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Argentina’s Community Media Fights for Access and Legal Reform


In response to misinformation and lack of access in the mass media, citizens have created alternative media networks that play a fundamental role in today’s Latin America. Together, these community television stations are transforming the media landscape throughout the Americas. This redefined space for independent media has three vital functions: disseminating alternative information; providing a space for popular voice and especially the voice of groups underrepresented in the media; and building community. In Argentina, citizen media groups simultaneously fight for autonomous spaces and for reforms in media laws that will allow them to operate legally.

 

In most parts of the world, getting access to television programming is nearly impossible if you’re not a media conglomerate, celebrity, or corporation selling your product in a commercial. But what about civil society? Shouldn’t citizens—the consumers of television—have as much right to use television as corporations do? Shouldn’t TV be a right for everyone, not just a privileged few?

 

In Argentina, media concentration dates back to when the 1976-1983 military dictatorship censored most of the press and implemented harsh laws to prevent opposition from being publicly expressed. Media legislation from Argentina‘s dictatorship is still intact today.

 

But over the past decades groups have emerged that produce alternative and independent media for television, radio, and video to counter mass media’s misinformation. They face legal challenges and a lack of resources, yet the independent media movement continues to grow.

 

A History of Fighting for Access

 

Today’s video activism has deep roots in the cinema and arts movements in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s. Argentine groups like Cine de la Base and Cine Liberación began a legacy of political cinema in the Southern Cone that narrates working class and national liberation struggles.

 

Pirate television or illegal broadcasting dates back to the dictatorship when groups would intercept a broadcast signal, interrupting regular television programming to televise information about clandestine resistance to the military government’s forced disappearances of activists, workers, and students. The groups faced unrelenting persecution and violence—Raymundo Gleyzer, film director and founder of Cine de la Base, was disappeared in 1976 by a commando group, while many other filmmakers were forced into exile.

 

The dictatorship used disappearances not just to terrorize the opposition but also to guarantee the political conditions needed to impose the current neoliberal economic model. Lack of restrictions on media ownership and the death of public policies to promote media diversity have led to today’s virtual media monopoly. Less than a handful of media conglomerates now control most of the nation’s media. Clarín, Telefónica, and Telecom are the largest conglomerates, and between them they run television channels, news publications, cable, Internet, telephone, and radio.

 

Argentina‘s radio broadcasting law (Ley de Radiodifusión 22.285) dates back to 1980, when the military dictatorship was still in power. Dictator Jorge Rafael Videla sanctioned the law, which guaranteed private media holders large profits, promised support for the dictatorship from media outlets, and silenced journalists from reporting on the systematic genocide taking place in the nation. Commando groups killed more than 100 journalists during the military dictatorship.

 

The law imposed placed the few TV stations existing at the time in the hands of the military. Article 96 of the law, which is still in effect, states that the Federal Broadcasting Committee (COMFER) falls under the control of the State Intelligence Agency.

 

Today, under the watchful eye of COMFER, only a few media conglomerates control most of Argentina‘s airspace: Telecom, America, Multicanal, Telefonica, Grupo Clarin, and Cable Vision. In a Big Brother paradox, the law essentially allows only private media conglomerates, the Intelligence Agency, and the military to control and regulate the media.

 

Lack of Media Diversity

 

Since Argentina‘s return to democracy in 1983, only minor reforms have been made to the law, but always to promote private media ownership and concentration. According to the law, only an individual or commercial group established in the country has the right to acquire a license to broadcast a television or radio signal. Non-profit groups, universities, cooperatives, or community associations do not have the right to apply for a broadcast license. For community radio and television stations, this law is a holdover from the days of authoritarian rule that has literally blocked any possibility of gaining legal permission to broadcast.

 

Corporate groups have profited from this law and homogenized much of the nation’s media coverage. Former President Carlos Menem privatized public or state-run radio and television stations in 1990, granting the newly privatized stations rights to broadcast until 2005. Through a series of tricks and loopholes, several economic groups have acquired more than 24 licenses, although the law states that an individual economic group can only possess a maximum of four licenses. In 2005, President Nestor Kirchner sanctioned the Menem decree 527/05 by renewing licenses for media conglomerates for a grace period of 35 years. The nation’s top three stations will remain in the hands of major economic groups: Daniel Hadad, the right-wing media tycoon, will retain Channel 9 until 2019; Clarín group will own Channel 13 until 2025; the Spanish company Telefónica will hold on to Telefé (Channel 11) until 2025.

