We feel like talking (to each other) – Community media in Spain

By Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat

*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration Series curated by Wagner Piassaroli Mantovaneli. The blog post is thematically linked to the May 22 event in Vienna, “Media Democracy under Pressure“, a conference on Community Media in Europe, organised by  Media Governance & Industries Research Lab in cooperation with the Verband Freier Radios ÖsterreichCOMMITRadio Orange 94.0 and OKTO.

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“We feel like talking to each other” is a translation of “Tenim ganes de dir-nos”, the statement coined by philosopher Marina Garces for her piece on the online Valencia-based newspaper Vilaweb. This statement is particularly relevant for two reasons: first, because she turned a rather mundane sentence (chatting to each other) into a revolutionary force (talking to each other, to organise ourselves); and second, because this principle of talking to each other builds, simultaneously, on the idea of talking as a fundamental condition for a community, but also by highlighting the fundamental capacity of the community to govern itself as part of the conversation. For me, beyond the traditional limits upon which the definition of community media is erected – public-private, subnational-supranational, alternative-marginal, unestablished-authentic-community media means basically this: that it builds community – as it enables us to talk to each other, and that it roots a political responsibility in our capacity of governing ourselves.

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Photo by American Radio Relay League

In Spain, citizens have a strong wish to talk to each other; but the state is a democracy in shambles backsliding toward authoritarianism. And while people crave talking to each other and to organise, the Spanish structures of the state (the hegemonic political parties, the financial power, and judiciary bodies interlocked around ownership of infrastructures, management of universities and long-lasting networks of corruption) block whatever effort might emerge to establish citizen-grown fundamental rights. Valtonyc, a rap singer, will be imprisoned for three and a half years for the lyrics of a song in which he criticizes the Spanish Monarchy. And while the rapper goes to jail, the rapists stay outside: five military-trained men received a sentence of abuse and not of rape, significantly reducing their jail time for having forced themselves against an 18-year-old woman; the men, calling themselves “the pack” videotaped the rape and bragged about it on social media. That evening, hundreds of thousands outraged by the patriarchal sentence took to the streets with the wish to talk to each other.

In the Spanish Public Service Bradcasting (RTVE), a patriarchal rule also applies for ideological manipulation: a report elaborated by the News Council analysed the coverage of the massive country-wide demonstrations of the feminist March 8th strike. Conclusions show “lack of coverage, censorship, and extreme unbalance in the news times dedicated to the Spanish Government and the ruling PP party (75%), ahead of the the time given to other political formations”. The same news report Council has brought the case of manipulation of RTVE to the European Parliament Committee of Petitions; furthermore women journalists working for RTVE have now delivered news fully dressed in black for the third Friday in a row (#viernesdenegro3), and their experiences of requirements for manipulation have been shared via Twitter under the hashtag #asisemanipula.

These are all examples of people feeling like talking to each other, feeling like organising against communicative injustice. And in the meantime, the ruling Popular Party has systematically blocked any chance of improving the government of the Spanish Public Service Media, and this has raised concerns amongst Reporters Without Borders. Also Amnesty International has recently reported on the Spanish government and the application of the Law on Public Security (also known as the Gag Law), “which could constitute unlawful restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and information”. Altogether, these appear to be efforts by the Spanish state to reduce the wish to talk to each other of the Spanish peoples.

Community media are also a major issue in Spain. Earlier this year, the Council of Europe issued a communication praising community media “as a counterbalance to increased media concentration”, adding that “states should encourage and support (…), including by providing financial mechanisms to foster their development”; because according to the Declaration of  11th February 2009 “the role of community media [is to] promote social cohesion and intercultural dialogue”; or in other words, their role is to enable us to talk to each other. In Spain there are 5000 professionals creating content for around 200 community media, 10 of which are television stations (according to the Network of Alternative and Participative Community Communication (RRICAP)); but their situation is not pleasant at all. The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations is currently investigating why the Spanish Telecommunications has left community media without licenses for Radio or for Television and has imposed instead an elevated discriminatory fine on those who can afford publishing. Again, in Spain people try to talk to each other, while the state and its corrupt structures abuse any chance of people governing themselves.

In my discussion today, I would like take the notion of community media a little further. I would like to show three successful examples of media in which people managed to talk to each other.

I would put the first example very simply: journalism. In the last few years, communicatively constrained Spain, has seen the emergence of very interesting journalistic experiences. They are based on private non-profit associations that cultivate proper critical journalism against the strong currents of the establishment “as a wall of associates against the pressures of power”. The business is tough, but it has shown quite interesting benefits. Eldiario.es has unveiled several major cases of corruption and shown high quality investigatory journalism. It also publishes regularly its benefits, the staff salaries, and the strategy as a ground-breaking sign of transparency. This is simply journalism working as an innovative form of transparent associate-based media that enables the citizens to talk to each other.

The second example are the social media platforms in the hands of social movements and tech-aware citizens. In reaction to the court sentence related to the imprisonment of the rap singer, musicians from all over the country joined to sing in an abandoned prison in Barcelona, a professional video was published and a song with the provocative title of the “Borbones are thieves”, and this was multiplied along and across social media, becoming an unstoppable phenomenon of debate, diffusion and protest. A form of talking to each other, to organise. Again, the drive to govern ourselves is channelled through the social media against the structures of an established and corrupt media landscape.

And third, an example that shows how the wish to talk to each other penetrates the infrastructure itself. The community guifi.net “has created a free, open and neutral telecommunications network based on a commons model”. It is linked to a broader trend called the Open Wireless Movement, but it started early in 2004 and has grown in the hands of its voluntary members. In 2015 guifi.net was awarded the best project in the category of innovative model of financing, business and investment. The network has more than 34,000 nodes and more than 50,000 people all over Spain receive internet for free thanks to it. This is one of the biggest examples of its kind with the participation of universities, councils, and companies. This participatory bottom-up model of infrastructural network challenges the hegemony of the major Internet Service Providers and opens valuable strands of social conversation.

Community media thus are more than media. They are languages (such as Journalism), social platforms (such as social movements), and infrastructures as with pirate/liberated radios, or as now in times of privatisation of the internet, open access wi-fi open and open software. Whether these examples are essential community media or not, these initiatives inspire an optimistic recommendation: whatever form they take, community media are possible even (or particularly) in contexts in which the media of the establishment are kidnapped or obedient to ventriloquist exercises of repeating the language of power. Community media are opportunities, for us to start talking to each other, not just for the chatty purpose of gossiping in a community; but for the more serious and fundamental right of talking to each other to fairly and responsibly govern ourselves.

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