Never before in Latin America’s history has media ownership been concentrated in the hands of so few. 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. Despite legal challenges, over the past decades groups have emerged that produce alternative and independent media for television, radio, and video to counter mass media’s misinformation.
Ágora TV is a community television production collective that currently broadcasts over the internet. The project reaches a global audience of grassroots activists and citizens tired of status quo media. The site features video productions from all over Latin America dealing with issues including labor conflicts, social movements, indigenous struggles, and experimental video art. The Buenos Aires-based video collective Grupo Alavío built the website (www.agoratv.org) in 2006 as an organizing tool and alternative media space for groups that would not otherwise have access to the airwaves.
Today’s video activism has deep roots in the cinema and arts movements in Latin America during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Argentine groups like Cine de la Base and Cine Liberación began a legacy of political cinema in the Southern Cone that narrates working class and national liberation struggles. Pirate television or illegal broadcasting dates back to the dictatorship when groups would intercept a broadcast signal, interrupting regular television programming to televise information about clandestine resistance to the military government’s forced disappearances of activists, workers, and students. The groups faced unrelenting persecution and violence—Raymundo Gleyzer, film director and founder of Cine de la Base, was disappeared in 1976 by a commando group, while many other filmmakers were forced into exile.
The dictatorship used disappearances not just to terrorize the opposition but also to guarantee the political conditions needed to impose the current neoliberal economic model. Lack of restrictions on media ownership and the death of public policies to promote media diversity have led to today’s virtual media monopoly. Less than a handful of media conglomerates now control most of the nation’s media. Clarín, Telefónica, and Telecom are the largest conglomerates and between them they run television channels, news publications, cable, internet, telephone, and radio.
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.
Since Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983, only minor reforms have been made to the law, but always to promote private media ownership and concentration. According to the law, only an individual or commercial group established in the country has the right to acquire a license to broadcast a television or radio signal. Non-profit groups, universities, cooperatives, or community associations do not have the right to apply for a broadcast license. For community radio and television stations, this law is a holdover from the days of authoritarian rule that has literally blocked any possibility of gaining legal permission to broadcast.
Corporate groups have profited from this law and homogenized much of the nation’s media coverage. Former president Carlos Menem privatized public or state-run radio and television stations in 1990, granting the newly privatized stations rights to broadcast until 2005. Several single economic groups have acquired more than 24 licenses; although the law states that an individual economic group can only possess a maximum of four licenses. In 2005, President Nestor Kirchner sanctioned the Menem decree 527/05 by renewing licenses for media conglomerates for an initial grace period of 35 years. The nation’s top three stations will remain in the hands of major economic groups: Daniel Hadad, the right-wing media tycoon will retain Channel 9 until 2019, Clarín group will own Channel 13 until 2025 and the Spanish company Telefónica will hold on to Telefé (Channel 11) until 2025.
Throughout South America, groups have fought to establish permanent community television stations and have faced increased challenges due to government attacks and lack of infrastructure. One such experience was Utopia TV. Utopia functioned as a 24-hour TV station that broadcast in Buenos Aires from 1992-97. Programming included a daily hour-long news show highlighting struggles against neoliberalism during the administration of former president Carlos Menem. The station acted as a voice for land squats spreading throughout the Greater Buenos Aires industrial suburban belts, for pensioners fighting for dignity after a lifetime of work, for the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo fight against impunity laws for military officers accused of human rights crimes, and for uprisings in the northern province of Salta. Diverse groups participated in the station, hosting music and arts programming that focused on local activism.
Utopia never had any legal standing and the police constantly raided the station, located on the 21st floor of an apartment building in the neighborhood of Flores. Police confiscated their equipment numerous times, but the media activists of the station learned to build their own transmitters, allowing them to quickly replace any broken or confiscated equipment. Often times while in the streets filming, participants were arrested and police broke cameras. The station ultimately closed down due to the relentless police persecution.
With such a bleak legal horizon, many groups have found little incentive for building a community television station, even though activist circles and working class neighborhoods have expressed a desperate need for autonomous media to publicize and unify their struggles. A citizen-run TV station strengthens civil society by coordinating efforts, sharing knowledge, and improving the self-esteem of the citizens participating in it. Ágora TV is doing just that—building a space for exhibition and interaction to motivate organizations and social movements to tell their own stories with video.
Alternative Agenda: A Working Class Point of View
Ágora TV is an alternative community television project that is currently broadcasting through the web site www.agoratv.org. Video collective Grupo Alavío built the site as an initiative to start up a city-wide television station in Buenos Aires. However, to their surprise, the website has become a powerful media tool, with thousands of viewers from around the world tuning into their computers to watch videos seldom seen on commercial television. The objective of Ágora TV is for the audience to appropriate the media and use it as a tool for social change.
