Community Media: The Thriving Voice of the Venezuelan People

In Venezuela
today a grass-roots movement of community and alternative media is challenging the domination of private commercial media. Part of this
transformation is the understanding of freedom of speech as a positive and
basic right.

By Liz Migliorelli and Caitlin McNulty
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In Venezuela
today a grass-roots movement of community and alternative media is challenging the domination of private commercial media. Community oriented, non profit, non commercial, citizen and volunteer run media outlets
are a crucial part of the democratic transformation of society that is
occurring throughout Venezuela. Part of this transformation is the
understanding of freedom of speech as a positive and basic right. This right includes
universal access to a meaningful space for communication in addition to freedom
from censorship. Freedom of expression as a positive right provides universal
access to the means of communication. Political Analyst Diana Raby reiterates;
"the technology of modern communications has to be made accessible to all, not
merely as consumers but as participants and creators."[1] Community media is
beginning to fill this role in Venezuela.

The 1999
Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was written and ratified
by the people themselves, setting a societal precedent of democratic
participation. The constitution contains articles that grant new rights to
Venezuelans such as indigenous rights, access to education, healthcare,
housing, employment, political participation and many others that make the
Venezuelan Constitution one of the most progressive in the world in the area of
human rights. Article 58 specifically states, "Communication is free and plural
and must adhere to the obligations and responsibilities under the law. Every
person has the right to objective, true and impartial information, without
censorship...." Article 108 of the Constitution ensures that all communication
media, public and private, must contribute to the social development of
citizens. The same article guarantees public access to radio, television,
library networks and information networks in order to permit universal access
to information. Public access channels and community-based media are rights
that, for the first time, were ensured under the 1999 Constitution.[2]

The Organic
Telecommunications Law, which was passed in June 2000, states that there are
three types of broadcast media in Venezuela: private, state and community. The
law gives legal recognition to community broadcasting, enabling it to receive
special tax breaks. In order to be recognized as a community broadcaster, the
programming has to meet the following criteria. Principally, the station must
be non-profit and dedicated to the community, with the requirement that 70% of
its programming must be produced within the community. Also, there must be a
separation between the station and its programming, which means that the
station itself may only produce 15%, leaving the remainder to be produced by
community volunteers. In addition, the station must provide training to
community members so the production of media is accessible to everyone. The law
also states that the directors of the community media cannot be party
officials, members of the military, or work for private mass media.[3]

Although the
Constitution of Venezuela recognizes community media, prior to the April 2002
coup against the Chávez government, these small television, radio and newspaper
resources did not receive much attention from the state. While the community
media normally supported the Chávez government, active support was not
provided.  At first, the primary goals of
community centers were the right to exist and operate openly in society. Before
Chávez was elected president, participating in community media was a
clandestine activity and a victimized form of freedom of speech; homes and
offices that housed community radio stations were often raided and operators
feared for their lives. Community media stations have since multiplied,
amplifying the voices of individuals and communities, increasing community
communication and cohesion, fostering cultural awareness and political
participation, and increasingly meeting the positive freedom of speech rights
of Venezuelans. A new form of participatory communication based on local
experiential knowledge is gaining popularity and influence.[4]

Despite the
strong foundation community media has in the Venezuelan Constitution and laws,
community media is still a relatively new voice evolving into an active forum
for the democratic and revolutionary process of the Venezuelan people.
Community media has become a necessary alternative because it is made and
controlled by the people. After the failed coup attempt, the government
realized how crucial community media is to the people and to the State. It
became apparent that the state media cannot be the only alternative to the
private media because of its relatively low ratings and its consolidated nature
that make it completely vulnerable in a coup situation. When Channel 8, the
state run television channel, was taken off the air during the coup in April
2002, most Venezuelans were denied accurate coverage of the events. The coup
was defeated with the help of community media stations and activists; they
rallied their communities together to take to the streets and demand that their
voices be heard.[5]

In stark
contrast to corporate media that creates a dominant ideological framework,
community media is an instrument of ideological formation that harmonizes with
the democratic, social and economic progress occurring in Venezuela. Many
Venezuelans formerly denied access to the media are now beginning to control
their media and create positive change. Communities are telling their own
stories, sharing their struggles and exposing their truths that had been excluded
and silenced for so long. Community media has become a tool to battle against
corporate media control of society. Blanca Eekhout, a founding member and
director of community run CatiaTV in the Catia
barrio
of Caracas speaks of the film movement connecting her community:

