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participatory media, socialist media, and the work of communications research

October 27, 2010

In May of 1983, the Alternative Communication Media Integration Center (Centro de Integración de Medios de Comunicación Altenativa / CIMCA), with offices in La Paz and Mexico, DF, began tri-annual publication of Journals of Alternative Communication (Cuadernos de Comunicación Alternativa). Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, in the midst of a prodigious and multi-faceted career, wrote the first volume, entitled: “Bolivia: radios mineras; Nicaragua: cine obrero sandinista; Aporte de la experiencia a la teoría de la comunicación alternativa” (Bolivia: miner radio stations; Nicaragua: sandinistan worker cinema; Contribution from alternative communication experience to theory).

From left to right, Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, Jaime Galarza and Philipp Agee, back in the 70s, when being a lefty meant dreaming and dressing big.

Dagron wrote the thin volume – really a single article of 28 pages – right about as participatory development theory was reaching its apex. He articulated the field’s “fundamental dilemma” as a choice between “promoting our own structures of alternative communication” or “penetrating the system in order to transform it from inside” (8). He also points out the important difference between “organic participation at the level of popular organizations” and “symbolic participation of marginal individuals” (9). Over a quarter of a century later, these remain fundamental distinctions, and we see them at play in Venezuela’s attempts at media reform.

Venezuela’s state media system, comprised of the TV and radio broadcasters, state news agency, and – at least for the purposes of this comparison – TeleSur, is an attempt to transform the system from within, but it often results in little more than symbolic participation of marginalized groups. Afro-venezuelan fishers and indigenous farmers may get showcased on ViVe’s regional travelogues, but those communities are not driving the editorial agenda or creating original content. Venezuela’s growing network of community media outlets, on the other hand, represents an alternative structure of communication that insists upon organic participation.

That’s why it’s frustrating to see the State vs. Commercial media battles take center stage in Venezuela time and time again. Anyone interested in a viable “socialist” communications system should be focused on the community media system. That’s where the real hope lies. (The Venezuelan opposition may have some legitimate gripes, but if you really want to see a dictatorial “socialist” State, watch the BBC coverage of Poland’s 1983 May Day march, embedded above. Who was videotaping and how did they get the tape out of the country? Ah, the good old days…)

Besides, the opposition (internal and external) would much rather the focus be on centralized communication structures where they can draw the government into making bad decisions regarding free speech and press issues. That’s one of the primary lessons to be learned from the Chilean and Nicaraguan experiences. Unfortunately, the Venezuelan government makes poor decisions all too frequently.

Regardless, the real problem is that over the last three decades development communications scholars have not been able to articulate anything resembling a workable plan for how to construct an alternative participatory communications structure, whether “socialist” or otherwise. The discussion got derailed by the UNESCO defections of the mid-1980s and bogged down in theoretical debate during the 1990s, leaving practitioners on the ground to reinvent the wheel time and time again. I’d like to see scholars return to the high water mark of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when anything was possible and scholars still dared to dream big. Here’s what Dagrón was saying back then (the emphasis is his own):

“La tarea crítica de los investigadores” debería ir acompañada de una labor complementaria de diseño de propuestas alternativas de planificacíon…. El diseño de estas propuestas no debería reducirse solamente a las políticas generales de comunicación, sino también al diseño de modelos de organización de empresas de comunicación en torno a centros de poder social organizado (gremios, sindicatos, cooperativas…) y a la creacion de modelos operativos de comunicacion popular, en los lugares de encuentro de las bases. fundamentalmente en torno al ‘trabajo’ y a la ‘vivienda’.

“The critical task of researchers” must be accompanied by a complementary labor of designing alternative planning proposals…. The design of these proposals should not be reduced solely to general policies of communication, but also the design of organizational models for communication enterprises surrounding organized centers of social power (unions, syndicates, cooperatives…) and the creation of operating models of popular communication, in the meeting places of the bases, fundamentally around ‘work’ and ‘home’. (10-11)

The truth is that communications scholars have not carried out this complimentary labor. The field has been too contented with critique. The recent “crisis” in US journalism, however, has brought attention to new forms of entrepreneurial journalism as one of few promising options for fortifying investigative and hyper-local journalism. Rarely, though, do scholars or pundits within this debate point to Latin American examples, whether historical or contemporary. That’s too bad, because the history of socialist media policy in Latin America offers some important lessons.

What’s happening with community media in Venezuela is a very interesting case example. As I understand it, the various stakeholders have agreed to a general strategy in which community media outlets operate in tandem with community councils in their broadcast zone. Rather than look to unions or other workplace organizations, Venezuela is positioning the community council as the “organized center of social power” that informs “communication enterprises” like newspapers, web sites, and radio and TV stations. This helps to define the role of community media outlets within a larger structure of societal communications and is a welcome step forward.  Nonetheless, the model has attracted very little sustained, critical research. To my knowledge, almost no attention has been paid to the internal organization of the currently operating community media outlets.

Unfortunately, Dagron’s 1983 call-to-action remains valid today, as do these words: “It’s understandable that certain researchers don’t sense the urgency of designing these structures, beginning with the local level, but the popular organizations in every country are very conscious of their importance” (10). Communication scholars need to prioritize the development of “operating models of popular communication”. If my upcoming proposal defense is successful, then I’ll try to respond to this need in my dissertation. I’ll spend the first couple of chapters laying out a theoretical framework, then I’ll draw on socialist media policy and practice in Latin America to develop what I hope is a concrete structural proposal that can be adapted to multiple contexts and scales. Hope you’re looking forward to more posts on this topic…

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