The Long and Winding Road of Alternative Media

Alfonso Gumucio Dagron. Handbook of Media Studies. Editor: John D H Downing, Denis McQuail, Philip Schlesinger, Ellen Wartella. Sage Publication. 2004.


  • A torn poster on a wall reads La Lutte Continue (The Struggle Goes On). Paris, France, May 1968.
  • “Release our husbands from prison or we will not stop our hunger strike,” shouts a miner’s wife, live, on Radio La Voz del Minero (Miners’ Voice Radio). Siglo XX, Bolivia, June 1967.
  • Performers from an ACT-UP street theatre group distribute fake U.S. $10 bills on Wall Street with the added caption: “White heterosexual men can’t get AIDS … Don’t bank on it.” New York, United States, 1988.
  • In the basement of a church during the Pinochet dictatorship, a group of Chilean families watches the latest video news produced by Teleanálisis and distributed underground through unions and churches. Santiago, Chile, September 1976.
  • Text messages calling for a public demonstration are multiplied through cellular phones. Manila, Philippines, 2001.
  • Dozens of women demonstrate with their heads covered by white scarves with the printed photographs of their disappeared children and husbands. Buenos Aires, Argentina, any Thursday.
  • Addressing its programmes to many thousands of war refugees from Burundi and Rwanda, Radio Kwizera (Radio Hope) is a response to Rwanda’s former hate radio station Mille Collines (Thousand Hills), which had been a principal agent in inciting the previous year’s genocide. Ngara, Tanzania, 1995.
  • Raised high on a wooden pole, the six cone speakers of Maragusan Audio Tower warn the community against companies that are using motorized chainsaws to illegally cut trees in the valley. Davao del Norte, Philippines, 1997.
  • Hermano soldado, no dispares a tu padre (Brother soldier, don’t shoot your father), reads a large graffito on the adobe wall at a mining camp. Huanuni, Bolivia, 1981.
  • At an international press conference, the Kayapó Indians show a video they made exposing how the construction of a dam at Altamira would affect their lands. They made the cover of Time a month later. Brasilia, Brazil, early nineties.
  • Hanging high on the façade of the University of San Andrés, jobless workers from the mines put themselves on crosses to protest against being fired. La Paz, Bolivia, 1985.

The Urgency of Being Alternative

The word alternative is provocative. It went out of fashion during the years following the fall of communist bureaucracies and the end of the bipolar division of the world, but it is coming back in again, driven by the creative force of freedom activist movements that, after bringing down the Berlin Wall, decided to assault the ramparts of globalisation. If we think of it, alternative is a beautiful word; it may save our values and reaffirm our identities. How can we not expect it to “alter” the current state of things? How can we live with our conscience in peace if we do not oppose the current global organisation of human life and propose alternatives to it?

Coming from Bolivia and having experience in developing communication programmes for social change there, as well as in Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti, Nigeria, and many other locations of the global South, my perspectives on media and media studies are different from some contributors to this volume. Having studied filmmaking in France intensively for 3 full years at IDHEC (Institut de Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques), the national film school, also differentiates my analyses from solely scholarly ones. From where I stand, academic research needs a much richer vision to be more global and much more closely tied to actual needs and practice. I see media studies at their best as focusing on a challenge to how the world is, not simply on explaining it.

Thus, we have to begin by recognising that the most unbelievable situations have become our stale tough daily bread that we eat without a blink. Values have been drained dry. We look but we don’t see, we read but we don’t learn, and we know, but what we know is diluted by trepidation and a desire to hang on to our comforts. We tolerate many situations that violate our principles and ideals. We watch the world being shaped as a nightmare, but most of us don’t react.

Many countries in the world—North and South, East and West—spend four or five times more on their military forces than on education and health programmes combined ( In poor and rich countries, the defense budget is often larger than the entire welfare budget. Education and health problems are far from being solved, but the armies of the world always have modern deadly weapons, just in case. This commerce only benefits the countries that produce and sell weapons, a huge business led by the United States in the name of freedom, democracy, and free trade. In the name of globalisation.

Globalisation is another word for wiping out the world’s borders and permitting huge financial speculation and all kinds of horrendous trade. Never before have we seen such an increase in the traffic of weapons, hard drugs, religious art, fake pharmaceuticals, radioactive materials, human organs, girls and boys for prostitution, archaeological artifacts, live wild animals, babies for adoption, immigrants (South to North), and nuclear garbage (North to South).

We live with a dominant political discourse that is hypocritical. How can we not be alternative to it? The United States provided weapons to the Taliban to get rid of the Soviet-supported Afghan leadership; once the Russians were out, the Taliban were redefined as repressive and cruel. The United States put Chilean dictator Pinochet in place in 1973 and trained torturers to squash the Chilean movement for democracy; 20 years later, Pinochet found himself on his own, no longer useful as strongman, trying to survive the international humiliation of house arrest and being defined as mentally incompetent to stand trial. The United States is responsible for the largest amount of emissions of greenhouse effect gases in the world but opposes and blocks the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, an international convention to limit their consequences for climate change. Palestinians are forbidden to buy weapons and Iraq to develop nuclear weapons, but Israel can buy as many as it wants from the United States and has a nuclear arsenal. The United States has military bases in Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain, and a long list of other countries in the world, including Cuba, at Guantánamo. How about a small Cuban—or French, or Russian, whatever—military base on U.S. territory? Teenagers kill their schoolmates in U.S. schools, but the government opposes vehemently any serious moves, nationally and internationally, to control handgun use. The United States has been the largest producer and distributor of landmines, some of them shaped as toys, designed to attract children, but it has refused to join the international ban on landmines. It is also the only major country that has not ratified the International Convention for the Rights of the Child.

The world is upside down. Patas Arriba (Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World) is the theme and title of a book by Uruguayan social analyst Eduardo Galeano (1998/2001), who shows with irony and biting wit how we have all become so used to the most grotesque and unbe lievable distortions that we have become accomplices in the lies. The book is required reading to understand why we haveto be alternative in the world as it currently is.

There is no protective measure against strongly globalising media trends. In a world surrounded by several thousand communication satellites, there is no shield that can wall off a culture against the culture globalisation brings with it. However, if this is impossible, the development of alternatives remains the only chance of counterbalancing its impact. We only want a fair exchange between cultures. There are many examples in history of cultures that have disappeared under the influence of other cultures, but also cultures that are the result of interaction and exchanges. The terms of exchange are obviously very uneven today, and that is why globalised Western culture is widely perceived as a gigantic project aiming to wipe out the rest of the cultures—European, Chinese, Arab, Latin American, and indigenous land-based peoples—and not only the so-called “weak cultures.” For Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state and national security adviser, speaking in 1999, “What is called globalisation is really another name for the dominant role of the United States.”

Countries may “preserve” some of their traditions as folklore, just to prevent losing them completely. But we know that folklore is culture without oxygen. Folklore is a dead organ that you keep in formaldehyde or a dead animal that a taxidermist stuffs with sawdust: The eyes are dull, and the whole thing is stiff and rigid.

