergence of communicators which will take place on the 10th of February. “It is necessary to involve the WSF in the fight for communication,” said Bia, supported by several of the participants. The set of documents is being constructed in order to make an international proposal for the realization of a new World Forum on Free Media, probably in the coming year.