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Opinion and Analysis: Social Movements | Venezuelan Media

Catia TVe, Television From, By and For the People

Context in which Catia TVe operates

The community and alternative media movement came into being more than forty years ago in Latin America and more than twenty years ago in Venezuela, out of the wave of Popular Education, Liberation Theology, and liberation struggles against dictatorships all across the continent in the  1960’s and 1970’s. 

Rather than coming out of anarchist movements, as was the case in Europe, the discussion about alternative media in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America took shape around the concepts of the popular [editor’s note: “popular” in this text refers to the country’s poor majority] and communitarian that were more characteristic of the Latin American situation and were adapted to the urban and suburban peripheries, as well as the farming, mining, and indigenous communities in diverse regions of the continent. This is how Latin America’s popular communication movement developed, little by little, in the face of dictatorships and against the imposition of an imperialist ideology.

Beginning with flyers, posters, sound recordings, community publications, megaphones, radio speakers and up to the higher wattage signals used for radio and television broadcasts, community media has always been part of the work of popular assemblies and the struggle to “make known” and “make the people’s voices heard.” In brief, community media works to democratize communication, effecting the necessary separation of the medium and the message.

Today in Venezuela, the existing debate over “freedom of expression” is little more than an excuse that the National Bourgeoisie uses to monopolize spaces of power in corporate media outlets that they themselves own and operate. The corporate media’s objective is to create an extensive dominant ideological apparatus that alienates people, keeping them “asleep.” Fortunately, beginning in 1999, when the newly formed National Assembly passed the Organic Telecommunications Law (Ley Orgánica de Telecomunicaciones), a path opened toward building a legal framework for strengthening the community media movement–now making it reach all the people. In 2002, the National Assembly passed the Free Community Radio and Television Broadcast Ruling. Beyond setting legal norms for the community media sector, this law provided the means to carry out the democratic and participatory participles consecrated in our Constitution and also fostered community media for social change.

These days, when Venezuela’s political and socio realities are at the eye of the storm, community media plays a fundamental role as a means of ideological formation that coincides with the changes we are experiencing.  A large part of the population, who could never before express themselves, are now beginning see glimpses of the freedom they possess to change their reality, with a view toward grassroots development within communities, and by extension towards constructing socialism.               

Background: Cultural and political efforts that brought Catia TVe into being 

The West Catia TVe community station was born as the dream of a group of compañeros from the Simón Rodríguez Barrio near the Mental Hospital sector – Manicomio – (previously known as the Barracas de Manicomio), in the La Pastora region (city of Caracas). Catia TVe surfaced from a community initiative in our barrio to introduce cultural alternatives into the community. We began in a building that had been abandoned after Venezuela’s Caracazo. However a few months later, in mid 1989, we began to withstand a conflict of interest over the building. Since we were young we’ve had progressive ideas, so we began a political project with students from the Luis Espelozín public high school. It was our “little university in Catia.” Thanks to this experience, our group established a close political organizing relationship with the PRV (Revolutionary Party of Venezuela) and other leftist movements. When we began our political work in Catia, Blanca Eekhout, a compañera who is now the President of Vive TV, came to work in the barrio. Eekhout, who is from Acarigua, Portuguesa [a state in Venezuela], participated in our struggles and worked along side of us in building our dreams.

Towards the end of 1989, we founded the group “10.12” performing Gaitas or wind instruments (a traditional Venezuelan music that’s played in December). These performances were very successful in the barrio and everyone wanted to participate. As a result of these events, we took over another space available in the barrio. We organized an assembly and the community decided that we should function inside this space. This is how we formed “The Simón Rodríguez Cultural Center.” The space quickly turned into a neighborhood commission: the community held weekly cultural planning meetings, discussed political issues and analyzed national and local problems. We discussed everything that affected the community. So the repression began: our building was raided, some community members were arrested, and we were threatened and persecuted. During the Fourth Republic [as the period prior to the Chavez presidency is known] any type of community organizing was looked down upon by authorities.

