On the Growing Free Media Movement

Greg Ruggiero & Kate Duncan


From July 26 through August 3 more than
3,000 people gathered in Spain for the Zapatista initiated
Second Encuentro for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism.
Following up last year’s Encuentro in Chiapas which
analyzed globalization from economic, political, social, and
cultural perspectives, the goal of this year’s gathering
was to continue the first Encuentro’s work by building
networks of resistance and communication that link and
strengthen individual liberation struggles around the globe.

The Encuentro’s structure is a
study in decentralized networks. An experiment in political
organizing, the Encuentro aims to embody in its own process
the social dynamics it hopes to realize in the world. Thus,
the Encuentro presents no speakers or panels; the purpose is
for all to speak and listen equally. Its agenda is determined
not by its organizers but through a "consulta," a
process key to the Zapatistas’ bottom-up organizing, in
which all those who might participate decide what issues will
be subject of the gathering’s many mesas. The consulta
also invites participants to organize working groups,
volunteer labor, and in any way help ease the work of holding
a major international gathering. Generous donations of food,
space, and labor, and a break-even attitude on the part of
the organizers, drove the registration fee down to $120 for
ten days of transportation, food, and a place to sleep. The
year-long consulta for the Second Encuentro decided upon six
subject areas for the conference to address: (1) economics;
(2) globalization and equality; (3) patriarchy; (4) land and
ecology; (5) marginalization; and (6) culture, education, and

When the mesas, which met separately in
far-flung villages and cities throughout Spain, squatted a
southern farm and set up tents for a ten-hour plenary, their
report-backs were tellingly similar. Every mesa’s report
included the words, "We need a network." So many
different social struggles under one tent affirms the
Encuentro’s premise that they are all resisting the same
thing: Neoliberalism’s consequence of placing profit
before people. But the information mesa had a unique twist.
While other mesas organized networks within struggles, the
information mesa aimed to organize a network between
struggles, to blueprint an intercontinentalal network of
alternative communication.

Many of the info mesa’s ideas were
derived from projects that were inspired by the first
Encuentro that took place exactly one year earlier in La
Realidad, Mexico, where 4,000 people gathered to critique the
economic, political, cultural, and social impact of
neoliberalism and to propose new ways of organizing and doing
politics. The importance of international networks of
alternative communication was the subject of widespread
discussion during the First Encuentro, as expressed in both
the various mesas’ reports and in the Zapatistas’
Second Declaration of La Realidad read by Subcommandante
Marcos during the closing session of the Encuentro:
"Let’s make a network of communication among all
our struggles and resistances. An intercontinental network of
alternative communication against neoliberalism…(and) for
humanity. This intercontinental network of alternative
communication will search to weave the channels so that words
may travel all the roads that resist…(it) will be the
medium by which distinct resistances communicate with one
another. This intercontinental network of alternative
communication is not an organizing structure, nor has a
central head or decision maker, nor does it have a central
command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who
speak and listen."

Over the next year, the Zapatista
proposal sparked a series of discussions, proposals,
teach-ins, and gatherings, each a unique strand which wove
together and informed the Second Encuentro.

The first strand began emerging the day
after the proposal was read, when a number of Encuentro
participants met in San Cristobal to discuss possible ways of
carrying out the EZLN proposal. Out of this meeting came the
"Red Intercontinental de Comunicacion Alternativa"
(RICA) proposal. The core of the RICA proposal is a plan for
using the Internet to create links between previously
existing communication lists as a way of further diffusing
information about resistance and liberation struggles. Though
well thought out and concrete, RICA has yet to be realized in
the form of any recognizable projects.

