Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Argentina's Community Media Fights for Access and Legal Reform

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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 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

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.

Lack of Media Diversity

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.

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.

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.

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.

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