We realized that we needed to organize more activities and increase local residents’ participation. With this in mind we founded the “Manicomio Film Club.” The objective of the Manicomio Film Club was to create a space for debate and discussion around film screenings. The films were projected amidst the bleachers of the sports stadium– one of the few covered sports stadiums in the working class neighborhoods of Caracas–where we had an improvised screen hanging from the ceiling to effect an outdoor movie theater. Our group became more enthusiastic about cineclubísmo, and we applied ourselves increasingly to this project.

Anything related to audiovisual production captivated our attention. Since our film club was one of the few film clubs holding regular events (every Friday and Saturday), the National Center of Film in Venezuela (CENAC) wrote us a letter in 1993, offering to premier the film “Shoot to kill” by Carlos Azpúrua. They brought us equipment for the screening. Likewise, through our work with the Manicomio Film Club we obtained a video camera and we soon began to film many of the community activities. Our first completed film was the “Paradura del Niños,” a traditional activity. We announced that we were going to screen the local short film instead of a foreign film that we normally screened every week. Nearly 2,000 people attended the premier of “Paradura del Niños,” much more than our regular 200 attendees. We were amazed by the event’s success …and that day in mid 1995 our dream of building a community television station was born, so that our community could see themselves represented

We began interviewing residents from the barrio with a small camera as part of our objective. In these interviews people voiced concerns about the problems within the community. We took advantage of the baseball culture in Venezuela and broadcast the games. But instead of broadcasting advertising during half time like the commercial stations do, we “took over their signal” and inserted our locally produced videos during halftime. This how we slowly raised consciousness and created empowerment within the community. The actress on TV was no longer from Europe or the USA. Viewers no longer saw the streets of New York or Paris. It was no longer a reality simulated from the North. People from the community that we all knew were now the protagonists. The alleyways and streets of  “Las Barracas” were now the backdrop. Our moments of happiness and sadness, achievements and conflicts were now represented.

Time went by and in 1998 we founded the Civil Association “Magic Lantern Film Culture Center” which was a project for children to produce their own audiovisual pieces. We also traveled to several states in Venezuela to hold film screenings. However, we continued with our long-term dream of creating our own community television station in Catia. In the beginning, we had the idea of a closed circuit broadcast in the barrio running cables from house to house. We were told we were crazy and that it was going to be very difficult.

Then, when Hugo Chávez won the elections in 1998, we organized a meeting in the city of Maracay (Aragua State) with other groups that were working along the same lines as we. There we learned that a community group in the Táchira State had created a community television station a number of years ago. One member of the Táchira State collective, who was a telecommunications engineer, had designed and built the television station that was up and running. We discussed our project with this compañero and he provided the technical support for us to get started. In mid 2000, our dream became a reality.

Don’t watch TV…Make it!

Even though Catia TVe began broadcasting in 2000, it was not until March 30, 2001 that we officially hit the airwaves. We began to broadcast with a legal permit that the Venezuelan government gave to us. President Chávez found out about our station and was excited about the project carried out by residents from Western Caracas, so he came personally to inaugurate the station.

At the same time Catia TVe was founded and built, groups were working to create a legal framework for community media to flourish throughout Venezuela’s territory. This effort was accompanied by an analysis of the type of media that the People wanted and needed. Many debates were included over how to participate alongside the State, the movement of community media (functioning as collectives or on an individual basis) and the community. These debates, especially through the analysis originating from the People’s belly, found that Catia TVe should exist and should be transformed into a real entity. Catia TVe is part an ever-changing project rooted in community participation, communities as protagonists and the union of a needed social fabric to bring forth changes that Venezuelans are working toward.

The fundamental principle of Catia TVe is to encourage participation within organized communities. Catia TVe seeks community participation in the making of audiovisual productions reflecting community struggles and demonstrating how to build networks within the community. We have also stimulated a debate and analysis of the current corporate media outlets and the commercial aspects. Our objective is to build a media that the People want, with democratic participation based on dialogue. As part of this objective and considering that community media is a space for the people to exercise their power, at least 70 percent of Catia TVe’s programming must be produced from within the community. Those who struggle daily and are working to change the reality that we suffer produce Catia TVe. The People produce Catia TVe’s programming, making the necessary separation between the medium and the message. The other 30 percent of Catia TVe’s programming is produced by the station’s paid staff and other independent productions (full-length films, shorts, documentaries, etc.) from other communities with similar problems.