Ágora TV comes from the Greek word agora which originally meant an assembly of the whole people, or public plaza where the people meet to practice direct democracy. Grupo Alavío currently administers the site, but Ágora TV is an open space for video collectives and groups to put up their own videos. The idea is for social movements and video producers to use Ágora TV as a space to make their voices heard. The basis for the project is to adapt internet technology and put it to use for the benefit of the community. Grupo Alavío is working to socialize skills training for groups to produce their own audiovisual materials and to transform viewers from passive consumers to critical spectators. Ágora TV is a window for liberation creating a new imagery that reflects the specific interests and needs of the working class and other exploited sectors.
The logic of Ágora TV online is simple: a viewer needs a wide-band web connection and Flash, a program that can be downloaded for free, to watch videos online. The website’s main page features a list of the latest productions that rotates weekly. Viewers can also pick videos by campaigns (the safe return of missing witness Jorge Julio Lopez, Freedom for Political Prisoners, and End to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, etc.). Sections are also categorized for special historic dates, like the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, the 30th Anniversary of Argentina’s military coup, International Women’s Day, etc. Videos are also categorized into themed sections: workers struggles, autonomous movement building, social movements, environmental struggles, recuperated enterprises and factory takeovers, political prisoners, gender, campesino struggles, indigenous peoples, popular culture, experimental video, music videos, human rights, and historic memory to name just a few. Finally, the website can also be navigated via geographical area. Videos in the Latin American section are categorized by country (Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela thus far.)
For more than 15 years, Grupo Alavío has participated in working-class struggles and dedicated efforts to supporting them with social and political documentaries. Making technologies and skills accessible and available to exploited sectors by democratizing audiovisual production and language is a priority of Grupo Alavío’s work. Through Ágora TV, Grupo Alavío is proposing a radical change in how media is created, managed, and distributed.
Legality vs. Legitimacy
Despite the dictatorship-era law, groups like Grupo Alavío are fighting to build experiences of community television. The idea is to establish legitimacy and then fight for legality. 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. The state so far has been unwilling to make changes to media legislation; activists see that the only way to make the law change is by forcing lawmakers to recognize citizens’ legitimate demands for access to the airwaves.
Aside from Ágora TV, a number of community television broadcasts have sprawled out throughout the Greater Buenos Aires suburban belt, including TV Piquetera, TV Claypole, and TV Libre from Matanza. TV Claypole and TV Libre have acquired low-powered television transmitters and broadcast within a specific territory, but without legal recognition. TV Piquetera transmits live pirate TV signals during road blockades and broadcasts from neighborhoods in poverty-stricken areas. TV Piquetera began in 2001 in working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and has since broadcast from bases in various neighborhoods by rotating transmission sites. So far, the transmissions have been planned around special dates or activities. These community television stations have broadcast irregularly mainly due to lack of coordination in production, lack of training, and precious time diverted to fighting for reforms to the radio broadcasting law.
Skills Training and Popular Participation
Pirate television technology is relatively simple, comparable to pirate radio. But unlike radio, television demands a high level of production quality to catch the eyes of viewers. Aspects of documentary filmmaking and editing need to be incorporated into the production. Learning how to tell a story through audio and video images is the greatest challenge for community mediamakers.
Inexpensive digital cameras and an upcoming generation of media savvy activists have led to a boom in video activism. As Argentina faced its worst economic crisis ever in 2001, a new generation of video activists took to the streets to film the movements that blossomed out of the December uprisings. However, many filmmakers were only interested in the spectacular happenings rather than the day-to-day struggle in unemployed worker organizations, land squats, trade union organizations, and recuperated enterprises. Many of these organizations have since realized that they have an urgent need to tell their own stories, from their own visions and with their own images.
Grupo Alavío has focused efforts on workers and participants in social movements, rather than film school students. Alavío has held video workshops for years in different barrios and diverse organizations. The objective of these workshops is to create video collectives within social movements, so they have the autonomy to narrate their own stories. Filmmaking is not a science. In general, if a worker has a clear idea of what he or she would like to say, learning how to use a camera to tell that story isn’t going to be much of a challenge. In 2006, Alavío held a series of workshops at the BAUEN hotel with workers from the hotel, representatives from unemployed worker organizations, and workers participating in union conflicts. The training was a success and several participants have begun producing videos autonomously. However, they are not simply filmmakers observing the movements, but active participants using the camera as another political and organizing tool.