A second strand began forming in New
York City where organizers planning a "Freeing the Media
Teach-in" invited Subcommandante Marcos to elaborate on
the Second Declaration of La Realidad. Organized by The
Learning Alliance, Paper Tiger and FAIR, the purpose of
Freeing the Media was to critique corporate media
concentration while exploring ways to strengthen progressive
communication. Marcos accepted the invitation and made a
10-minute video message that was screened at "Freeing
the Media" on January 31, 1997. "The work of
independent media," said Marcos "is to tell the
history of social struggle in the world." Marcos went on
to advocate that media activists fight to open spaces within
the mass media monopolies (to acknowledge news of social
movements), and at the same time, to continue developing a
network of independent media and information.

As a follow-up to the Teach-in,
organizers joined with the Cultural Environment Movement and
organized "Freeing the Local Media" in May. Freeing
the Local Media then formed the New York Free Media Alliance,
a local collective intended as "a slugging arm to give
community groups more strength," according to Steve
Rendall of FAIR. To inform the process, Freeing the Local
Media invited members of media collectives from six North
American cities to tell their stories. On June 1, members of
the various collectives wove a third strand by deciding to
form an alliance that was directly inspired by the Second
Declaration of La Realidad and a proposal made in the April
1996 issue of Z Magazine calling for a Federation of
Alternative Media Activists and Supporters (FAMAS). The June
1 group temporarily dubbed their coalition the International
Federation of Independent Media (IFIM) consisting of
"autonoumous, sovereign media activist groups in the
service of spreading the movement for human liberation,
participatory democracy, and community building."

In July, a fourth strand formed, as
dozens of political groups came together in Austin, Texas for
a local Encuentro. The report of the Austin Encuentro’s
Media, Information and Education Mesa reads, "Access to
information, lack of resources and infrastructures for
alternative media, de-emphasis of public support for public
media, lack of inclusivity in terms of community
representation, globalization of media corporations and
concentration of ownership, are all current problems under
neoliberal economic regimes. Within this framework are
opportunities for grassroots activists. Community development
needs to be at the core of our information projects."

These four strands, all offshoots of
the First Encuentro, wove themselves together at the Second
Encounter. Members of the Information Mesa attended the First
Encuentro, worked on RICA, participated in Freeing the Media,
were active in local collectives, the IFIM, and the Austin
Encuentro. The Information Mesa agreed that building this
network will be divided in three categories: (1) Internal
Communication, meaning how we will exchange information
within the network; (2) Production and Distribution, meaning
how the network will get information from people who need to
speak to people who need to listen; and (3) Action, meaning
how the network will serve as a coordinator for global
liberation movements.

The group further agreed that two
interlinked networks needed support: one which coordinates
regional collectives into a federation, the second which is
completely "rhizomatic" and centerless,
disseminating news in a prioritized but unfiltered manner.

In the end, the Second Encuentro was
really just another beginning. It was agreed that a follow-up
Information Encuentro was in order, and a listserve was
set-up to coordinate the effort and exchange reports.

Because it was another beginning, the
Encuentro is hard-pressed to point to any concrete results.
Yet it is one more step toward a concrete network. People
meeting for the first time at the microcosmic information
mesa discovered they shared friends and had shared
information. Because people shared the experience of the
information mesa, its most tangible outcome will continue in
this vein of turn to accidental information exchange into
purposeful premeditated actions. So much of the real results
come from the process of getting to know one another.

Proposals made at last year’s
Encuentro have triggered a series of linked grassroots
organizing efforts set on countering globalization by
building networks of resistance and communication. These
efforts are localy rooted in community groups and
internationally linked by the Internet. Two manifestations
are unfolding. The first shows an increasing set of working
alliances among active media collectives, and the formation
of an increasing number of collectives. This network is
calling itself the International Federation of Independent
Media. The second shows increasing communication between
individuals and organizations within specific movements,
increasing links between movements, and increasing outreach
to civil society. Primarily Internet driven, this network of
networks is calling itself many names, of which RICA is one.
The combination of these two trends, joined by organizing
work occurring in the microbroadcast network, is creating a
powerful, leaderless, and autonomous Free Media Movement
intent on accessing, producing, and disseminating information
as neccessary conditions for living with greater freedom
within genuine democratic community.