Because Catia TVe is a television station connected to the working class, those of us involved in the station belong to the people. Every Catia TVe participant has a minimum political consciousness and social responsibility, we struggle against all forms of discrimination, we fight against imperialism and we are committed to our people’s struggle. Catia TVe shares a space for communication with organized groups that come from to various communities in Caracas, as a way of protesting. These groups have demonstrated a wish to participate, responsibly and consciously, as a method to strengthen community and not individual interests. We don’t define participation as a way for an individual to express his or her opinion about a specific issue. However, participation is the right the People have to express themselves through a radio-electric broadcast signal that belongs to the state, which is to say, belongs to every Venezuelan. We have the right to create our own audiovisual messages without media intermediaries and without the dominant class’s interests that maintains hegemony in the world. From this objective we developed our main slogan: “Don’t watch television.., Make it!” This slogan is an invitation for communities to MAKE television. In order for the community to make its own television, we hold workshops so that the groups have the minimum tools necessary to produce their own videos as part of Catia TVe’s weekly programming. Skills’ training has more of a political and ideological emphasis than a technical emphasis.

Catia TVe’s training workshops derive from the principles of Popular Education. The methodological process we developed is for groups and collectives to recuperate and analyze their collective experiences as well as identifying, with a critical perspective, the successes, errors, obstacles and strengths that they have to transform and improve their reality. This implies: having knowledge of communication; having a critical analysis surrounding the conditions and social context in which an individual or group must live; identifying the cultural and ideological values that effect the group’s or collective’s vision; developing a understanding of reality and how they act; associating learning with the collective construction of knowledge; and identifying and analyzing our own practices.

The open, flexible, participatory, collective and practical characteristics are essential and decisive to Popular Education. Popular Education’s fundamental objectives are based on the principles and values of democratic participation, building organization, and political formation for action, transformation, and concrete life changes. The groups work with participatory techniques that transform into a “pretext” to facilitate the group’s participation, reflections, dialogues, analysis and sharing knowledge—which come from their own realities and experiences as participants, with their own codes in a lively and motivating form that that provokes and maintains their interest.

Once participants conclude the Introductory Workshop on Community Audiovisual Production, the groups of participants (ranging from groups of four and seven people) form an ECPAI (Independent Community Audiovisual Production Team). The ECPAI teams are understood in the following form: It is a Team because the idea of Catia TVe is to propitiate collective work and put it at the service of the community’s common interest. Working in teams also favors the organized distribution of work and the conscious analysis of how to produce material—“two heads work better than one,” as the saying goes. We always say, while there’s more people, it’s better for the team and for the community.  It is Community because the groups of people belong to a specific social sector with common interests and characteristics, they associate on a social and community level as a way of strengthening organization in their environment.  When we say community we not only refer to the barrios, but also to student, worker, professional, artistic and sport communities. It is audiovisual production because Catia TVe produces audiovisual materials...and it is independent because the content produced for distribution is made by community teams. The materials never have to comply or follow an “editorial position,” like in private corporate media outlets, where the owner of the outlet (and the commercial interests that they obey) censors what content will be published.

To build Socialism: research, communicate and organize!

The community media’s struggle is at the very heart of the fight for the socialization of broadcast airwaves that belong to humanity. But transnational corporations continue to make profits with the concentration and monopolization of media airwaves. Television and radio airwaves should be recuperated for and by the people of the world for the benefit of humanity.

Each ECPAI (Independent Community Audiovisual Team) is organized by geographical zone or social area, a way of defining where an organization comes from. And just as community organizations or workers use flyers, posters or other means of communication, the ECPAI uses television. Nevertheless, until now television was difficult for communities to access. Catia TVe’s purpose is to act as an organizing tool, where communities build their own audiovisual discourse using a television broadcast signal.

