Print Version Print Version Email to Friend Email to Friend
MAZI Articles

The Right to Communicate, Social Movements and Democratic Participation

Starting with the image of poor women in Bolivia literally protecting their rural radio station with their bodies, Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, the Consortium's managing director of programmes, explains the power of community radio as a tool of social change. In November 2006, Gumucio presented his remarks at the "Global Framing of Democracy: International Perspectives on Civil Society, Communication and Democracy,"¯ a meeting organized by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

One powerful image gives us the essence of the relation between social movements, democratic participation and the right to communicate: a chain of poor women holding hands, surrounding a small radio station, ready to offer their lives to protect it, if necessary.

It was the end of July of 1980, a few days after the bloody military coup of General Garcia Meza, in Bolivia, my home country. Mass media houses had been immediately shut down July 17, the first day of the coup. In the larger cities, not one journal, television or radio station was spared. Paramilitary groups acting on behalf of the coup organizers had immediately assaulted our weekly journal.

"¯Aquķ"¯, which means "Here,"¯ had been the leading progressive journal in the late 1970s. Months before we had been denouncing the upcoming coup and its relationship with the drug trafficking Mafia. In March, our director, Luis Espinal, a Jesuit priest, journalist and film critic, had been kidnapped, tortured and shot 13 times. The generals were not going to permit us, or any other media, to continue operating. We went underground as soon as we realized we had no means to continue.

The only independent media in the country that continued to operate were the miners' radio stations in the small mining communities of Potosķan and Orura, in the Andean mountains. About 20 radio stations had been created in the early 1950s by the miners themselves, who decided, poor as they were, to give the amount of one day's salary to support their radio stations. While the leaders of the coup used the occupied media to say that there was no further resistance in the country, and they had full control of the national territory, the minors' radio stations continued their transmissions to reveal that the general strike against the coup was still ongoing, two weeks after the military had taken the government institutions and the presidential palace in La Paz. .

The army moved through the mountains towards the mining camps and encountered resistance. Miners, who have always been in the political vanguard of Bolivia, were not ready to give up their radio stations without a fight. This is when women and children gathered around their radio stations and formed human shields holding their hands and offering their bodies to keep out the army. The radio stations kept transmitting the details of the confrontation, and we could hear the sound of bullets as the military approached a particular mining camp. I have a deeply-moving recording in which one can hear the voice of a broadcaster who continues transmitting until shots are so close that he ends by saying: "Compańeros, the military are closing in, and we will l be shut down any time soon . . ."¯

And then, silence.

Then, another broadcaster of the network, in some other place, picked up the signal and continued the transmission.

Eventually, after a couple of weeks of resistance, all miners' radio stations were occupied and many of them destroyed. During the 1960s and 1970s, miners' radio stations became crucial for the miners' movement in Bolivia, and they became an example of alternative and participatory democracy throughout the world. They were not the voice of traditional trade union movements, but they were the voice of many who didn't have a voice. The Bolivian unions of miners and peasants didn't fight only for better wages or living conditions: They were known because their struggle covered all issues of national importance. They had a vision of the country that largely transcended their particular interests.

Above all, their struggle was for democracy and democratic participation. There are more than 6,000 community radio stations in Latin America, and each one has a story to tell of struggle for survival and identity that shows the commitment of communities and social movements to the right to communicate.

Africa and Asia are following the same path: The need to communicate cannot be met with "access"¯ alone. The high degree of cultural, social and political involvement has resulted in social legitimacy of community radio stations all over the world.

The story of Bolivian miners' radio stations demonstrates the importance that social movements attach to the right to communicate as essential to democratic participation. Participation is ownership of the communication process, which leads to ownership of the development process, which, in turn, leads to sustainable development.

Communication, Rather Than Access to Information

Commercial mass media serves its own interests in Latin America as in every other region of the world. The misleading term free media, which is used mostly in North America and Europe, doesn't seem sufficient to understand the context of the media and democracy in Latin America.

Free media actually has benefited media concentration in the hands of the powerful in our [Latin America] region. The champions of free media are no less than the Interamerican Press Society"”Sociedad Interamericanade Prensa"”an organisation of owners and directors of large media holdings. A similar organisation's members are those who own radio networks. They are the main defenders of the free press, which is why the wording itself has so little to do with the right to communicate.

Journalists are only cogs in the machinery, used to self-censorship to keep their jobs. In the name of freedom of expression, hundreds of community radio stations are being tagged as "pirate"¯ stations and are shut down by the police in various countries of Latin America, in spite of the fact that the whole region lives in "democracy."¯

Formal democracy, or electoral democracy, is not necessarily the same as participatory democracy, just as free press is not the same as participatory media.

Take the example of Guatemala, the country where I now reside. There are five national television channels, four of which are owned by one man, Angle Gonzalez, a Mexican living in Miami. He also owns a network of radio stations and journals in Central America. As presidential elections approach in Guatemala, all presidential candidates travel to Miami to visit Gonzalez and to be on good terms with him. He seldom visits Guatemala, but when he does, he is received like a head of state.

Meanwhile, indigenous community radio stations are victims of police abuse in Guatemala. The paradox is that the prosecutor in charge of "freedom of expression"¯ is the one that issues the order to shut down the "pirate"¯ radio stations. His office receives orders from the Chamber of Private Owners of Radio Stations. For decades, some of us in Latin America have been saying that private commercial media is not helping to bring about democracy and social change. They're helping only the political interests of the powerful and wealthy.

