Media activists from around the state of Merida crowded into the Carlos Marx building yesterday to debate the new community media law. As we broke up into working groups, a member of parliament sat behind me, texting on his phone and listening to our proposals, while the state governor, crouching on some steps, made a proposal as well. Members of the working group articulately and confidently disagreed with it.
“We’re discussing this law so we can be protagonists of the law and our destiny,” Manuel Molina, member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s (PSUV) communication commission, said during the plenary session.
The main aim of the law is to provide a legal framework for grassroots media and to regulate its use. It recognises non academic qualifications, such as general hands-on experience in media collectives, as sufficient criteria for awarding radio and television concessions. It also outlines possible media sustainability methods, media training, media ethics, and ways of organising. It seeks to support the development and further creation of grassroots media.
The motivation of the draft law, writen by the media movement nationwide, states, “We want a law that looks like us…a law that allows us to develop the right to communication…promoting communication that helps our development, maintaining our original roots, our culture, our local and Latin American identity, that promotes humanist values…that is at the service of collective interests…in order to be able to construct truly democratic and participative media…and that dignifies the work of communicators.”
The discussion of the draft “Alternative and Community Media Law” is taking place on different dates in different states across the country. According to Jessica Pernia, member of the Tatuy community television collective in Merida, it was the national grassroots media movement that originally promoted the idea such a the law. The National Assembly has provided a framework of questions and working group methodologies, as well as resources for the discussion, while media collectives organised the meetings.
Around two hundred people attended yesterday's meeting in Merida. All of them were involved in grassroots media, be it as communication spokespeople for their communal councils, communications students with the Bolivarian University, members of community radios, alternative newspapers, or television collectives and websites.
In the plenary session, Jessica Pernia, speaking as the plenary chair and as a member of the Tatuy Community Television collective, emphasised the need for media “that doesn’t see news and information as something that is bought and sold”.
“Those who control the media, control culture,” she said.
Molina talked about how that morning the Venezuelan private media had reported that five prisons were on hunger strike, when it was completely false. “Community radios are our strength when waging the communication war,” he said.
Mariano Ali, director of the state owned Radio Mundial for the Andes region, spoke specifically on the “violation” of Venezuela’s radio electric spectrum. Using video, audio recordings, and documents, he showed how the Colombian army’s radio station can be heard on the Venezuelan side of the border, and it even sometimes reaches Merida. “This isn’t innocent,” he said. “It’s the same as what they did in Iraq”.
“The [Colombian] military is taking on the role of journalist… it’s violating our radio spectrum and our sovereignty…and the U.S. embassy is financing Colombian army propaganda,” he explained, showing some publically available documents testifying to the fact.
“Communication is a human need and can’t be an object of the market…we’re waging a struggle against the mercantilisation of communication…because the private media conditions our capacity to think and to understand reality,” said Juan Carlos Lenzo, also of the Tatuy collective.
In fact, the media “should be a space for fighting the old culture and fighting capitalist spirituality,” he said.
Marcos Diaz, governor of the state of Merida and PSUV member, talked about Frontera, one of the two regional newspapers in Merida, which he said the government had to adapt to its editorial line in order to not get negative coverage. He also mentioned the need to revise community radio concessions, and the grassroots media’s role in promoting values and responding to mainstream lies.
“The project we’re evaluating was a grassroots initiative, you are all expressions of the legislating people…and we [the members of parliament] are instruments of the people,” said Julio Aleman, national assembly legislator.
It is important to transform “the mercantilist idea of media into revolution that is driven by communities…so that we can hear the voices of people who haven’t had the opportunity to be heard…we’re here to listen to you and to continue consolidating this process,” he said, adding that the national assembly hoped to approve the first draft of the law next month, to then have two more months of consultation and finalising of details, and to pass the law by the end of the year.
So the “forgotten people of yesterday are the protagonists of today,” Aleman said.
Grassroots media is real media
We broke up into four working groups, each corresponding to a section of the draft law. I joined the one on media ethics and the role of the grassroots media. One young woman registered the discussion and proposals on a laptop, another woman took written notes, while another participant in the group timed the contributions, and a fourth member moderated the discussion and took a call list.
The first person to talk, a woman involved in a community radio project and who is also a state legislative council substitute, argued that the term “alternative media” “devalues us”. “It suggests that the private media is the media, but the reality is we are equally, if not more legitimate,” she said.
The next person to speak in the group agreed, “It’s true, especially in this context where we’re in government, where we’re trying to get rid of capitalism, why are we the alternative? It’s like asking for permission, it’s as if we’re scared to assert ourselves, to put ourselves in our fair place,” he said, while another man agreed that the word “alternative” gives legitimacy to the private media.
I suggested that we could call ourselves, and the law could refer to us as the “democratic” media, since both in terms of our internal functioning and our relationship with society, that is the key thing that differentiates us from the private press. As the discussion went on there were a number of proposals as to the best way to describe the grassroots media. At one point the governor, Marcos Dias, suggested “Bolivarian media”, arguing that the term “democracy” has been coopted by the opposition. However it was felt that the opposition in Venezuela uses many words and tools of the left, including marching and going on hunger strike, and that doesn’t mean we should stop using those terms and tools ourselves.
Also during his plenary speech, Dias suggested the importance of “giving air time” to the opposition, even if the main thing achieved was revealing the opposition for what it is. However one young woman in the working group discussion argued that, “saying we need to give space to the opposition on VTV [the main public television channel] is like saying the poor have to live with, and give space to the rich”.
Given the discussion over the name of the law, one mature communications student argued that in that case, “instead of putting us to one side…there should be just one law for all media”. Another participant agreed, saying that there was also only “one law for private and public education”.
Another student argued for the importance of “clients’ (readers, listeners etc) committees” while a member of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) Youth argued, in light of recent events in the Middle East and north Africa, for the importance of “social networks” and the internet as media and as an organising tool.
One article in the draft law said the radio electric spectrum should be “democratised” with each sector having its share; one third to the state, one third to the private sector, and one third to the “alternative community” sector. Many people argued that the percentage assigned to the private sector was “too much” or that it was “a present” or a “generous concession”, and one person, a Colombian journalist, suggested that the sentence be modified to say “no more than one third”.
Lunch arrived, the traditional rice and chicken, and we discussed right through it. A writer for the campus-based socialist libertarian magazine, Lapiz Rebelde, argued that the participation of the state in the grassroots media should be more clearly defined, as “dependence on the state has damaged the grassroots media’s capacity for self management”.
At 3pm we hurriedly wrapped up our discussion in order to present our conclusions and proposals to the other working groups. Walking home that night, I reflected on the fact that laws were starting to take on a new meaning in Venezuela. Rather than being tools to maintain order and define punishments, rather than being implemented by police, the newest laws – the popular power laws on social auditing, on the formation of communes, on education, or this latest one on grassroots media – are functioning more as debate and awareness tools and as activist guidelines. They are laws that ultimately, in order for them to be effective, have to be implemented by us.
According to the Jose Gregorio Nieves, vice-president of the NGO, Journalists for the Truth, Venezuela is currently living “an explosion of freedom of speech” that is evidenced by the accelerated growth of small and alternative media outlets around the country. He said more than 60 community television stations as well as 250 grassroots radio and print operations have been founded since Hugo Chavez became President in 1999.