 

Corporate concentration of the media has practically eliminated diversity in media and especially TV programming. There’s little difference between what is shown on each of the stations. News programs spend more time reporting on petty robberies than actual news events happening throughout the country. A new trend in Argentine television is the rise of shows like "Dancing with the Stars" and "Big Brother," which have been adapted for a South American audience, and have won record ratings among the nearly 30 million Argentine viewers. Even government representatives from the Federal Broadcasting Committee, Argentina‘s broadcast media regulator, admit that TV programming is filled with junk.

 

In a recent interview, Claudio De Cousandier, director of the Federal Broadcasting Committee, said that deregulation and media consolidation can be blamed for the current state of TV in Argentina. "Due to further deregulation, media groups can hold newspapers, television broadcast channels, and cable TV stations—leading us to media concentration and even a monopoly. In the past two years the Federal Broadcasting Committee has faced pressure to open negotiations for more access for broadcast licenses for low-broadcast signal stations, but a lot of interests and money is involved."

 

Citizens Demand New Legislation

 

For years, community media groups and human rights organizations have fought for new media legislation. Starting in 2008, more than 300 social organizations, union groupings, human rights groups, small business, and some community media organizations formed an official advisory committee to debate a new media law. After nearly 30 years of dictatorship legislation, the law may undergo a reform to include community media and improve access and diversity in TV and radio.

 

The Coalition for Democratic Broadcast Regulation, made up of hundreds of organizations, led a letter campaign, presenting a formal letter to President Cristina Kirchner providing guidelines for a new bill proposal. The Coalition played an important role in developing the 21 point legislation that has been adopted by the president.

 

Human rights group the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo has been rallying for a law to change media broadcast regulations since at least 2005. They also started up their own AM Radio station, AM 530 La Voz de las Madres, in 2005. They have held numerous open radio and pamphleteering campaigns in the historic Plaza de Mayo, demanding new legislation and a legal broadcast permit for their own radio station.

 

Another community radio, Radio GraficaRecuperating the airwaves, is housed in one of Argentina‘s worker-controlled factories, a printing press. The radio began broadcasting in 2005. They didn’t have any legal recognition until 2007, when the Buenos Aires legislature declared the radio of public and cultural interest. They were hindered from ever getting a broadcast license because they are a not-for-profit community association.

 

Community groups’ efforts have begun to pay off. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner presented a bill to change the current dictatorship law on March 18, 2009. Many journalists, actors, and media figures have supported the president’s imitative, called the Audiovisual Communication Service law (SCA, by its Spanish initials). The law states: "Airwaves belong to the community, they are the patrimony of humanity … they should be administered by the State with democratic criteria."

 

The SCA law calls for several fundamental changes to media legislation. The most important aspect of the law is the following: The law would reserve 33% of airwaves for non-profit groups. This would ensure that community associations, non-profits, and universities have guaranteed access to broadcast licenses.

 

COMFER Vice President Sergio Fernandez Novoa said in an interview with the state press agency Telam that "the previous law only allowed individuals or commercial businesses to apply for licenses, meaning that any individual without commercial purposes couldn’t have a television or radio station in Argentina, like cooperatives, civil associations, or community radios. Now not only can they, but they should be guaranteed a third of the broadcast airwaves currently controlled almost completely by private commercial companies."

 

Many community media groups like the World Association of Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) have also expressed their support of the law which "radically modifies a media model which has been built upon private concentration and monopoly of the media because of a law that dates back to the military dictatorship." Even soccer god Diego Maradona supports the law, which includes a clause that prohibits private stations like Direct TV and Pay Per View from charging users to watch major sports events. "This law would allow everyone in Argentina to watch big sports events for free," said Maradona.

