This post reports on a panel session which took place at the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) annual conference, among four initiatives involved with community media responses to COVID-19. Members of the four initiatives, based in India, Brazil, Mexico and Spain, have discussed the role of community media in crisis response, arriving at common themes that this post illustrates.
“Conversa puxa conversa” (Chatting starts a conversation, Brazilian proverb)
In Portuguese, the word “conversa” refers to both “chatting” as in “jogar conversa fora” (small talk) and having a serious conversation. At first thought, the proverb seems obvious. However, it demonstrates the extent to which establishing a meaningful conversation depends on a willingness to do so as well as on skills to initiate an initial unpretentious chat. As it can be implied in the English words “chat” and “conversation”, there are different levels and styles of conversation. However, what matters the most is that we need conversation more than ever in the current context of health, social, and political crises in many parts of the world.
This post is about a conversation between countries and people in the Global South— India, Brazil, Mexico, and Spain. In these different contexts, three key characteristics are displayed by community media in times of crisis: agility, adaptability, and resilience. As part of one online session for this year’s online IAMCR Conference, we asked four groups to tell us about how they deal with crisis situations, including the COVID-19 pandemic. We also asked them to talk to each other about it. Names of the four organisations, their main activities and panel participants are listed as an appendix to this post.
Dealing with Crises, Community Communication and Alternative Media: Experiences from the Global South
Our goal was to share experiences, echo voices and reflect views from Global South(s) perspective(s). Here, the “South” is not a simple geographic location. One can probably infer this from our inclusion of (the European) Spain as one of the countries addressed in the discussion. Rather, the “South” features as a metaphor for human suffering under capitalism. And what a time to talk about suffering. COVID-19 is taking its toll on the world, causing deaths, illnesses, and economic dispossession. Brazil, India, and Mexico are respectively the second, third, and sixth countries in the world with the highest number of confirmed cases as of the time of writing. Spain was also among the countries most impacted by COVID-19, reaching close to 10,000 new cases in a single day at the outbreak’s peak.
The four experiences from different Global Souths echo what we already know: ‘community media’ derive from a focus on the ‘communal’. This is a point worth stressing, particularly in times of loss, despair, and uncertainty. Community media not only know well the community they address but they also allow this community to speak for itself. All speakers – Ramakrishnan and Venu; Gizele; Renán; Alejandro and Isabel – reveal the multiple ways in which community media are better equipped (than mainstream media, for instance) to address their audience’s needs because of the shared relevance that community issues, given that they are all part of the same community. However, something else is special about community media: its resilience. Ramakrishnan Nagarajan was the first panelist to speak about community resilience in relation to natural disasters. Throughout the following three presentations, the theme of resilience emerged again and again and again. Community media are hyperlocal, language-specific, reliable. All these traits acquire added importance in times of crisis. And perhaps here we should include another important characteristic.
Community media are resilient media.
(examples provided by Ramakrishnan, Gizele, Renán, and Alejandro)
The 2015 earthquake in Nepal reduced large proportions of the country’s rural areas to rubble. The destruction was significant with few structures left standing. Community radios were among the most affected as the damage to their infrastructure buildings was almost total in some places. Yet, it was community radio, not the telecom infrastructure that managed to come back on air first, using small field-based tents and studios, setting up whatever little infrastructure they had. Community radios often work in already resource poor settings and, yet, they were able to get back into action almost immediately to start broadcasting. In Nepal, these community radios were the first to gather stories from survivors almost immediately and to coordinate rescue and relief efforts.
In Brazil, favela residents find themselves in a critical situation, which is, of course, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to a combination of overcrowded spaces and poverty, social distancing becomes almost impossible, and going out to work represents an extreme necessity for many. Yet, the Governments (City, State, Federal) have provided little support for the economically vulnerable populations. In this context, favela communities have demonstrated a high level of resilience and self-organisation, taking matters into their own hands to contain the pandemic. Frente de Mobilização da Maré, based in a large network of favelas in the North Zone of Rio, illustrates this. Many of the members are community media practitioners. They have used their communication skills to devise campaigns and to gather volunteers to assist the most impoverished families. Their work includes creating a local database that people can sign up to and receive food and medicine donations. These volunteers are risking their own lives, going out to streets to help their neighbours, and doing a job that should be done by the authorities.