Live cultures have much to interject into the ongoing dialogue between cultures, to prevent the dialogue from becoming a monologue by the stronger party—the speaker that doesn’t listen and only imposes its free-market fundamentalism. However, many alternative voices can be heard in many parts of the world, even as the monologue continues. The market-forces monologue continues like a sermon in a cathedral, but while the preacher continues preaching, many other murmured conversations are taking place, with alternative contents and meanings. And the cathedral doesn’t belong to the priest, though he may feel it is his. So even though all of us, wretched delinquents that we are, may speak quietly inside, we voice our views noisily outside its walls.

Demonstrators and activists periodically express their anger and opposition to the drive to impose a single worldwide model of society that aims to establish the rule of rich countries over poor ones and to put an end to human priorities and cultural diversity. They are fighting for a world that is not “upside down.” Their attitude is alternative to conformism and has inspired new alternative communication activism, which is why this introduction has been necessary to understand what follows.

Rooted in Social Movements and the Processes of Social Change

Just as commercial media are tightly linked to the health of business, and state or government media depend so much on the power structure, the very life of alternative media is tied to social struggle and social movements. Alternative media, as well as the paradigms that they oppose, establish a mutual relationship with the process of social change: They nurture social change as much as they feed from it. Alternative media are bonded to social movements and are seldom sustainable if detached from them. The dialectical relation between social struggles and the need of a voice to express them is a characteristic of alternative media. And this is true at the many levels of the process of social change.

Alternative media became “visible” in Europe and North America during the 1960s and 1970s because during those decades, it was fashionable to be a rebel with or without a cause. The rebel category included a very broad range of movements worldwide. In the United States alone, Black Panthers, hippies, anti-Vietnam War protestors, and pro-choice and other social network activists contributed to stir up in the public sphere debates on racism, violence, drugs, war, and abortion, among others. Every single movement felt the necessity to develop its own media, alternative to mainstream media. (However, alternative radical media existed much earlier in history, as can be seen in the Protestant Reformation, the English Civil War, and the American and French revolutions.)

There are “Third Media,” as there is a Third World—“Third Media” that have been always distinct both from the First Media (dominant, capitalist, multinational, private sector driven) and the Second Media (media financed by socialist, communist, or/and leftist political parties). The Third Media have no organic relations with political parties but are in their flesh and bone a part of social movements. There is a permanent dialogue and interaction between social movements and media that support social changes. Nonetheless, in the final analysis, the independence of alternative “Third Media” is their main characteristic. This independence could be found 50 years ago in the first miners’ radio station of Bolivia and today in the media initiatives supporting the autonomous movement of protesters against globalisation (Seattle, Prague, Washington, D.C., Genoa, and elsewhere).

Let me give two instances, one from Brazil, which ran from the 1890s through the 1960s, and the other from the famous political upheaval in Paris during May and June 1968.

In the northeast of Brazil, we can see an example that helps us to understand the evolution from a very basic form of communication to a more sophisticated one—namely, the cordel. (A cordel consists of a few very small sheets of paper, with illustrations and elementary captions, strung together on a little piece of cord.) The literatura de cordel originated in 1890, only a couple of years after the abolition of slavery, and was initially based on oral transmission of information that gradually evolved into a communication art form. Singers and storytellers used to travel from one marketplace or a local popular festival to the next, often improvising their tales and informative accounts according to their audience. In the Brazilian sertão (the arid hinterland of the northeast), this was the only source of public information for more than 50 years. These popular poets and storytellers—journalists, reporters, effectively—would gather news about events taking place in one town and narrate them in another town or ranch. They wrote their news in verse, carefully crafting rhyming poems. At some point, the storytellers started producing 8- or 16-page summaries, poorly printed, but well enough to keep the information or gossip in circulation. In the absence of any other source of news, these pamphlets were the newspaper, radio, and theatre.

Over the years, small folhetos (pamphlets), which recorded local happenings and were sold to the literate few, became more sophisticated and included images that were printed using woodblock carvings crafted by very creative artists. Used truck tires soon replaced wood as a material for creating the prints. In the 1950s, the traditional oral literatura de cordel met up with modern printing techniques, and the booklets became even more popular; thousands of copies were printed of each pamphlet. National and international events continued to be portrayed, including oppositional views to mainstream media and hegemonic culture. In the 1960s, when the military took power in Brazil, censorship was imposed on mass media and any form of communication. The creators of folhetos managed to bypass censorship through the invention of all kinds of demons and monsters typical of religious themes, but a blurred allusion to the generals.

In May 1968 in Paris, low-cost and rudimentary silk-screen techniques were instantly put in service of the student revolt. The collection of posters issued during the uprising are now classic images of simple, creative, and direct alternative communication. Art students exercised their talent and contributed to express the collective messages that the crowds shouted behind the barricades. When Daniel Cohn-Bendit—the most publicized leader of the revolt—was labelled by the government as an “undesirable foreign extremist” and deported to Germany, a poster was immediately produced with his face and the wordsNous Sommes Tous Indésirables (We Are All Undesirables). To highlight the unexpected linkages between the students’ revolt and many factory workers’ grievances, a series of posters presented images of factories occupied by the workers, as well as slogans such as Brisons Les Vieux Engrenages (Let’s Bust Up the Daily Grind) and Salaires Legers, Chars Lourds (Light Wages, Heavy Tasks). Mainstream media were particularly targeted in some posters. One showed a bottle of poison and read, Presse, Ne Pas Avaler (The Press: Do Not Swallow). Another, showing a riot policeman, read, La Police Vous Parle Tous Les Soirs à 20 Heures (Prime Time News Straight From Police HQ). La Radio Ment (Radio News Lies), read another one. (Both these last are free translations.) This telescoped period of social unrest was enough to produce a very intensive and creative alternative communication flow, truly representative of the social movement at that time.

The Strawberry

Alternative media include community radio and television, press, and a wide range of communication activities. Alternative media refers to communication experiences that emerged as a need to counterbalance the state and/or commercial mass media. They have been defined as opposing established media channels, though their creation often only aims to offer a different perspective and more access. They have quickly been labelled as part of the leftist movement, subversive and revolutionary, and demonised by their more hostile detractors as destabilizing “democratic” society (read “the ordered routines of electoral politics”) and threatening the “free media” (read “corporate media”). They have also been dismissed by many within the progressive movement as local, of limited impact, anarchic, and short-lived.

Readers might expect this chapter to offer a nice precise definition of alternative media. A tight definition is the strawberry on top of the academic research cream cake. Sadly, alternative communication seems allergic to that strawberry. The reason is simple: It is an ongoing process; nobody has a manual for it, a how-to recipe. When somebody attempts to promote a recipe to convert the process into a Step 1 and Step 2, then the spirit is lost, gone. In my own view, alternative communication is in essence participatory communication, and the alternative spirit remains as long as the participatory component is not minimized or excluded. Over the years, some definitions actually “freeze” the understanding of living and constantly evolving processes. One of the reasons why researchers have difficulty classifying alternative media is because of their free spirit, which generates multifaceted experiences refusing to be catalogued. Those who are actually involved in alternative communication initiatives may not be able to define or even name their own activity as alternative media, but they know very well what they are doing and how the process works.

