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Our Media: Past and Future by Alfonso Gumucio

I've been invited to make a short presentation for the opening session of Our Media 5 Conference in Bangalore.  The principal reason for this is that I am the only one here who has had the opportunity of attending all four past conferences of Our Media /Nuestros Medios.  I was part of the initial group that met in 2001 and I've witnessed the growth of the network and its expansion to other regions.  This enables me to be more conscious of the risks and opportunities that the network faces from now on.

This is Our Media's fifth conference.  We started in 2001, in Washington, D.C., as a one-day pre-conference to a larger congress of the International Communication Association (ICA), which is primarily an organisation of scholars from the United States.  About 50 people, mainly from North America, South America, Australia and Europe, met for the first time in that pre-conference.  Their idea was to create a network of academics and activists to discuss and work on issues of community media, alternative media, citizens' media or radical media, however you would like to name it.  Clemencia Rodriguez and John Downing, the organisers, with the help of colleagues such as Nick Couldry and Chris Atton from England, were instrumental in putting that group together.

In 2002 we met again, this time in Barcelona, Spain, and the group was enriched by the participation of new colleagues.  Again, our meeting was a one-day pre-conference to a larger congress, this time of the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR).  The obvious reason for doing the first two conferences as part of a larger event, ICA or IAMCR, is that most of our colleagues from universities in Europe, North America and Australia were able to obtain funding for their air tickets.  Otherwise it would have been difficult for them to join us.  Colleagues from Third World countries benefited from a Ford Foundation grant to Our Media for the first two years, which was later renewed for a third year.  Our Web site was established with the help of John Higgins, and many colleagues contributed documents and photos.

New and interesting developments took place in 2003, when Our Media met for the first time in a country in the Southern hemisphere, in Colombia.  Also, for the first time, the Our Media 3 meeting was organised as part of a national communication conference with active participation of Colombian communication scholars, activists and students.  For the first time we had real local partnership: the Universidad del Norte, in Barranquilla.  This was a whole new development for Our Media, since we shared the organisation of the conference with local institutions and, as a result, participation in our meeting increased in numbers.  We had more interaction with Colombian colleagues, and, for the first time, we had the opportunity to make field trips to visit local projects and initiatives of social development.  This was also the first time that an Our Media / Nuestros Medios conference extended over two days, including the field trips.

Encouraged by that experience, we held Our Media 4 in another Latin America country, Brazil.  We met in Porto Alegre, the city famous for hosting the World Social Forum"where social movements of the world meet every year.  Our Media 4 conference again linked with an IAMCR congress, and both were hosted by the Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Rio Grande do Sul.

Our Media 4 received local support from activist groups who organised field trips, ICT laboratories, a live community radio in the campus of the university and other parallel activities.  For the first time our programme extended over three days, including the conference and field trips.  More practitioners and activists joined Our Media /Nuestros Medios, which in the first two years had been very much a network of academics.

What is new and important in Bangalore?

Let me tell you several important new developments concerning the Our Media 5 conference.

  1. This is the first time an Our Media /Nuestros Medios conference is being held in Asia; the first time it is organised outside of the Western part of the world.  In fact, when we suggested, in Porto Alegre, that Asia should be next, some colleagues reacted saying, "Asia is too far." I replied, "Too far from where?"

    Asia became a feasible conference location thanks to initial contacts made by Ellie Rennie, Jo Tacchi and Dorothy Kidd, among others.  It was made possible by the Indian committee that was later formed and by contributions from Juan Salazar and other members from the international committee.
  1. This is the first time the Our Media conference is not tied to any other event and stands on its own feet.
  1. This is the first time the organisation of the conference has been largely in the hands of the hosting country, led by a group of local institutions, mainly Voices and the United Theological College.
  1. This is the first time that we are holding a four-day conference, including the field trip.

Why is Our Media /Nuestros Medios Important?