In Mexico, community radio practitioners have demonstrated resilience in terms of not giving up when their communication strategies do not seem to work. Renán speaks about how they started to lose their audiences during the pandemic because their model of programming became overly formal in its mission to inform people. People were emotionally exhausted, so they wanted to hear more personal experiences. In order to cater for these feelings, they decided to change the style of programming, adopting a more horizontal communication flow.
Finally, resilience is also a key element in the work that is done by ReMC in Spain. As it happens in other Global South contexts, they face major obstacles, such as little money and a lot of red tape. Yet, community radios in different regions of Spain are managing to work together, each from their own homes and “micro-spaces” to produce a weekly programmed called “The Other Coronavirus”. Indeed, community media resiliently show us that violence, inequality and marginalisation are among the many “other” pandemics that we must fight.
Acknowledging, praising, but not romanticising resilience
“Resilience: the ability of a substance to return to its usual shape after being bent, stretched, or pressed.” This definition can be found in the Cambridge dictionary. Here, when we think about resilience from a Global South perspective, it is important to acknowledge it and praise it, but not romanticise it. In Brazil, people (and particularly women) who are resilient, facing all kinds all hardships in life without losing their spirit are called “guerreira(o)s” (or warriors). But I will never forget the words of a female favela activist who once told me: you know what? Do I need to be “guerreira” all the time? This is just exhausting. No one deserves having to fight all the time.
I see a strong link with the work that is being done by initiatives such as Ideosync, Frente de Mobilização, Manos a la Obra, and ReMC. These community-based efforts are at the heart of places that are the most affected by natural disasters and health crises. Their work helps inform people (in a context of mis and disinformation), creates networks of solidarity (in times of social anxiety) and literally saves thousands of lives (in times of death). So, yes, of course, they do seem like warriors in the positive sense of the word. And, yet, despite all these qualities, community media still receive little recognition. No licenses, no subsidies, no support. And what is worse, the people involved in community media are often harassed, threatened, and silenced.
But community media in the Global South(s) keep resisting. They keep speaking up and speaking out against marginalisation and injustice. But are States, authorities, and other institutions of power willing to listen? Here, I evoke Tanja Dreher’s ideas on “politics of listening”. To quote her, “in order to adequately understand and contribute to struggles for media change, media research needs to attend to the politics of ‘listening’ in addition to the dynamics of ‘speaking up’. Crucially, attention to listening shifts the focus and responsibility for change from marginalised voices and on to the conventions, institutions and privileges which shape who and what can be heard in media (2010, p. 85). This implies that the difficulties that community media face, particularly in times of crises, have less to do with an inability to speak up on the part of those oppressed, and more to do with a refusal to listen on the part of State Governments and media regulation bodies, amongst other powerful actors (Dreher, 2010, p. 98). When facing crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, how could community media initiatives be simply ignored in official plans, for instance? Sadly, this is precisely what is happening in many places of the world, as we learned in the four presentations. Would this indicate that the COVID-19 pandemics has made necropolitics – the politics of life and death, with States deciding who may live or who must die – more apparent? I pose this question as a provocation but I will need to leave it aside in this long blog post (it could become another post on its own) because I want to return to South-to-South talking and listening. Whilst Governments fail to listen and cater for the needs of their communities, we have a lot to learn from other experiences in the Global South.
Lessons learned from India, Brazil. Mexico, and Spain:
In India, civil society has advocated for many years that community radio should become an intrinsic part of disaster management plans but these appeals often fell on deaf ears. It was only after the Uttarakhand flash floods in 2015, and the civil society action that followed it, that there was some recognition of the important role played by community radio in natural disasters. After the Nepal Gorkha earthquake, also in 2015, the Uttarakhand State became the first Indian state to have a community radio policy for disaster risk reduction. Lessons learned from this process came in useful during the Kerala floods in 2018 when the Government was encouraged to form partnerships with community radios.