We shouldn’t really mind seeing the cake with lots of strawberries on top. Definitions are merely an attempt to create a common language, which is good. However, at the level where each experience is being built on a daily basis, tight definitions are ni frio ni caliente (neither cold nor hot), meaning they are irrelevant to the process. This should actually worry researchers, as it leads to a larger question: How useful is research to those being researched?

Another wave of alternative communication deals with citizens’ rights and is an attempt to recognize the numerous interests within communities that have developed in large urban areas of the Third World through several decades of intensive migration from rural areas. It emerges in communities made up of people deprived of their land and forced to join the city poor. Urban communities often create their own means to express a culture that is suffering from adaptation stress and deprivation. The most recognizable forms of popular media and popular art are the result of the communities’ need to have a voice and presence. Usually, they do not correspond to a well-structured programme that has laid out long-term objectives and a set of clearly defined activities. They are mostly the consequence of a desire to rehearse the community’s cultural identity, for the purpose (which may not be spelled out explicitly) of giving a kind of proof of existence: We are here; we too are part of the big picture.

Alternative media can be an alternative to the absence of any other channels of information and communication. The first radio station on Kiribati (Christmas Island) was created in the context of silence; people did not even own radio sets because there was no radio station. By extension, silence can also signify the emptiness of relevant content in existing media. Small rural communities in the Philippines raised poles with cone speakers on top, creating community audio-towers, because existing media did not respond to any of their real needs. In the centre of Guatemala City, La Voz de la Comunidad (The Community’s Voice) radio station was created to address the problems of just a couple of poor neighbourhoods in a deep ravine. It too started as a cone-speaker system before it was upgraded with a small transmitter. To take a particularly clear example, Radio Kwizera (kwizera means hope in Kiswahili), near the Tanzanian refugee camps of Ngara at the border of Rwanda and Burundi, was created in response to the hate radio station Mille Collines, which in 1994 had been a prime tool in organizing the genocide. Radio Kwizera has an audience of waves of refugees who come and go across the border, hundreds of thousands, but it also transmits to the rural population living near the borders of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Radio is no doubt the alternative medium that has made the most widespread impact globally over the past 50 years. Since the early 1950s, several thousand community radio stations emerged, particularly in Latin America. During the 1970s, a similar phenomenon developed in Europe; the radios libres or “free radio” exploded in Italy and France, though the stations were mostly soon tamed to the point that they disappeared or became commercial stations. This is no surprise if we consider that the Salvadoran guerrilla Radio Venceremos (Radio We Will Win) became a mainstream commercial station after the peace accords were signed in the 1990s, and even its name was changed to “R.V.” to avoid any political meaning. Africa and Asia have been experimenting with community radio since the early 1990s, and South Africa has taken the leadership with appropriate legislation to protect it. I will return to radio later.

The alternative press, perhaps with less direct impact than alternative radio, is very common within the labour movement and is growing very quickly to be Internet based, as is radio itself. Radio, television, press, Internet, and the other media have been used for alternative and independent journalism, revitalizing the whole practice of alternative and activist reporting and taking it away from the false paradigm of “objectivity” towards an explicit commitment to social change. Although alternative media have grown faster in certain regions of the world, they have the potential to emerge in any social, cultural, and political context where there is a need for a voice to represent people and not only the economic or political interests of a powerful minority.

Alternative communication is often understood as “opposed to.” Undeniably, many of the independent communication projects that emerged over recent decades were a reaction against hegemonic and vertical models of social and economic development under the umbrella of the U.S. “modernization” paradigm. When, in the 1960s and 1970s, the opposed “dependency” paradigm of development gained force in Latin America and soon in the rest of the world, participatory communication became alternative as opposed to the mainstream media that promoted modernization through the so-called diffusion of innovations. Even the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) became an important player in analysing the inequalities that existed in the world of information and communication. The 1978 McBride (1980) report, despite its diplomatically phrased language, was clear about the need to promote a new world information order where other voices would have the opportunity to be heard. UNESCO promoted regional news agencies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to counter balance the handful of news agencies that controlled and still control 80% of the information flow in the world. This search to rebalance for diversity in information and global access to communication technologies prompted the U.S. government to pull out of UNESCO from 1984 to 2002, proclaiming as it did so that UNESCO was actually fostering the reverse, a clampdown on the freedom of journalists.

Despite these smokescreens and blackmail, alternative media have flourished. Horizontal, dialogic, participatory, communitarian, radical, popular, or alternative are just some of the names used to refer to communication initiatives that often did not have a clear plan but were definitely the work of people finding their way out of the hegemonic media system and building their own capacity to communicate. According to the various attempts to define each word, some of the new experiences could be both communitarian and dialogic, participatory and popular, or horizontal and alternative. It didn’t really matter. Communities involved in the actual experiences didn’t use the labels that much.

As distinct from hegemonic and mainstream media, alternative media are not dependent on technology, at least not what we generally understand by technology: electronics, machines, and other of the kind. A pencil or can of paint are great pieces of technology, if we look at them as inventions that favor human advancement. What a person learning to write can do with a pencil is almost magic and certainly is revolutionary. Paint has been the vehicle for many of the most alternative popular expressions: graffiti, posters, and body paint, among others. The variety of tools and the combinations of tools and actions reveal that the communication process is more important than the infrastructure and the technology. To put it in other words, alternative communication is about software, not hardware. Institutions, technology, and messages are less important than the participatory process, the capacity building within the community, and the ownership by a social movement. Owning the hardware, the video equipment, the computers, and the like is important for alternative media projects but not their essence. The ideological software is what really matters: a shared vision of the future, a deep consciousness about current struggles, and a clear memory of the winding road collectively journeyed in the past.

Size and Significance

Friends and critics alike tend to minimize the importance of alternative media (too small, too local, too boring, too narrow, too marginal, too militant, too extreme, too underfunded). These attempts to analyse alternative media through the mass media lens are doomed to failure. If anything, alternative media are closer to nonformal education and grassroots cultural struggles than to mass media information channels. We cannot productively use the parameters and criteria of dominant media to measure alternative media. The success or failure of alternative media cannot be measured by numbers and percentages of audience or income but in terms of the ability for opening dialogue in the public sphere, be it at the community level or through existing social networks.

Though small and not necessarily always radical in terms of confronting the power structure and the hegemonic culture, alternative media have often suffered repression, to the point that one could almost measure their importance by the attempts to silence them. Many examples support this idea. How often did the Bolivian army attack and destroy the miners’ radio stations since their creation in the early 1950s? How assiduously did the Soviet state track down and punish the writers and distributors of underground samizdat? How energetically did the FBI in the cold war try to repress tiny-circulation dissident newspapers, the civil rights movement, and the movement against the Vietnam War? How vigorously did the apartheid (White supremacist) South African government try to stamp out African opposition communications?

Being local is not the same thing as being marginal. A local school has never been considered marginal. What is acceptable for schools should also be accepted for alternative media: A primary responsibilityis to serve the local constituency. It makes more sense to compare alternative media with schools rather than with mainstream radio, journal, or television. Nobody ever would dare to question that a school only benefits 300 or 500 children because everyone knows that in global terms, the educational process is the result of thousands of schools working in parallel. If only this perspective could be applied to alternative media, a more intelligent understanding of them might emerge.

