Venezuelan Community Media


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 people’s rights, universal access to education, healthcare, housing, employment, political participation and many other rights 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 recognised as a community broadcaster, the programming has to meet the certain 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 recognises 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. Active support was not provided.

Before Chávez was elected president, participating in community media was a clandestine activity and a victimised 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 realised 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, which make it 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 events. The coup was defeated with the help of community media stations and activists; they rallied their communities to take to the streets and demand their voices be heard.[5]

In stark contrast to the corporate media that creates a dominant ideological framework, community media is an instrument of ideological formation that harmonises 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. 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-conscious 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 authorisation 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 authorise a station and legalise 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 democratising Venezuelan society, but the road there isn’t necessarily a smooth one. There are many challenges that lie ahead. To begin, community media sector is still small — 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 organisation, 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.



True freedom of speech

There has been some criticism over government funding of community media. Because many stations were only legalised under Chávez, and the majority receive 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 centre, often using the radio for community organising. Although the station has benefited from the expropriation of their building, the legalisation 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 legalised, he urged the community media centre to speak out on issues important to the community and hold the government accountable to its 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 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. The private 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 democratisation of the 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. June 2, 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. April 28, 2005.

[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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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