 

The bill does not include special provisions for Argentina‘s minority groups or spell out legislation for funding community media projects. Indigenous communities in Argentina have demanded that they be included in the new legislation.

 

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her husband Senator Nestor Kirchner will present the new bill to modify the broadcast law in National Congress before congressional elections on June 28, 2009. Whether the bill will pass, time will tell. But with a strong opposition in Congress and critics with economic power, the bill may not pass.

 

Opponents of the new law have attacked President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner for trying to turn Argentina‘s privately controlled media landscape into a model like Venezuela‘s state supported community media stations.

 

The International Association of Broadcasting (IAB) opposes the newly proposed law saying that the law would put freedom of the press in the South American nation in jeopardy. The IAB criticized Argentina‘s government, saying that the project creates "more vulnerable and dependent" media, during a meeting in Washington with the head of the Organization of American States earlier this year. In an alarmist editorial in Clarin, Argentina‘s largest national news daily and media conglomerate, titled "Don’t Violate Freedom of Expression," Luis Pardo Sainz warns that Argentina may be at risk for a state takeover of the media, saying that the state would be a worse monopoly than the corporate media monopoly.

 

In his editorial, Sainz also said that the IAB was right to warn of weakening the media, and accused Venezuela of controlling media editorial lines under the guise of community purposes by building a wide network of media that seem diverse but only have one ideological tendency. Is Sainz saying that the building of community media for and by the people is dangerous for diversity?

 

Building Alternatives

 

Media activists in Latin America have dispelled the myth that you can create media only with state-of-the-art equipment and corporate financing. Community television and radio have been around for decades. Argentina had a 24-hour pirate television station called Utopia that aired in the 90s. Brazil is home to Radio Favela, broadcasting radio in the nation’s Favela’s (marginalized shanty towns) since the late 80s. Many documentary producers in the Southern Cone utilized film and even intercepted TV signals to resist repressive dictatorships during the 70s.

 

Relatively inexpensive digital technology like digital video cameras, audio recorders, computers, and editing software has shifted the paradigm even further. Today, amateur filmmakers can record, edit, and distribute their projects to a global audience over the Internet.

 

Throughout South America, groups have fought to establish permanent community television stations and have faced increased challenges due to government attacks and lack of infrastructure. One such experience was Utopia TV. Utopia functioned as a 24-hour TV station that broadcast in Buenos Aires from 1992-97. Programming included a daily hour-long news show highlighting struggles against neoliberalism during the administration of former President Carlos Menem. The station acted as a voice for land squats spreading throughout the Greater Buenos Aires industrial suburban belts, pensioners fighting for dignity after a lifetime of work, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in their fight against laws of impunity for military officers accused of human rights crimes, and uprisings in the northern province of Salta. Diverse groups participated in the station, hosting music and arts programming that focused on local activism.

 

Utopia never had any legal standing and the police constantly raided the station, located on the 21st floor of an apartment building in the neighborhood of Flores. Police confiscated their equipment numerous times, but the media activists of the station learned to build their own transmitters, allowing them to quickly replace any broken or confiscated equipment. Often times while in the streets filming, participants were arrested and police broke cameras. The station ultimately closed down due to relentless police persecution.

 

Despite the dictatorship-era law, grassroots groups are fighting to build experiences of community television. The idea is to establish legitimacy and use it as a base to fight for legal recognition. The logic of community television organizers is quite similar to the logic of Argentina‘s recuperated enterprises. When left with no other option, workers decided to take over factories and take charge of production themselves. Only later, when they had the support of the community and proved that they could run a factory did they demand legality.

 

The state so far has been unwilling to make changes to media legislation; activists see that the only way to change the law is by forcing lawmakers to recognize citizens’ legitimate demands for access to the airwaves.

 

One community media project brought to life has been Ágora TV, a community television production collective that currently broadcasts over the Internet. The project reaches a global audience of grassroots activists and citizens tired of status quo media through the Internet.

 

Ágora TV is an alternative community television project that is currently broadcasting through the web site www.agoratv.org. The video collective Grupo Alavío built the site as an initiative to start up a city-wide television station in Buenos Aires. However, to their surprise, the website has become a powerful media tool, with thousands of viewers from around the world tuning into their computers to watch videos seldom seen on commercial television.