Growth, expansion, and other criteria based on large numbers are key to hegemonic media, not necessarily to alternative media. If we are dealing with social change for development, we do not apply market concepts to schools, libraries, or hospitals. In terms of alternative media, there is no need to desperately yearn for huge audiences, just to compete with mainstream media on their own terms and avoid the stigma of marginality. The ideal situation for alternative media is not suddenly multiplying their users by millions and covering geographical areas that go far beyond their constituency. The ideal is the multiplication of alternative media channels, each one founded on the bedrock of process/participation. There is no point in alternative media becoming global if, on their way to multiplying their audiences, they sacrifice the participatory process, the dialogue, and debate. This is precisely the story of Radio Sutatenza, the first ever community radio station in Latin America. In 1947, it was an alternative media channel for the farmer communities surrounding the Tenza Valley in Colombia; however, several years later, it became the largest national educational radio network and lost the alternative spirit that had made the station so special when it started.

The aspiration of any alternative media movement should be to reach its constituency. For the Bolivian miners’ radio stations, that meant the miners and their families, as well as the farmers who lived in surrounding areas and the citizens of nearby small towns. If the stations were also heard in the capital, La Paz, or in Denmark, fine, as long as that audience did not modify the content of programming. In Latin America and Africa, I have visited community radio stations where station managers seemed very proud because a listener from Germany or Canada sent them a postcard with an encouraging message, as if that was the best proof of their achievement as a community media instrument.

Alternative media with a global scope—if any—should logically be dealing with global issues. An example would be the monthly French publication Le Monde Diplomatique, now available in half a dozen languages, which has consistently exposed the fallacies and perils of neoliberal globalisation. We recognize this characteristic in the very energetic alternative media movement that emerged after the Seattle anti-globalisation struggles and has been growing and getting better organized through successive worldwide demonstrations. The Internet, in particular, has helped anti-globalisation alternative media to become a global phenomenon. However, the movement is not global because of the Internet but because it deals with global issues. The Internet is only another communication vehicle and still to be shaped. Few movements use the Internet as much as the Korean alternative media movement, which is intimately linked with the independent labor movement there. Nonetheless, its main thrust is to address national issues, and the Internet is an instrument that allows them to do this in Korean, except for some pages they translate into English to solicit international solidarity.

Thus, anyone asserting that alternative media are fine but their coverage is too limited geographically or in terms of users does not understand what alternative media really are. The comparisons between mass media and alternative media serve no other purpose than labelling alternative media as unthreatening to commercial media, having a limited social impact, and being short-lived.

The requirement that alternative media should ensure wide coverage and continuously expand has much to do with a distorted concept of sustainability. The new wave of telecentres or telecottages, for example, is now under scrutiny from many friends and foes who would like to exact from these recently installed experiences a certificate of “self-sustainability.” It is enough in some poverty-bureaucrats’ minds for a telecentre to automatically be classified as sustainable and “successful” if it makes money, regardless of its real impact on social change or its contribution to social organization or cultural development.

What is it in alternative media that makes its comparison with mainstream media so intuitively compelling for many people? The fact that alternative media may often use similar instruments (radio and television equipment, air waves, technical staff) does not put both in the same category. Commercial aviation and military aviation both use planes, but any straightforward comparison will be defeated by the fact that their purposes are different. Military aviation cannot be evaluated by the number of passengers transported in a year, the income generated, or the quality of food provided in-flight.

Alternative Voices inside the Fortress?

Independent cinema during the 1960s developed in parallel to social movements in Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Africa. Frustrated by what they felt was their disadvantageous marginality, many independent directors tried to enter the film industry to change it from within. French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once observed in response that their attempt to take over the fortress of mainstream cinema ended with them taken prisoner inside. Alternative media, as well as occasional access to mainstream media, need to be separately defined. The fact that from time to time mainstream media generously open up so outsiders may debate critical issues doesn’t mean much. The fragility of this access is permanent. You don’t own the freedom to communicate; you are just graciously tolerated until you cross the fine line or until the fine line moves closer to you.

For example, the Federation of African Media Women of Zimbabwe (FAMWZ) spent a lot of energy on a project that aimed to pave the way towards community radio. The Mugabe government had no intention of tolerating the establishment of community media but offered FAMWZ the possibility of using airtime at one of the national radio broadcasters. Selected community women received training to coordinate radio listening clubs in rural areas of Zimbabwe. These activists received a cassette recorder to tape the opinions of women that often addressed questions to government bureaucrats. These questions were then addressed to the respective civil servants who would, in turn, respond. Both questions and answers were edited and aired during a 1-hour weekly programme on national radio. Considering the fact that there was no community radio in the country, this was an interesting option, at least better than nothing. It was a small but significant opening up of debate and dialogue in the national public sphere and an example of flexibility of government-controlled media. However, the honeymoon didn’t last long; several months before the March 2002 national elections, the minister of information suspended the programme “until further notice.”

Examples of occasional access to mainstream media are abundant in both industrialized and developing countries. Both public media and commercial media claim to contribute to the democratization of media by offering programme slots for expressing pluralistic views. These access experiences are unthreatening to mainstream media, are merely cathartic, often demobilize social networks, and contribute to consolidating the public image of a particular mass media firm as democratic and pluralistic. Be it independent journalists who express their strong progressive views on editorial pages or individuals from impoverished sectors of society who feel better when they can complain and shout into a microphone, the fact is that linkages with social movements are absent, which is why their expressions are tolerated. Mainstream media and hegemonic ideology have the capacity to absorb these isolated moments and even polish their image with them.

Once distant from social movements, many expressions of independent communication are just outbursts of individuals’ creativity, with no connection to social change, only to reinvigorated artistic expression. When I was a film student in Paris in the early 1970s, a new post-’68 wave of rejection of bourgeois art was dominant among progressive intellectuals. The leading film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, for example, refused to publish any photographs, with the argument that film stills were a bourgeois form of expression. So the film magazine went on publishing only text for a couple of years, often very boring and written by hard-line leftists (who some years later returned with relief to their repressed passion for film images). In that context, one of the Film Department professors at the leftist Vincennes University campus did an experimental film where, for about 40 minutes, the only thing on the screen was a still shot of a woman’s open vagina. While this image continued nonstop, a voice-over made intelligent observations that I forgot as soon as I left the screening.

Was this rebellious individual’s “alternative” expression a form of alternative communication or just a way of revisiting the surrealists or Andy Warhol under the influence of the French students’ uprising? The acid test is the depth of a dissident communicator’s involvement with a social movement. The May ’68 rebels had effectively used graffiti, as well as magnificent silk-screen posters and other handmade communication resources, and their connection with the revolt was clear: A social movement produced those anonymous messages. When they became the expression of individuals, they lost the power to stir up debate in the public sphere, and the individuals’ desire to scandalize was actually a hidden, maybe not fully conscious, attempt to replace the elite with a new one, or at least to introduce new artistic fashions. The enormous acceptance that installation art has today in galleries and museums is an index of how ready the art establishment is to absorb and domesticate.