The next step in the
process was decisive: the activists in the struggle for water, in the ‘asamblea popular del agua,' began to
use film as a tool for their struggle. The camera became a weapon: we would
tape officials coming to the community and making promises, and use the film to
hold them accountable. This film movement started to become the cables of a
network to connect the community. A network of barrio news was created, based
on creating and passing these films.[6]

CatiaTV and
other community TV stations engage in the struggle for liberation from the
corruption of private media with a critical, self-critical and
class-consciousness perspective because participation comes from within the
communities. According to the CatiaTV Collective, "community media works to
democratize communication, affecting the necessary separation of the medium and
the message."[7]

Community media
activists created a National Association of Alternative and Community Media
(ANMCLA) in response to the extreme difficulties the community media stations
faced when trying to obtain authorization through the National Commission of
Telecommunications (CONATEL). Carlos Carles, a journalist with Radio Perola in
Caracas, said that CONATEL in presenting what validates an alternative radio
station:

proposed
techniques of demonstrating statistical data. Against this, we proposed local
knowledge, oral narrative, historical memory, and the everyday work of the community.
As a result of this difference, we entered into a major debate, and we
completely rejected the legal component of the proposal made by the Chávez
government.[8]

With ANMCLA, a
community can authorize a station and legalize it themselves. There is no such
thing as an illegal station because everyone has the constitutional right to
communication and freedom of expression.

Community media
is democratic media. Vigorous citizen participation is needed from the bottom
up and it operates according to the needs and wants of the public. A clear
difference is understood and made between citizens and consumers; the viewer is
seen as a "protagonist" rather than a consumer, the prominent portrayal of
viewers in private media.[9] The community media movement promotes public
ownership and control of resources such as public rights over the air waves,
the radio and TV spectrum, and communication infrastructures are supported.
Democratic media concern themselves with the civil and human rights of all
media participants - media producers must be free from government and
commercial interference and free to innovate and present controversial issues.
Because the programming comes directly from the community, the content is truly
democratic and inclusive.

In addition to
providing a meaningful space for community communication, community radio and
television stations can be a space to keep local culture and traditions alive. Paraguaipoa, the first indigenous
community radio station located in the state of Táchira, is now one of nine
indigenous community radio stations in Venezuela. All programming on
Paraguaipoa is either in Wayuu or provides bilingual programming for
accessibility and the preservation of language. The radio station shares a
building with one of the first indigenous primary schools which places an
emphasis on traditional Wayuu culture, language, and traditions. The school has
two weekly radio programs in which students regularly create their own shows.
Ángela, a Wayuu member who has a weekly radio station, captures the essence of
the role community media plays:

Our children turn on the radio, and they
hear their aunt, their friend's mother, their older sister and her friends.
They hear stories from the mouths of those who know the community and what we
need. And they hear our language. All of this makes the children proud and
eager to participate, and it gives our own community some of the power we lost
to the lies of the media stations.[10]

The private media fails to report the
great successes of community media because, despite their small size, these
stations pose a serious threat to those who are in control of the information
that mainstream Venezuela receives. Venezuelans are making their own news,
reporting their own stories and are unmasking the lies and manipulations that
the corporate media has controlled for so long.

Community media is a strong, promising
and essential step toward democratizing Venezuelan society, but the road there
isn't necessarily a smooth one.  There
are many challenges that lie ahead. To begin, community media is still a small
mobilization- one that the majority of Venezuelans do not take part in.[11]
Venezuelans must reject this dependence on private media sources and begin to
participate within their community. Without the direct participation of the
people, there is no alternative voice to the dominant media in Venezuela. And a
capacity to coordinate these guerilla media resources must be strengthened.
Community radio and television stations are incredibly effective in covering
issues affecting the community and facilitating community communication and
organization, but not all stations cover national and international issues.
This is why the network of cooperation between community radio and television
stations in Venezuela is so important. Through sharing programming and air
space with stations throughout the country the stations, which often have a
regional focus, are able to provide more comprehensive coverage. Exchanging
knowledge, information, resources and ideas is crucial in furthering and
strengthening the community and alternative media movement.

There has been some criticism over
government funding of community media. Because many stations were only
legalized under Chávez, and the majority receives governmental funding, many have
voiced concerns of government intervention or pressure concerning content.[12]
ECOS radio, the station for Barrio Pueblo Nuevo in Mérida, occupied an
abandoned building for three years before it was expropriated by the government
and they received the title. Now, they share the space with the barrio's
community center, often using the radio for community organizing. Although the
station has benefited from the expropriation of their building, the
legalization of their station under the radio and telecommunications act, and
the donation of equipment, ECOS is in no way under the control of Chavez.