Private commercial media didn't help in the struggle for democracy and the fight against dictatorship during the 1960s and 1970s. On the contrary, private media accommodated the autocratic regimes very well. Consequently, hundreds of what we called "alternative media"¯ experiences developed, even under military rule in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Brazil and other countries. They were labelled extremists and their experiences were rejected as isolated and with little impact.

Maybe the stations were small and isolated, but they represented thousands of voices, and they made the difference to many people in urban and rural areas. Above all, they taught us to read critically the underlying motivations of private media and their tricky jargon about freedom of expression.

Ironically, no less than Ignacio Ramonet, the director of a major international journal, Le Monde Diplomatique, is saying today the same things that we said 30 or 40 years ago.

Since 2003, Ramonet has been promoting the idea of the "fifth power,"¯ or new, independent media, because the "fourth power,"¯ he argues, is totally mediated by political and economic power and doesn't represent the needs of the majority of people.

Communication is not the same as information. Words have lost their meaning. The origin of the word "communication"¯ is communio, which meanssharing and participating.

Democracy is another word that has been distorted by its use in politics. Originally from demos, meaning "the people,"¯ it now means the rule of people, the power of people to decide.

Language often confuses terms in such a way that we often use mass communication to refer to massive media that is disseminating information. (Some would even say misinformation.) Much of the debate of the 1970s was about access to information.

The Mac Bride Report, which was created under the auspices of UNESCO 26 years ago, focused on information issues and the uneven flow of information in the world. Today, the discussion is more focused on communication rights, although many don't want to hear about it and prefer to continue promoting access through large international debates, such as those surrounding the "information society."¯

Some of us were at the World Summit on the Information Society and felt disappointed by the strategy of governments and large international organizations to abandon the discussion of the right to communicate and, instead, promote the fancy debate on new technologies and the so-called technology gap.

Social, political and economic issues were left out of the agenda, and it seemed as if the discussions were going back to the old paradigms of diffusion of innovations of the 1970s, when it was said that information about technology innovation would allow the Third World poor communities to improve their lives: Information would be the cure for underdevelopment.

However, the assumption didn't have solid ground, and Latin American social movements reacted by saying the problems were structural, not informational. People were poor because of social injustice, not because they weren't informed. And people needed to exercise the right to communicate, rather than have others speaking on their behalf.

The struggle of social movements for the ownership of the communication process has been difficult, because democratisation of communication means that the powerful lose control and power, as social movements build their own means of communication. The overall context of media for democracy has not evolved as much as some would like to think, compared with the time of military dictators and autocratic regimes.

Today, there is more concentration of media in fewer hands than there was 20 or 30 years ago. Legislation in some countries has gone backwards, because of pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to privatise national resources, including the airwaves"”the electromagnetic spectrum.

Actually, some people at the World Bank are now conscious of the harm done to community radio through the privatisation of the airwaves and are trying to support community radio projects. National states were forced to sell national public radio and television with the argument that media in the hands of the government was used only for propaganda. Some of us think that this resulted only in less diversity and more concentration.

With all its risks, national public networks were conscious of the importance of coverage of education, culture and social issues in the media, most of which have disappeared now in private commercial media, heavily influenced by U.S. television programming.

Accountability of Communication Approaches

Ironically, governments are being held accountable for managing what the national states no longer have. The word "accountability"¯ seems to been created for governments, not for the private sector or for international cooperation. Under external pressure, national states have privatised their economy, and some of them even education and health, but they are still held accountable for managing the social sector.

The private sector, which benefited from the wave of forced privatisations, doesn't seem to be accountable, until social organisations react. It has been the case for water distribution companies, raising the price of water in poor neighbourhoods, and eventually being chased out when social organisations raise the consciousness of people.

Accountability also should reach private mass media and communication approaches. Some encouraging experiences are taking place in Latin America and other regions, where media observatories have been created in recent years from the civil society to keep an eye on media ethics and information content. Such watch dogs are today the only structured response to private media that has developed, over the years, in virtually total absence of regulation, not only setting the political and economic agenda but also intervening directly in power relations, as it happened in Peru during the Fujimori era, when most of the private networks were bribed by the corrupt government.

We need to expand the concept of accountability from information delivery to communication rights in order to keep an eye on legislation and regulations that favour an enabling environment for social organisations to have their own voices to actively participate in the democratic process.

Participatory democracy can only be built through participatory communication, not through the filtered access to mass media that is private and obeys vested economic and political interests.

Initiatives based on the right to communicate and participatory approaches to communication for social change are the guarantee to transcend the electoral model of democracy, which limits participation to voting every four or five years.

It is not enough to change procedures to perfect (and export or "spread"¯) the same model of electoral representation. The concept of democracy (demos) itself needs to be reviewed to achieve real distribution of power and less concentration in fewer hands. Those, already in power, who set the rules and procedures, often hijack representative democracy.

Representation cannot be legitimate if those represented do not have a real voice, an equal voice. This explains why people in Latin America and other regions have turned their backs on traditional and well-established political parties and prefer to take a risk with new leaders of social movements. It also explains the very low vote turnout in countries where people are certain that they are not well represented and the election will not fundamentally change anything.

We need to get away from the vertical model, the centralised Aztec pyramid"”symbol of top-down democracy. People need to own the process of communication for democracy. The role of social movements that are representative of civil society is crucial to develop participatory processes and give back to people the power of decision-making and collective action.

Click here to return to Mazi 9

Click here to return to the main listing