Ephemeral Tools, Lasting Symbols 

Fleeting alternative communication activism and long-term alternative media process are different; the latter implies the establishment of permanent alternative media channels that can deal with a variety of issues, whereas the former is like a punch—concentrated, direct, and right to the intended target. One is definitely more participatory than the other and helps to build organizational capacity to communicate; the other sometimes even has a second-level impact through mainstream media, breaking thus the confines of the initially very localized audience. Most examples of fleeting or ephemeral alternative communication pivot on one main idea and are often characterized by their direct visual and semantic impact, their almost bare-hands technology, and their emergence during periods of political repression. Several authors have concentrated on describing particular examples, in almost every region of the world, and have included songs, graffiti, jokes, bumper stickers, hairstyles, quilts, fabrics, and dress, among other forms of alternative communication. The difficulty is that the borders are often blurred between the alternative communication function and the artistic, institutional, commercial, or personal significance of the messages.

If we take written graffiti as an example, we can find from “I love you, Maria” to “Burn, burn, burn,” as well a “Vote for El Compadre” to “We sell puppies, give us a call.” Which of the four meets the criteria of alternative communication? Painted graffiti are also difficult to classify. We know that graffiti were originally a way for youth groups in poor neighbourhoods to mark their territory, as well as to express their taste for music and generally the counterculture they represent. Nowadays, graffiti have evolved into a full-blown artistic expression, taken from subway walls to respectable museums. They are a well-thought-out and well-executed art form, often encouraged by municipalities to decorate neighbourhood schools or abandoned buildings. Are they alternative communication or “just art”? Art communicates, but we risk losing our focus if we are too inclusive.

A similar blurred distinction can be observed in dress codes. The way people carry their key chains may signify one thing for gay groups in California and nothing at all for gay groups in Europe. Certain symbols are ways of communicating alternative ways of life, but they don’t necessarily pertain to alternative communication. Women in Africa wear printed fabrics with images and messages commemorating a particular event, and they create songs to celebrate a marriage, a political demonstration, or the visit of a government official. Carnivals in many countries are a vehicle to mock those in power through characters wearing clothes and makeup that the public can easily identify. Even if these take place completely outside of mainstream media, how much of them can be included within the examples of alternative communication? Could we draw the line at the point where oppositional social movements inspire alternative communication activism?

Graffiti can be one of the best examples of alternative communication related to social movements, which have enormous impact when they take the public sphere by assault. It is May 1968 in Paris that leaps to mind as a particularly attractive example, both because of the relation to a powerful social movement and because of the amazing creativity displayed. Slogans such as Soyez Réalistes, Demandez L’Impossible (Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible), Il Est Interdit D’Interdire (Prohibitions Are Hereby Prohibited), and L’Imagination Prend Le Pouvoir (The Imagination Is Seizing Power), among others, were the anonymous—but also collective—expression of the reigning anger and hope. They didn’t last long in terms of actual production of contents and display on the walls of Paris, but the impact is still felt today.

Graffiti remain an important expression of alternative media, even during the apparently peaceful times of liberal democracy. Mujeres Creando (Women Creating), a very active Bolivian feminist group during the late 1990s, intervened in the public sphere by sparking debate on gender discrimination, writing on the walls of La Paz such imaginative poetic statements as the following:

Mujer ni sumisa ni devota libre, linda y loca (Woman neither submissive nor devoted free, pretty and wild)
De hacerte la cena (From making your supper)
de hacerte la cama (from making your bed)
se me fueron las ganas de hacerte el amor (I lost the desire to make love to you)
Detrás de una mujer feliz (Off behind a happy woman)
hay un machista abandonado (there’s a deserted macho.)

The long-term symbolic impact of ephemeral communications such as these demands to be understood and acknowledged.

Without that step being taken, it will be difficult, for example, to grasp accurately the remarkable power wielded by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires through their very effective communication strategies. These mothers, of those disappeared by the 1976-1983 military regime, wore diapers as scarves while demonstrating every Thursday since 1977 in May Square, sometimes with the printed images on their headgear of their lost children or husband. Their elementary act asserting maternity and care was a powerful symbol that, over the years, succeeded, despite being publicly defined by the military and other citizens as the demented ranting of obsessive women, in encouraging participation, dialogue, and debate—a splendid example of nontechnological alternative media.

The Mothers of May Square started demonstrating against all the odds. The context couldn’t have been more dangerous for them—on one hand, a fascist military dictatorship capable of doing the “magic” of disappearing 30,000 people and, on the other hand, domesticated, self-censored, and fearful mainstream media, blind to any of the obvious signs of repression and state terror. Like the drop of water that over time carves a hole in the rock, the Mothers of May Square continued their demonstrations at the same place and the same time, even after the military left power by the back door, and still continued until, nearly 25 years later, some of the military were imprisoned on kidnapping charges (because they could not be tried for the murders).

In Bolivia, the Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (ASOFAMD, the Association of Family Members of Disappeared Prisoners) used life-size human profiles cut out of corrugated cardboard to publicly demonstrate for justice. Each mother, brother, or relative of a victim held the cardboard profile, which often also included a photo of the victim or a poem. This group of relatives-turned-human rights activists organized their demonstration in different squares and streets, in front of the Parliament or the Government Palace, wherever their presence would signify that the memory of those who were killed and buried without trace is alive. In Bolivia too, in 1985, when the government closed down the loss-making national mining companies and left thousands of workers without jobs, “crucifixions” became a quite common alternative communication tool. Jobless miners would attach their arms and legs to a large crucifix high on the façade of the university or another public building and stay there many days until their demands were heard. It was a very powerful image to see their bodies hanging above the heads of passers-by, night and day. In Christianized cultures, it is difficult to think of a more potent symbol of injustice.

Theatre has provided a broad array of experiences, urban and rural, most of which owe to Bertolt Brecht’s approach. Street theatre has a few notable representatives, such as Brazilian Augusto Boal, but mostly it has developed all over the world in small groups that have not theorized much about their own work but, nonetheless, had a cultural and political multiplier effect. Very much following Boal’s street theatre but also nurturing it, Teatro Nuevos Horizontes was active during the 1950s and 1960s in Bolivian mining camps. Led by libertarian Líber Forti—a former printer born in Argentina—Nuevos Horizontes contributed to the organizational struggle of miners in northern Potosí. Performances were mounted without props, often on a truck, and lighted by the lamps on miners’ helmets. The repertoire included not only plays committed to the reality of social struggles in Bolivia but also adaptations of leading Latin American playwrights and even great theatre classics. Bolivian miners were known for their thirst for cultural activities, and drama was also a tool for promoting consciousness on political issues.