We believe it is important to work for
the revolution that is working for us, but we often express criticisms of el proceso bolivariano...of course the state
has played a large role in the implementation of the social programs, but there
are many movements, many great things that come directly from the community
here and that is what she share here at ECOS.[13]

This sentiment
has also been expressed by Chávez. When Catia TV was officially legalized, he
urged the community media center to speak out on issues important to the
community and hold the government accountable to their promises, welcoming
criticism.[14]

Community media
stations are ensuring true freedom of speech and expression in Venezuela. The
media conglomerates that are trying to take this democratic process out of the
hands of the people can be fought and defeated with the awakened, aware and
united voices of the Venezuelan people. As Venezuelan activist Eva Gollinger
states:

The
case of Venezuela evidences the first time that the media, as a powerful,
private actor, has waged war against the people in order to advance its own
agenda. Public access to media and diversity of voices have been usurped by the
private media moguls in Venezuela propagating their own political and economic
aims.[15]

Community media
in Venezuela is fighting back. Mass media's monopoly on the power to manipulate
public opinion has been threatened. The Venezuelan revolution is based on the
principles of inclusion, participation, and protagonism; on spreading what used
to be reserved for a few to the entire population, from political representation
and participation to social services such as healthcare, food, and education,
to the ability to participate in the media. As individuals work together to
learn to use equipment, collaborate to create radio shows and proceed together
with the long process of experiential learning, the self-sufficiency of the
community grows. In creating a community voice organically from those who have
lived and breathed and struggled there all their lives, a sustainable means of communication
media is established. Voices formerly silenced by the corporate media emerge on
their own terms, articulating the reality they are creating for themselves
through participatory communication. They are deciding what the important
issues are for their own communities and framing their own debates. The
democratization of media has begun.


Notes

[1] Raby, D. L.
Democracy and Revolution Latin America and Socialism Today. New York: Pluto P,
2006.

[2] Venezuela.
Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela. Caracas: Gaceta Oficial, 1999.

[3] Global Legal Information Network. 02 June 2009 <http://www.glin.gov/view.action?glinID=73319>.

[4] Kozloff,
Nikolas. "Chávez Launches Hemispheric, "Anti-Hegemonic" Media Campaign
in
Response to Local TV Networks' Anti-Government Bias." Council on
Hemispheric Affairs. 28 Apr. 2005. 02 June 2009
<http://www.coha.org/2005/04/chavez-launches-hemispheric-%

[5] Kozloff,
Nikolas. "Chávez Launches Hemispheric, "Anti-Hegemonic" Media Campaign
in
Response to Local TV Networks' Anti-Government Bias." Council on
Hemispheric Affairs. 28 Apr. 2005. 02 June 2009
<http://www.coha.org/2005/04/chavez-launches-hemispheric-%

[6] Podur, Justin.
"Venezuelan TV for and by the Communities." Venezuela Analysis. 13
Sept. 2004. 12 May 2009 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/696>.

[7] CatiaTV
Collective. "Catia TVe, Television From, By and For the People." Venezuela
Analysis. 19 July 2006. 12 May 2009
<http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1843>.

[8] Fernandes, Sujatha. "Growing Movement of Community Radio in
Venezuela." Venezuela Analysis. 26 Dec. 2005. 12 May 2009
<http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1543>.

[9] Gomez, Luis. "Media Constructed From
Below." Venezuela Analysis. 18 May 2005. 12 May 2009
<http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1135>.

[10] Hernandez, Angela. "Los Consejos
Comunales." Personal interview. 3 Feb. 2009

[11] Wilpert, Gregory. "Community Media in
Venezuela." Venezuela Analysis. 13 Nov. 2003. 2 June 2009
<http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/221>.

[12] Wilpert, Gregory. "Community
Media in Venezuela." Venezuela Analysis. 13 Nov. 2003. 2 June 2009 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/221>.

[13] ECOS Radio. "Community
Media." Personal interview. 30 Jan. 2009.

[14] CatiaTV Collective. "Catia
TVe, Television From, By and For the People." Venezuela
Analysis. 19 July 2006. 12 May 2009
<http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1843>.

[15] Golinger, Eva. "A Case Study of Media
Concentration and Power in Venezuela." Venezuela Analysis. 25 Sept. 2004.
5 May 2009 <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/710>.

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