The workers at the Zanon ceramics plant in the Patagonian province of Neuquén have made great efforts to start up a video program, so that workers can film and edit their own stories without having to rely on outsiders to produce documentaries. Grupo Alavío has helped to facilitate a regular video workshop at the plant. Several workers have produced short commercial spots for a local TV station to promote the rock concerts the plant regularly hosts. Workers from the plant filmed Rata Blanca’s performance at a massive concert at the plant’s stock lot, attended by over 15,000 people. The workers’ assembly voted to copy over 500 DVDs of the two-hour Rata Blanca video to be distributed among workers and within the community. This video, and other productions from the Zanon ceramics factory press commission, are featured on Ágora TV. Currently, Grupo Alavío is holding a series of video and photo workshops for these workers at the BAUEN hotel.
Ágora TV has compiled an extensive list of materials to guide future video producers in filmmaking, camera operation, sound, editing, montage, and exhibition. All of these materials are available in Spanish online.
Effective strategies and tactics
Aesthetics and Content
Aesthetic consideration is another priority for Alavío. The search for aesthetics is a never-ending learning process, requiring creativity and experimentation. Alavío is constantly experimenting with cinemagraphic techniques to find unique ways to tell a story. The work is sometimes criticized for having a linear narrative or having urgency, which is often an outcome of producing a film out of dire necessity. In film school, students are taught industrial filmmaking: never present a video until it is finished—which can sometimes take years—and then premiere it in a commercial theater. Alavío has found that public exhibitions of their films in working class barrios, land squats, union organizing spaces, or factory takeovers have enriched the films’ content and aesthetic reach. Together with the protagonists, the filmmakers learn what should be changed or improved. The final product doesn’t end with the final edit, it continues with the distribution and exhibition.
Grupo Alavío, promotes self-management of media, meaning that community members make their own decisions regarding the planning and production of the media. How to finance a media project is a clear worry for most activists. Mainstream media is financed via paid advertisements and broadcast time. Selling airtime as regular merchandise puts limits on freedom of expression, content, and editorial decisions.
This is the main reason Alavío promotes self-financing media projects. Like worker organizations, media can also be self-managed and self-financed. Volunteer work and activism is the keystone. For more than 15 years, Alavío has produced over 100 documentaries without funding from private foundations, governmental institutions, or non-profits. The group finances productions and Ágora TV through donations from activists and the sale of videos on a sliding scale. A percentage of paid work from renting out collective equipment is put back into the group’s collective fund that is used for buying cassettes and other operational costs. The idea is to generate genuine support that won’t condition any aspect of production or exhibition.
Local-Global Linkages and Limits of the Internet
The Internet has a limited reach due to unequal access. Many of the sectors that would benefit the most from community projects have the least access to technology and resources. Alavío is aware of this limitation and continues to build alternative distribution circuits for their videos. While Ágora TV is currently broadcasting over the internet, the long-term project is to build a citywide station with support from Argentina’s recuperated enterprises, independent labor organizations, and unemployed workers’ organizations.
The Ágora TV website is transforming into an important tool for coalition building and mutual solidarity. Grupo Alavío opened an office space inside the BAUEN Hotel in 2007, which has allowed the group’s work to grow exponentially and become part of a shared larger struggle, in an institutionalized way. On a local and global level, Ágora TV has become a catalyst for other groups to produce short documentaries knowing that they have a viable space to exhibit their work.
Nearly every day, representatives from human rights groups, unemployed worker organizations, environmental rights struggles, independent union organizers, and workers from recuperated enterprises stop by the office to request copies of available DVDs to screen during public talks or small meetings. In a number of cases, for example, teachers who view a video on Ágora TV request copies to use in the classroom. A wide secondary distribution circuit has grown out of the website.
What is most exciting are the global linkages Ágora TV has created. Videos from around Latin America have flooded Ágora TV. Groups throughout Latin America send in links to their videos online to put on Ágora TV. The group was ecstatic when the Popular Assembly of Oaxaca contacted them to ask if they could host videos on Ágora TV, rather than relying on the commercial YouTube site. Videos are often sent in shortly after they are completed, as is the case with Guarapito Films, an Ecuadorian collective that has documented the barbaric impact of Repsol-YPF oil extraction on indigenous communities. The website features an English and Portuguese section, with subtitled videos.
Another international initiative has been training and consulting groups in Uruguay and Chile that want to start up community television stations or video collectives. Grupo Alavío has made great efforts to build relationships with other Latin American community television stations like Catia TVe in Venezuela and Canal 3 La Victoria in Santiago, Chile. Catia TVe provides members of the community tools to make their own productions and see themselves reflected in their programs. In Venezuela, many community media projects have sprouted from the fertile ground of community participation and legal support.
In response to misinformation 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 could transform 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 building community. Ágora TV forms part of a network of community television stations breaking with the norms of commercial media to create a new working class representation. Alavío utilizes the video camera as a political tool by putting it in the hands of the working class, who are the protagonists, reflecting their own points of view and using video to advance their campaigns.