Mime and performance art groups conduct a guerrilla-type of theatre activism. Fleeting as it may seem, its impact may be enormous via the (unenthusiastic) amplification provided by mainstream media. The ACT-UP experience in the United States is a key example. Beginning in 1987, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power disrupted many mainstream “normal” events with its “politically incorrect” messages bringing attention to the struggles surrounding AIDS. This was particularly important in the Reagan era, when the establishment was very loathe, to say the least, to deal with the AIDS issue. When both the president and Cardinal O’Connor stated their opposition to advertising condoms, one of the ACT-UP groups erupted on Wall Street and in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, scandalizing the immaculate consciences of stockbrokers and pious Christians. On Wall Street, they distributed fake dollar bills with the following message: “White heterosexual men can’t get AIDS … Don’t bank on it.” They also disrupted a mass celebration in St. Patrick to protest O’Connor’s attacks on homosexuality. The fact that ACT-UP was a coalition of groups resulted in widespread activity, a rich diversity of communications, and sustainability over time.

The sustainability of alternative media, or the headaches of sustaining them, is an issue often manipulated to minimize their importance or their long-term impact. Well, maybe some alternative media activism has no intention in the first place to be sustainable or well established. Examples of this “compact” alternative media activism, valid through a limited period of time and for specific purposes, are abundant but poorly reported, in part, because of their highly intangible character. The audiocassettes with the sermons of Ayatollah Khomeini that circulated underground undermining the power of the shah of Iran, the clandestine video news bulletins produced and distributed through unions and churches during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and, more recently, the cell phone text messages calling for public demonstrations in the Philippines (see Coronel, 2001) are some examples of this intensive and evanescent alternative media activism.

Thus, we have to acknowledge the fact that, notwithstanding the illusory objective of finding a permanent niche inside mainstream media, sometimes mainstream media may briefly amplify alternative communications. We also need to admit how hard it is to draw tidy lines between these diverse forms of alternative communication. For example, street theatre or popular theatre may be fleeting or ongoing. A single play to sensitise people to a particular issue may correspond to the fleeting type of activism, but the establishment of a network of theatre groups as a counter-hegemonic communication channel would certainly belong to the category of long-term alternative communication processes. Both can be participatory at different levels: The performance-focused drama group engages with people, prompting them to interact with performers, whereas the process-oriented theatre channel may, over time, absorb people from the community as actors or scriptwriters.

Radio as Alternative Medium

Although radio in affluent nations has become basically a music medium, with just a few stations broadcasting inventive and significant popular artists, in most of the world, it is a crucial force, not least in nations with low literacy rates. I will focus here on a typical process of development of a community radio station and then illustrate a little from the experience of Latin America’s most striking example of alternative radio over the past 50 years—namely, the Bolivian tin miners’ stations.

In the development of community radio stations, phase one, for most of them—at least those that are not the initiative of a church or a nongovernment organization (NGO)—starts with very humble means, such as a pair of cone speakers and a karaoke amplifier. Their programming may sound at first like an analogue of First World music radio: music, music, and music, all day long. Nevertheless, there is much more to it. In the first place, it is their own station that is airing the music through the cone speakers or through a small FM transmitter. Second, it is the music they like, not the music that is programmed elsewhere. It doesn’t mean that the music itself will be entirely different—though it generally is—but it means that people know they can request the music they want. I have learned to value these small stations that fill their programming with music because I know the process that comes next.

Next, in phase two, people visit the radio station to make specific requests and send short dedications to family and friends. It is not an exaggeration to state that the sense of local ownership of a community radio station starts from the moment anyone can send and receive his or her name through the airwaves: “I would like to dedicate this song to my best friend, on his birthday. With love, from Nicté.” The breaking of the sound barrier, a social breakthrough, is what this means, socially speaking.

A third phase starts with short messages that allow the community to be better informed on community happenings. For example, “We are sad to announce the death of Mr. López, who passed away at the age of 68. He was one of the brave leaders of our community and founder of this radio station. We send our condolences to his family. He will be buried tomorrow at…” Or, “The free vaccination day will be held in our community next Thursday, just in front of our station, all day. All children below 2 years should attend. Mothers, do not forget the vaccination card.” A usual message in community radio stations in rural areas deals with the reception of correspondence: “Ms. Aida González, Mr. José Chavajay, Mr. Felipe Morales…. Please drop by the radio station to pick up letters recently arrived.” The radio station can simultaneously be the post office and an occasional health centre.

Information on social happenings will gradually include other topics of community interest. In the next phase, the radio station starts playing an organizing role, and community leaders will use it for the purpose of advancing the community. “We have learned that the municipality is planning to create a large reservoir for garbage only 1 kilometre from our neighbourhood. If the project thrives, it will have a negative impact on the health of our families.” And next, “A community meeting will be held tonight to elect the members of a delegation that will represent us and discuss with the municipal authorities the issue of the garbage site.” The radio station is already serving the purpose (not declared, not sought at the beginning) of contributing to better organize the community and empower it to face challenges.

Microphones start getting out of the small building of the station in phase five. “The delegation of our community visited the deputy mayor and expressed our concerns. This is how Mr. Zapeta, a member of our delegation, described the meeting….” Very soon, the radio station will send a reporter to interview the deputy mayor or other authorities and will open the microphones to anyone from the community to express what he or she thinks about a particular issue. The concept of a “reporter” is naturally born: someone who has to take a cassette recorder outside and question people, leaders, the community teacher, or outsiders who somehow relate to the community life. The “news” programme is built with all these bits and pieces that relate to the community. The essence is to distribute the information formerly held by a few leaders. From now on, leaders will report to the community through the radio station, and the station microphones will be present at community meetings, sometimes transmitting them live for several hours. Boring? Not for a community whose future depends on so many external forces.

Phase six will naturally expand the station’s influence, both by improving the signal (often, new equipment is bought or obtained through donations) and incorporating new actors into the programming exercise. The schoolteacher will become responsible for a weekly educational programme, a nurse living in the area will be invited to conduct a health and nutrition segment, the leader of the community youth club will talk about sport, and the local priest will take advantage of a slot to talk about human values and faith. While visiting Radio Tubajon on the island of Surigao, north of Mindanao in the Philippines, I was present for an interesting exercise of pluralistic democracy: Around the same table, leaders from six different religious confessions were discussing the station’s religious programming for the next 6 months.

Many community radio stations have evolved over the years to become important region-wise, which means transcending the scope of the village or urban community initially served to a larger audience. This can be an improvement, if participatory standards are maintained, or can be a defeat, if the radio station’s programming has begun to respond to commercial or institutional agendas but no longer to community needs.

In the best scenario, phase seven marks the station’s transformation into an integral communication and culture project that supports social development. Social organizations in the community participate in strategic decisions and programming. The station’s influence expands to education, health, environment, and other areas of development and social change. Similarly, the miners’ radio stations in Bolivia started with community messages, local music, and sports events before they discovered their potential as the voice of the miners’ unions. Miners’ organizations strengthened as their radio stations conveyed unifying voices that promoted debate on national issues and not union issues alone.

