by Raluca Igr
In few words, community media is media created by a community, which does not necessarily need to have any formal journalistic experience, is controlled and distributed by the community, which is either a geographic community or a community of identity or interest, and is separated from the mainstream/commercial/state run media. It is an alternative medium engaging a social agenda, with strong principles in access and participation as forms of civic engagement, social change and a participatory democracy.
There is a strong relationship between CM and collective action aimed at social transformation. In social movements studies it is densely put up front the role that grassroots and community-based media have in producing and legitimating oppositional discourse, creating a shared identity among movement participants, sustaining and enforcing the cause and stimulating for social change.
Within the aims of empowering individuals, strengthening the community and democratizing the communication, I will present you a participatory media model through the case of Colectivo Perfil Urbano which revolves around the social movement of the Zapatista.
Colectivo Perfil Urbano(CPU) was formed in 1985 by José Luis Contreras and other students who joined the Movimiento Popular Urbano (Popular Urban Movement or PUM) after the earthquakes that hit Mexico City. This grassroots media collective was created with the idea to help the PUM and provide them with photographic, communication and audio/video screening services in their struggle.
José Luis Contreras and Carmen Ortiz were the two full-time members of the media collective.They considered themselves militant and committed with the PUM, and identified themselves as members of the unprivileged working class who are part of a popular movement for the recognition of their rights to better living conditions. They learned how to produce videos with their compañeros from the PUM using dialogue and discussion, a key element of participatory media projects.
CPU was videorecording things that were important to the members of the PUM like meetings and marches and debates with the thought the that would give the people a chance to say with their own words about their struggles, misery, beliefs, what they were fighting for.
In 1994 the indigenous Zapatista uprising started by occupying territories and declaring their independence from the Mexican state, functioning as an autonomous community in the high lands of Chiapas. The Zapatistas were claiming their lands and right to self-organization, proving that there are possible alternative ways of resistance in front of poverty and loss of power and resources due a capitalistic society and neoliberalism. As a large number of the Zapatistas were women, they also fought for gender equality. They are generally represented in an imagery or wearing hoods and being armed at the foot of the Lancadon Jungle.
The CPU went to the place where the rebellion was happening to respond to the needs and interest of the members of PUM who wanted to know more about the issues in order to provide support to their struggle as their considered it similar to theirs in Mexico City.
In early 1994 the only information about what was happening in Chiapas was coming from mainstream media and their reports were confusing, incomplete, inaccurate, serving governmental interests. Among other misleading information, mass media was using one of the most common: to reduce the number of participants to the movement, stating hundreds instead of thousands.
For CPU, approaching the Zapatista rebellion through the video camera was a way to bring into dialogues the interests and realities of the members of the PUM in Mexico City and the indigenous rebels in Chiapas. Contreras and Ortiz say that their work as video makers links geographically separated people who are joined by common interests and a common cause. CPU engaged in a participatory model of video making, acting, in their words, as bridges to bring the stories and images of the indigenous rebels and of the members of the PUM closer. For example, they took the audiovisual testimony of supporters from the PUM in Mexico City to Chiapas, for the indigenous rebels to experience the impact of their fight outside Chiapas and the extent of the movement they had initiated. In response, the Zapatistas sent back video greetings and messages to members of the PUM. Following the solidarity ties established between the PUM and the indigenous rebels, the Zapatistas met with members of the PUM during their journeys to Mexico City in 2001 and 2006.
Because of the trust the Zapatistas had in CPU, they allowed Carmen Ortiz and José Luis Contreras to film the everyday life of the insurgents in a community, which was highly unusual, as the rebels considered the privacy of the community to be a security issue. For this trip, Carmen Ortiz and José Luis Contreras traveled together to Chiapas, and for 2 weeks they lived in a Zapatista community.
According to them, being active members of the PUM had told them that people have to work together in solidarity at all times. Thus, being at the indigenous community, they worked hand in hand with the rebels in all sorts of activities, such as washing dishes or making security rounds.Ortiz says that at first the Zapatistas at the village did not trust them much or talk much with them; however, after she and Contreras skinned a cow and prepared the meat so that the whole population could eat, they proved that they were reliable and earned the trust of the community, becoming their friends. The friendship allowed them to film sites off-limit. To Contreras and Ortiz, the experience of living in a Zapatista community deeply moved them to the point that once they were back in Mexico City, they had to let the material rest for a while so they could process the extent of their experience. The result of their stay at the Zapatista community is captured in the video recording Los Más Pequeños.
(find all the parts next to the video)
The Zapatistas themselves, following the experiences with CPU and the lack of thrutful covrege from mainstream media, started specific community media activities and practices. They were aware of the importance of making their voice public, and at the beginning of the struggle the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) relied on outside media to let people know about the rebellion. It was not until 1998 that the Zapatistas began their own participatory video-making project, and in 2005, they started their insurgent radio that broadcasts on short wave radio and over the Internet.
(Estella, Zapatista video maker, April 2003)
The Zapatistas used communication as a form of anti-power through the radically democratic principle of leading by following. The state responded military and with a vast media campaign of demonization of the movement calling the participants “transgressors of the law”, “foreigners”, and “professionals of violence” with the thought of isolating and destroying the movement. But due to CPU, Zapatistas’ own media practices and all the other alternative media attention plus the internet made it too late for the Mexican government to stop it.
By then, the relatively new cyberspaces of the Internet whirred with communiqués, reportage, and firsthand accounts of witnesses were quickly translated, circulated, and reproduced in other media around Mexico and internationally. Within a few days, almost 1,000 journalists had descended on Chiapas, and the Zapatistas invited select Mexican and international media to the jungle to witness and conduct interviews.
The role that the internet played in the movements’ dissemination and wide usage and covere thorugh media tools made by then the Zapatistas virtually synonymous with “communication.”
The Zapatisa social movement is very wide, with strong political statements(of anarchism and libertarian Marxist) and radical organization which works as an autonomous community with schools, hospitals and even military force but as a form of strategic civil resistance. For more information you can watch the already mentioned video made by CPU, Los Más Pequeños. or the most famous documentary telling their story “A place called Chiapas”.
My point wasn’t to present Zapatismo but rather a media perspective of the social movement and more specifically, a community media perspective through CPU and its crossroads with PUM and the Zapatistas.
“The Zapatista communicational insurgency that takes place both within the local political commune in Chiapas and in the movement’s relationship with the broader national and transnational space seeks to make visible the struggles of ordinary people, rendered invisible by the constituted power of representational politics. It seeks to bring the two together in ways that assert the conviction that power does not, or should not, reside somewhere “up there” but is instead dispersed in the terrestrial realm of where people are. Visibility is regarded as the first step to assert the political agency of those “down below” to make encounter possible and enable a process of continuous elaboration as new visibilities emerge and new dialogical spaces are forged.”( Fiona Jeffries in her study “Asking We Walk”: The Zapatista Revolution of Speaking and Listening integrated in the book “Understanding Community Media, K. Howley, 2010)