In Brazil, and specially in Rio de Janeiro, police violence has been endemic for decades. In 2019, the Rio de Janeiro Police killed 1,810 people (BBC News Latin America, 2020). This makes a shocking average of five killings per day. Young black men from favela communities are usually the victims and children, such as Ágatha (8 – killed in 2019), and, as young as Rennan (3 – killed in 2006) have also been killed. Even during the pandemic, as Gizele Martins noted, police operations have killed black favela youth in different favela areas. Recently, pressure from civil society, mothers of victims, and activists led to an important victory: In July 2020, Brazil’s Supreme Court decided to suspend police operations in the favelas. This was a way to mitigate the suffering of favela communities who were dying from COVID-19, hunger, and from being shot at, as Gizele put it. But there is still a long way to go in terms of protecting human rights in the favelas.
In Mexico, Renán spoke about the importance of Indigenous languages rescue programmes, which have had a remarkable impact in terms of quantity and quality of audience responses. Additionally, Manos a la Obra Comunicación Comunitaria Antiviral manage to create a “broadcasting corridor”, connecting community radios in different areas and they strengthened these ties when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted.
Finally, in Spain, in A Coruña, the Government of the Galicia Region tried to shut down a community radio station. As response, the station— called CUAC FM— took the Government to court and won the case. The judge ruled in their favour, indicating the importance for community media initiatives to become legal entities and judicialise issues if necessary.
Speaking of the pandemic context in the Global South(s), the presentations also addressed how a “digital illusion” is being created, with those who are already marginalised being re-marginalised. At the same time, because all things have multiple facets, there have been enriching opportunities for dialogue and exchange for activists and community media practitioners in different regions of the Global South. This second aspect, of course, does not counterbalance the first but, in any case,
Let’s keep talking to each other
Until they listen
Black lives matter
- Ideosync Media Combine, India
- A capacity-building advocacy organisation;
- Worked on media development and communication for social change across India and South Asia over the last two decades;
- Research with and on community radio as well as training and capacity building for the sector;
- Presentation focused on the role of community radio in disaster risk reduction in India and South Asia;
- Presenters: Ramakrishnan Nagarajan and Venu Arora
- Website: http://www.ideosyncmedia.org
- E-mail: info [@] ideosynmedia.org
Frente de Mobilização da Maré, Brazil
- Started by a group of favela residents, activists, and community media practitioners;
- Gathered financial donations and supplies from citizens and companies;
- Organised teams of volunteers to sign up residents who needed to receive assistance during the pandemic, such as food baskets and cleaning products;
- Devised a communication plan using different types of media, such as street banners, loudspeakers on cars, WhatsApp groups, and social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) to inform and offer assistance to favela residents.
- Presenter: Gizele Martins;
- Website: https://www.frentemare.com
- E-mail: frentemare [@] gmail.com
Manos a la Obra Comunicación Comunitaria Antiviral, Mexico
- Driven by the need to produce content based on detecting communication needs in the communities;
- Started with a programme that aimed to create a citizen’s agenda through interviews with community leaders, doctors, teachers;
- Created a “broadcasting corridor”, connecting community radios in different areas strengthened these ties when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted;
- Presenter: Renán Martínez Casas
- Facebook: @PerioSismos
- E-mail: renanaquiles [@] hotmail.com
ReMC (Red de Medios Comunitarios), Spain
- A union of associations (a legal entity) that brings together community media from different regions of Spain;
- Despite its location in (Southern) Europe, Spain differs from other European countries in terms of communication policies. There is no independent regulatory body for the audiovisual sector and there are no public policies for the promotion of community media;
- Were able to coordinate efforts and produce a joint weekly radio programme called “El Otro Coronavirus” (The Other Coronavirus).
- Presenters: Alejandro Blanco and Isabel Lema Blanco
- Website: https://medioscomunitarios.net
- E-mail: coordinacion [@] medioscomunitarios.net
Members of IAMCR can watch the video here after logging in:
Non-members can watch it on YouTube:
The Panel Dealing with Crises, Community Communication and Alternative Media: Experiences from the Global South was organized by IAMCR’s Community Communication and Alternative Media (CAM) Section. The leaders of the section acted as curators for the four initiatives (Vinod Pavarala – India, Andrea Medrado – Brazil, Claudia Magallanes Blanco – Mexico, and Alejandro Barranquero – Spain). Claudia Magallanes Blanco moderated the session and her institution, Universidad Iberoamericana Puebla, provided support for editing the video. To Claudia, Vinod, Alejandro, and all members of the section, thank you!