The Bolivian miners’ radio stations had an enormous advantage over other similar alternative labour media projects. The Bolivian miners’ struggle was deeply enriched by the fresh winds of the anarchist movement. The anarchist ideals that travelled from Europe to Argentina from the beginning of the 20th century prevented the miners’ movement from being shaped too much by Leninist principles of organization. Bolivia’s unions were, for many decades, a shining example of openness and balance between various political forces, something very unlikely to happen in other Latin American countries. In any important union meeting, Trotskyists, Communists, Maoists, anarchists, and nationalist leaders sat together to struggle for common goals defined by the mechanisms of the workers’ democratic participation, not by political parties’ agendas. This explains why there was always only one union at the grassroots level, one miners’ federation at the national level, and a single Central Obrera Boliviana (COB, Bolivian Workers’ Congress) grouping all the other federations of workers, farmers, teachers, miners, students, artisans, and other associations. This same spirit was embedded in the management of miners’ alternative media and is one very important reason for the development and sustainability of the radio stations over five decades. Typically, the Leninist type of organization claims to be able to unify workers, but in this case, it was the libertarian influence that had this impact, despite several attempts by the most dogmatic political parties—the Communists and the Trotskyists—to fragment the unions.

Independent Film and Video: Our Image, Our Memory

Video has been considered by many the “poor relative” of film and television industries and has been perceived as a marginal attempt to compete with commercial networks. The privatisation of television in Third World countries has only impoverished its contents. At least state-owned networks attempted to promote cultural and educational programmes, whereas commercial television is so dependent on advertising that it has to fill the daily schedule only with what “sells.” The cost of running a television station condemns to a short life most independent projects that aim to promote culture or social issues. Even in industrialized nations, public broadcast stations have a hard life. A few attempts were made in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s to establish alternative television stations, but none was successful over the years. At one point, each university in Bolivia had its own television channel offering cultural programming, debates, and news from a different perspective. But as soon as commercial licenses were accessible through bidding and cable stations entered the market, most university television channels faded away.

A similar process is taking place in countries of Asia and Africa at the beginning of this century. In Namibia, a country with only brief experience of community radio, a small private television station was installed at Rehoboth, 100 kilometres from Windhoek, in a community of bastas, a racially mixed group long discriminated against by both Blacks and Whites. The station operated for a couple of years (1996-1998) from a garage, with a mix of VHS and 8-mm old cameras. What was interesting about this station is that it addressed issues that no other media in the country had ever addressed: the particular history of the basta community. This was done through a programming that paid especial attention to rescuing the cultural traditions and memory of the elders through interviews and open microphones.

Independent filmmakers and video makers have managed to build over the years a strong alternative to the emptiness of commercial television, thus creating not only alternative ways of producing and distributing film and video but also contributing with a different content and aesthetics. Independent video networks managed to survive—despite people’s tastes having been greatly moulded by commercial television and cable networks—by revealing a social reality seldom seen on television. As technology became more affordable and easier to manipulate, video grew as a separate communication tool, with its own advantages over television.

Before video cameras became lightweight, technologically advanced, and very affordable, independent filmmakers were expressing similar social concerns through Super 8 film. I was personally involved with the Taller de Cine Super 8 (Super 8 Workshop) of the Central Sandinista de Trabajadores (CST) in Nicaragua, which later became a video unit. During the first year after the Sandinista Revolution, in 1980, the role of communication was crucial to sustain people’s activism. At the Taller, a group of young workers was trained as filmmakers and started documenting important economic issues that the revolution had to face, such as the reactivation of factories abandoned by their owners who had fled to Miami or the promotion of corn as an alternative to wheat, which was previously imported from the United States. This project was personally supported by Comandante Modesto, the minister of planning, but it did not benefit from support by INCINE (Instituto Nicaraguense de Cine) the National Film Institute, whose resources were focused on producing prestigious feature films for export. The example shows that even in power, you can still be alternative to the hegemonic political culture and ideology. The Sandinistas may have won the war in 1979 and dominated government, but they were still alternative in a country where the dominant ideology had not disappeared and was only silent in the shadows—not to mention the aggression by the contras, supported by the U.S. administration.

Many innovative participatory video experiences have developed all over the world—Maneno Mengi in Tanzania, Video SEWA in India, the Kayapó Indians in Brazil, Televisión Serrana in Cuba, CESPAC in Perú, and Video & Community Dreams in Egypt, among others. Video as a participatory tool has been the guiding vision of Maneno Mengi, a group based in Zanzibar. Maneno Mengi (many words in Kiswahili) specializes in low-cost digital video production, in support of social development initiatives. Its work has benefited fishing communities as well as farmers. Maneno Mengi uses the video camera as a “mirror” for communities to scrutinize their problems and find solutions. The entire process can last for several months: The camera participates in community discussions, and the recorded segments are shown again and again to the community or to relevant authorities to support an environment of social change. When changes are already taking place, the material is edited, mostly as a summary of the whole process. Community representatives participate in the editing sessions, which are simplified with the use of laptops with editing software. Maneno Mengi emphasizes the process rather than the video products themselves.

Video SEWA (India) is another experience that shows the participatory potential that video can unleash. It started in 1984 through Martha Stuart, who conducted a video training workshop in Gujarat for mostly illiterate market women from the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). Among the achievements of this experience is the fact that women with almost no formal education were capable of assimilating the video tool, and their role in society changed as a result. The women who produced these tapes can conceptualise a script, film, record sound, and edit, though many of them cannot find the tape on the shelf when they need it, as they cannot read. Screening videos has become an important part of workers’ education classes at SEWA. Watching tapes helps new members feel a connection with the larger movement. For the 1991 census, Video SEWA produced My Work, Myself, a 15-minute programme addressed to Gujarati women, which reached an audience of approximately half a million through cassette playbacks and was broadcast on state television. Others are training videos about oral rehydration therapy or building smokeless stoves.

The innovative uses of alternative and independent video can be categorized in three distinct perspectives, whereby (a) the process before the video product is essential, (b) the video product is the objective, and (c) the emphasis is on the process after the video product is completed, meaning the way the video is distributed and screened. These distinctions are not too rigorous in reality, but they allow us to better understand the strengths of each perspective. Maneno Mengi, for example, puts the accent on the process of making the video, not in the product that results. Video SEWA could be an example of how the three perspectives are balanced. TV Maxambomba and TV Viva in Brazil, as well as Teleanálisis in Chile, are examples that show the impact of video; they are outstanding because of the way they relate to audiences.

Teleanálisis folded long ago. Nonetheless, it had an enormous social impact in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship, as an alternative for the news systematically censored by the regime. Camera people went out risking their own lives to record people’s demonstrations, political repression, and a variety of social problems; the material was edited in secret and copied to VHS cassettes, which were distributed through clandestine unions, religious organizations, and community groups. In Brazil, TV Viva and TV Maxambomba operate in a different context, a democracy where media are owned by the most influential economic media groups in Latin America, such as TV Globo. Both TV Viva (Recife) and TV Maxambomba (Rio de Janeiro) offer the marginalized neighbourhoods another image of their country, one that takes into account the problems, the needs, and, overall, the expression of the local community. Despite their names, neither is a television station. In streets and open places, TV Viva and TV Maxambomba deploy their giant screens to project video shows that attract people by the hundreds. They are public entertainment and at the same time educational; viewing is no longer a passive activity. The video production touches on all kinds of issues: politics, health, sexuality, unemployment, education, Black culture, citizens’ rights, and the environment. Humour is an important ingredient. Cuban independent video production groups have multiplied since the early 1990s and now have their own national festival. Televisión Serrana is, in that context, an alternative communication experience because it takes place in rural areas, in a country where the government still has a strong hold on media. Televisión Serrana looks at the social situation of the farmer population and provides an opportunity for local communities to voice their concerns and aspirations. Particularly successful items are the video-letters, mostly by children and addressed to other children in Cuba and the world.