This is how the long road toward socialism begins, where each ECPAI develops with direct community participation. Each ECPAI is like a participatory and democratic organization, discussing audiovisual materials with their community, broadcasting them through Catia TVe and finally sharing their experiences with other communities.

The idea that communities produce their own audiovisual materials isn’t philanthropy. The right to produce our own media forms part of the right that the poor have to organize themselves, as an exploited class fighting for liberation. Communication is organization and working class media is revolution. A long time ago it has been said that public opinion doesn’t exist. What exists is opinion based on class, and we currently need to build the Venezuelan exploited class’s opinion.

Catia TVe is the first legal community television in Venezuela. Catia TVe was instrumental in providing coverage of the active resistance against the State Coup April 11, 2002 and when the people re-seized power on April 13. Catia TVe also covered the sabotage in Venezuela’s oil fields throughout 2002 and 2003. Catia TVe has become a national and international example that other community television stations have followed. Communities throughout Venezuela are gathering the strength and technologies to follow in Catia TVe’s footsteps.

Catia TVe intends to grow, but not with the commercial media’s model. We want to grow by incorporating other communities and residents into the community television station movement. Currently, there are more than 30 community television stations throughout Venezuela. Nevertheless, we think a lot needs to be done. Catia TVe leads audiovisual production workshops in Caracas (where Catia TVe is located) and throughout the nation. We hold these workshops to organize groups so they can form new community television stations.

Worker struggles, community struggles, the fight of rural workers, women, indigenous peoples and other exploited sectors flow together in community media. Within Catia TVe they unite, transforming the struggles into a revolutionary program—converting the struggles as a singular voice but without losing the struggles’ plurality. This unity is needed to move us toward building socialism.

When we are asked if Venezuela’s community television stations are in favor of the Bolivarian Government, our answer is that television is a space where all the exploited sectors in Venezuela can participate. And so long as the Venezuelan Government supports these struggles, these community media sectors identify with the Bolivarian Revolution and they will fight against any social sector that plans to oust the government and take what belongs to the citizens. At the same time, Venezuelans will also struggle against any elements of the  bureaucracy that tries to usurp power for personal gain. For that reason, we say that community television stations engage in the revolution inside the revolution.

This is how community television has engaged in the struggle for liberation in Venezuela, with a critical, self-critical and class-consciousness perspective. We participate from our communities, providing ideological training that is building a single, class-based movement for liberation.  Community media are tools for unity that can help us move in the same direction. Unity and communication are also tools necessary for strengthening and deepening the revolution.

Legal Framework

Community media in Venezuela has been possible thanks to the struggle for the legal framework that has secured community broadcasters legality. When the Constitutional National Assembly convened in 1999 to write the new Venezuelan Constitution, the movements for Community Media participated in these discussions, working to establish the concept of social property, which in turn allowed one to speak of social ownership of radio and television airwaves. Out of these discussions came the Ley Orgánica de Telecomunicaciones (Organic Telecommunications Law) of 2000, which embodied the right to community media in a couple of key articles:

Then, in 2002, the Reglamento de Radiodiffusión Sonora y Televisión Abierta Comunitarias (Open Community Radio and Television Broadcast Ruling), which also came out of a deeply participative process involving the community media, defined the criteria for acquiring permits to broadcast legally. These criteria were informed by the community media’s model of “separating the medium from the message” with structures that encourage and enable independently produced messages from the communities. 

Articles in the Organic Telecommunications Law that recognize community broadcast media in Venezuela:

Article 12. As a condition of telecommunications service every individual has the right to:...exercise individually and collectively the right to free and pluralist communication through adequate conditions to create non-profit community radio and television stations dedicated to the community, in accordance with the law.

Articles in the community broadcast media law that separate the media and message.

Article 28. Community radio and television station will be broadcast media with independent and community productions, from the community and from other communities. At least 70% of a community station’s daily broadcast programming must be produced within the community.

Article 29. No single producer, from the community or independent, can take up more than 20% of the daily programming broadcast at a community television or radio station.

The station’s paid staff may only produce a maximum of 15% of the programming with the rest to be produced by community volunteers.

Translated from Spanish by Marie Trigona