Our Media is a network of academics and activists, people involved in communication and social change who recognise that a big gap still exists between academic studies on communication and the needs for social change.

Most university departments self-labelled as "social communication" are narrowly oriented to conventional mass media: press, television, radio, as well as advertising, public relations and marketing.  My rough estimate is that these universities produce 50,000 new journalists every year.  Out of 2,000 "social communication" departments or faculties around the world, I found scarcely 15 that have programmes specifically related to communication for social change and development, some at the graduate level, some at the master's degree level and some at the Ph.D. level.  Only the University of The Philippines at Los Baos offers communication for development programmes at all three levels.  These 15 universities are training a new generation of communicators for social change. 

I would like to briefly point to the difference between a journalist and a communicator for development and social change, as I see it.  A journalist uses the media he or she has been trained for (radio, TV or print), and alone decides on the contents of an article, a documentary or a poster. A communicator, on the other hand, has the capacity and motivation to be a facilitator of social change and he or she is equipped with something very few journalists have: a strategic perspective of communication for development and the conviction that communication is not about messages but rather about processes of transformation and social change. A journalist may be able to write good articles and prepare radio programmes and messages on tuberculosis, for example; a communicator is able to facilitate a national strategy to combat TB, using various forms of communication and media, but above all, involving communities and institutions concerned with the issue by means of participation and dialogue.

The cruel paradox is that, while most of universities are training journalists, the need of communicators for social change is enormous. The demand from development projects and the offer from universities do not meet.  When I was in charge of the communication and information programme in UNICEF Nigeria during the early 1990s, and later, in UNICEF Haiti, I couldn't find communicators when I needed them.  I received dozens of CVs from good journalists, but they had no experience working with communities.  I didn't need good writers or good designers as much as I needed people who could facilitate a process of participatory communication.

Most of us, communicators for development and social change, were actually trained by working with participatory approaches for many years at the community level.  Many of my colleagues with a similar profile come from fields apart from journalism.  They come from rural extension work, from health work, from social activism.  I myself am a filmmaker by training and a journalist by practice.  However, we have been trained to be communicators by the communities we worked with.

The above shows why Our Media is so important. Our Media has the opportunity to help build the bridge between the practice of communication for social change and the way communication is taught in academic institutions.  Our Media can help to bridge the gap between demand and supply.

Looking at the Moving Horizon

The horizon is always a moving target: The more we approach it, the farther away it moves.  But that is the beauty of it, because if we ever catch up to the horizon, there will be no more room for dreams and utopia.

This fifth conference of Our Media in Bangalore is a turning point.  From here on, Our Media can gather new strength to continue, or collapse and die.  It will depend on us.  Nobody out there will care about the future of Our Media as much as we who made the effort to come to Bangalore and those who couldn't come but are committed to the network.  Unfortunately, as we've seen in Porto Alegre, some colleagues have disengaged, partly from fatigue, partly because they embraced other projects, other dreams. Perhaps this continuous renewal of the Our Media network constitutes its main potential.

The next horizon of Our Media will be decided during this week, in consultation with the larger group of those who, for several unfortunate reasons, could not come.  Although it has not been a common practice in previous Our Media meetings, I dare to suggest the organisers of this conference craft a short declaration about our horizon in the future"

I want to emphasize that the active and critical participation of every one in this meeting is crucial.  We are all plain participants here, with the same rights, even if this is the first time we meet.  We need to express our views, critical as they may be.  We need to think together as a network.

Our Media conferences are not the same as any other academic conferences, in which everyone comes to tell the others about the great work she or he is doing in his or her country or community.  Such accounts of concrete experiences are useful, but we need to go further.  We need to discuss the principles that guide our work in communication for social change.  This conference should not be a series of monologues and reports, but a true discussion on the ideas that drive us forward.

As much as we want to learn about what the others are doing, we need to be more substantial.  Sharing information is fine, but establishing a dialogue of ideas and ideals is even better.

Thank you.

The Our Media Web site:

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