 

The objective of Ágora TV is for the audience to appropriate the media and use it as a tool for social change. The Ágora site features video productions from all over Latin America dealing with issues including labor conflicts, social movements, indigenous struggles, and experimental video art. The Buenos Aires-based video collective Grupo Alavío built the web site as an organizing tool and alternative media space for groups that would not otherwise have access to the airwaves.

 

A number of community television broadcasts have sprawled throughout the Greater Buenos Aires suburban belt, including TV Antena Negra, TV Dario Santillan, TV Piquetera, TV Claypole, and TV Libre from Matanza. TV Claypole and TV Libre have acquired low-powered television transmitters broadcasting within a specific territory, but without legal recognition.

 

TV Piquetera transmits live pirate TV signals during road blockades and broadcasts from neighborhoods in poverty-stricken areas. TV Piquetera began in 2001 in working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and has since broadcast from bases in various neighborhoods by rotating transmission sites. So far, the transmissions have been planned around special dates or activities. These community television stations broadcast irregularly mainly due to lack of coordination in production, lack of training, and precious time diverted to fighting for reforms to the radio broadcasting law.

 

Many of the community television projects are adapting to new audiences and technology. A new technology implemented is live video streaming via the Internet. So even if you don’t have a television set, you can watch live video streaming. Groups like Antena Negra have organized live video streaming of protest actions; one notable example was a subway strike in Buenos Aires. The collective was able to film and immediately stream the repression of workers holding a plebiscite to form their own union. In addition, the new group Antena Negra broadcasts a two-hour show every Saturday in Greater Buenos Aires.

 

All of these independent TV and video projects have consciously worked to train women in community media production. They regularly produce videos and content covering women’s issues and the women’s movement throughout the region. Another goal is to correct the gender bias in mainstream corporate media and ensure a gender perspective in reporting on current events.

 

Global Linkages

 

Groups throughout Latin America have built linkages mostly through material exchange. For Ágora TV this exchange has been key. Videos from around Latin America have flooded Ágora TV. Groups throughout Latin America send in links to their videos online to put on Ágora TV. The group was ecstatic when the Popular Assembly of Oaxaca contacted them to ask if they could host videos on Ágora TV, rather than relying on the commercial YouTube site.

 

Videos are often sent in shortly after they are completed, as is the case with Guarapito Films, an Ecuadorian collective that has documented the barbaric impact of Repsol-YPF oil extraction in indigenous communities. The website features an English and Portuguese section, with subtitled videos.

 

Another international initiative has been training and consulting groups in Uruguay and Chile that want to start up community television stations or video collectives. Grupo Alavío has made great efforts to build relationships with other Latin American community television stations like Catia TVe in Venezuela and Canal 3 La Victoria in Santiago, Chile. Catia TVe provides members of the community with tools to make their own productions and see themselves reflected in their programs. In Venezuela, unlike Argentina, many community media projects have sprouted from the fertile ground of community participation with legal support.

 

Other international coalitions, like the AMARC, have bolstered the development of community and participatory radio along the principals of solidarity and international cooperation. Member stations around the world supported the initiative to change Argentina‘s media legislation.

 

Many other countries in Latin America like Uruguay, Chile, and Mexico have strict regulations and legislation that makes community media challenging. There have been international meetings on how to include support for community media in the region’s goal for regional integration in spaces like the World Social Forum.

 

With greater media concentration in the hands of private corporations, citizens see the media as a basic right. They want to build community television and radio stations to present many under-represented stories of the continent.

 

Citizen-run TV stations strengthen civil society by coordinating efforts, sharing knowledge, and improving the self-esteem of the citizens participating in it. Many pirate TV stations are doing just that—building a space for exhibition and interaction to motivate organizations and social movements to tell their own stories with video. Until laws barring community television change, activists will continue to have to work independently to reclaim their right to access TV.

 

 

Marie Trigona is a journalist based in Argentina and writes regularly for the Americas Program (www.americaspolicy.org). She can be reached at mtrigona(a)msn.com.

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