The potential of video within the framework of an interactive and dialogic process is huge. The instant playback of video is one of its empowering qualities; it enables continuous participation and feedback.

Indigenous Media

Ethnic and indigenous movements in Latin America have enriched the landscape of alternative communication. Most of the 4,000, maybe more, community radio stations air in indigenous languages and address the needs of the Aymara, Quechua, or Maya indigenous population. A news agency, Pulsar, provides needed support to the regional network of community radio through special programming and news. Independent indigenous video has also blossomed, as well as community theatre and other forms of grassroots communication.

The example of the Kayapó Indians in Brazil is just one among many. In 1985, Monica Frota, a young Brazilian photographer and filmmaker, started a video project with the Kayapó. Initially, the Kayapó used video for the preservation of the cultural memory of the community and recorded their rituals. In a second stage, video was used to communicate among villages and their chiefs, enabling relatives to see each other after many years. Soon, they also started to exchange political speeches and document their protests against the Brazilian state. The political dimension of the project was a logical development; the Kayapó showed a high level of understanding of how media interacted with public opinion. Their image as “hi-tech” Indians quickly gained the first pages of important newspapers, including a Timemagazine cover, when they denounced the construction of a hydroelectric dam that would flood their land. The Kayapó became much more self-conscious about their own “culture” as an important component of their identity as a social group and a valuable political resource, although in some cases, they reinvented the content of that culture to appeal to nonindigenous allies. The appropriation of video tools by the Kayapó strengthens the notion that people can govern their own history, as long as they can control their own representation.

Audiocassette forums have been undertaken in countries such as Venezuela and Mexico. In 1983, the Tosepan Titataniske cooperative, based in Cuetzalan del Progreso, a town in the state of Puebla, adopted the cassette forum to increase the participation of small villages and local cooperatives. Decisions were increasingly being taken by a small group of leaders who lived nearby, whereas cooperatives farther away had no one to represent them. The solution to use audiocassettes to communicate among cooperatives was reached after conducting a brief survey of the local media landscape, which showed that the farmers had no access whatsoever to the provincial capital radio stations, and the cooperatives had no means to fund one themselves. The solution had to be at a very low cost.

A communication process was established in various steps. The survey showed that most rural families had audiocassette recorders but were only using the radio feature. A “monthly audio bulletin” on cassette tapes started, produced by young “correspondents” appointed by their communities and briefly trained in general principles of communication and audio-reporting. Various sessions were held to establish priority issues, and the correspondents drafted a list of themes related to the management and lack of democratic participation at the central cooperative. After preparing half-hour news with interviews and comments and copying the news bulletin onto the 44 original cassettes, correspondents had to return to their cooperatives and make sure that everyone would listen to the cassettes. They were instructed to tape new interviews and short reportages on Side B about problems or events in their community. The correspondents would reconvene a month later, with 44 half-hours of community news, to produce another bulletin, this time with information on each respective village. However, the main community leaders tolerated this initiative rather than supporting it. They did not perceive it as essential for the development of their community, or maybe they did not like the participatory approach. Community democracy is not always welcomed by traditional leadership.

Ultrarightist Alternative Media

Although less important in numbers, there are also “alternative media” that serve small groups on the extreme right. For the same reasons—opposing commercial and state media that do not represent their views—hate groups have used alternative media to convey racist and violent messages. Neo-Nazi groups early on took advantage of the Internet to promote their philosophy. Another example already mentioned is Radio Mille Collines, an independent station that, during the civil war in Rwanda and Burundi, encouraged massive killings by Hutus of Tutsis and any Hutus associated with them.

Today, there also is a global network of more than 700 Christian fundamentalist television cable stations: These are now powerful channels, moving millions of dollars across borders and influencing simultaneously people in Asia, the United States, or Southern Africa. Religious alternative media today are also formed by many small radio stations owned by new sects—mostly little known—spread in rural areas of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, damaging the social tissue of poor urban and rural communities with messages that exploit people’s discontents, suggesting either violence or blind faith as solutions.


I have not been in any community, even the most poor and isolated, where there is no manifestation of communication or art. Every time I have had the opportunity to spend some time in a village, I’ve found the heartbeats of communication and artistic expression. Otherwise, it would mean that there is no culture, and that is simply unthinkable. Culture is always there and is manifest in many ways. I just have to ask if someone has a musical instrument, and instruments will show up, most of them made locally by local craftsmen. In a matter of minutes, a band can start playing because it already knows the local songs, the rhythm, and the accords. The same thing will happen with drama and local dances: Costumes will be unfolded and masks will be proudly brought out, as local traditions will be represented. This happens almost throughout rural communities.

Alternative participatory communication develops naturally within communities in the world, though often the main actors will not be aware of the alternative value of their work. Perhaps we, communicators who often remain external to people’s experiences, are not ourselves equipped to see what is part of an oppositional alternative expression and what is not. Our own limited concepts about alternative media as oppositional to mainstream media may not allow us to recognize other forms of alternative communication that play an oppositional role to whatever is hegemonic in the political, cultural, and social context.

I am thinking, for example, of the woodcuts I have seen in Papua New Guinea, carved by artists in communities along the Sepik River. These woodcuts describe an incredible variety of daily scenes, with characters performing tasks such as hunting, fishing, cooking, or travelling on the river. An initial analysis may conclude that the woodcuts are a way to preserve the memory and history of the tribe, as if writing a book for future generations. Are these everyday-life descriptions an example of oppositional alternative media? In some way they are, because they are a significant statement against oblivion and an expression of attachment to traditional values that modernity and newly introduced technology are already changing. But there is more to it. Some of the most ancient woodcuts—not those that are now made for tourists—depict scenes of wars and confrontations between tribes or against the domination of a tribe by a neighbouring clan. Even if we may not fully understand the codes implicit in the carvings, it is certain that they express a political point of view and thus are oppositional or alternative to whatever may have been the dominant point of view at the time they were created. Our own limits and the lack of other supporting documents do not allow us to better understand them as a form of alternative communication. A similar thing would happen if, in the distant future, all supporting information and analysis about the May 1968 revolts in Paris had disappeared, and we could only find some of the posters that were produced in those days. Would we be able to learn anything from them or to classify them as oppositional without knowing more about their context?

Alternative media and participatory communication are possibly the only means that our world has to preserve and strengthen the diversity of cultures, languages, images, and artistic expressions that make each community unique and rich. By promoting participation and ownership of media, communication contributes to build strong identities, independence of thought, and societies that are democratically organized and represented. It is an alternative to the tidal wave of globalisation that aims to wipe out cultural borders and differences and convert our world into a single society of passive and domesticated consumers.