Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom, World Social Forum

MEDIA-BRAZIL: Free Speech and an Open Mic

Mario Osava

SAO LUIS, Brazil, Jan 26 2009 (IPS) - Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva “betrayed” community radio stations, said Magno Cruz, the head of Radio Conquista, speaking at a round table discussion at the International Laboratory for Free Media, held in the capital of the northeastern state of Maranhao.

The struggle of these alternative radio stations (originally called “pirate” stations because they broadcast without a license) was one of the topics discussed at the Jan. 22-24 meeting whose aim was to launch networking, promotion and training processes for the so-called “free media.”

Blogs, videos, grafitti, theatre and other means of expression besides radio broadcasting were discussed at dozens of workshops that drew activists from several parts of Brazil, especially Maranhao state, where the family of former Brazilian President José Sarney (1985-1990) practically monopolises the media.

Cruz was angry that Lula had entrusted the Communications Ministry to “people who are against us, in spite of our support for him in the 2002 electoral campaign,” when the former steelworker won his first term as president.

Raids by police armed with machineguns, confiscation of equipment and threats of shootings and arrests have interrupted Radio Conquista’s broadcasts several times since 2004, Cruz reported.

This community radio station, founded in 2001 in Coroadinho, a Sao Luis slum neighbourhood where violence is rife, has reopened each time it was closed down, thanks to the efforts and support of the local population, who managed to purchase new equipment.

“We didn’t think the Lula administration would close down the radio, although we were warned by friends,” Cruz said. It was an “immoral and horrifying act, when it is common knowledge that many other stations that call themselves community radios are handed over to mayors, lawmakers and other politicians, and are never closed down,” he complained.

Radio Conquista employs more than 60 youngsters from local poor families, encouraging them to stay away from drug trafficking and crime. Whenever it is on the air it “curbs violence” in the neighbourhoods where there is reception, said Cruz, who was sentenced to a year in prison for presiding over the association that runs the radio station.

His prison term was commuted to community service in a poor neighbourhood, where he taught math but also shared his knowledge about community radio, turning necessity into opportunity, he said.

Radio Conquista’s experience is similar to that of a large number of community radio stations in Brazil, which survive in spite of heavy-handed action against them by inspectors and regulators in the Communications Ministry.

Thirteen community stations were closed down in Sao Luis in December 2004, and only Radio Conquista survived, said Cruz, who declared that his radio “will continue broadcasting.”

The fight for a change in the regulations and to keep community stations on the air is part of the free media movement, created at a June 2008 national forum held at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which organised last weekend’s Laboratory in Sao Luis.

The World Forum of Free Media (WFFM) is taking place in Belém, the capital of the northern state of Pará, on Monday and Tuesday, overlapping with the World Social Forum (WSF) which is meeting there from Tuesday to next Sunday.

At Belém, the Ministry of Culture will announce an awards programme for alternative communication initiatives providing useful services to local communities.

Prizes for 40 local or regional projects and 10 programmes with national coverage will range from 50,000 to 120,000 reals (22,000 to 52,000 dollars), said Taciana Portela, the Ministry’s representative for northeastern Brazil.

Policies to make communications more democratic were also debated at the Laboratory. Azril Bacal, a Peruvian with a doctorate in sociology of communication and a member of the WSF’s Working Group on Communication, criticised the fusion of capital and media interests in the present “neoliberal” free market model of globalisation.

Antonio Martins, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil and one of the organisers of the Laboratory, said that “horizontal” free media deserved the same support granted by the state to large media corporations, including tax exemptions, government advertising contracts, and access to television and radio frequencies.

Broadcasting is an activity that cannot continue to be the exclusive preserve of a few privileged entrepreneurs with large amounts of capital, at a time when technology and social change is creating opportunities for new and varied forms of communication, said Ivana Bentes, the head of the School of Communication at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and a promoter of the WFFM.

Community experiences like TV Roc, in Rocinha, one of the large “favelas” (shanty towns) in Rio de Janeiro, and Casas Brasil, an experimental government programme that created 76 “telecentres” equipped with computers, Internet access, distance learning programmes, libraries, theatres, multimedia and other activities, were presented at the Laboratory, which was attended by 450 people, most of them students.

The Laboratory “stimulated the diverse languages” of self-expression, in a state where a monopoly of the media and government advertising resources restricts access to communication, the head of the Communications Department at the Federal University of Maranhao, Francisco Gonçalves, one of the meeting organisers, told IPS.

Participants at the workshop on blogs decided to create one themselves, for dialogue and mutual cooperation.

“It helped me to improve the aesthetic appearance of my blog,” said Marcos Cartágenes, who has been blogging in Sao Luis for the past three years.

But Juliane Oliveira, a journalism student from Santarém, a city in Pará, said “it would have been better if we had had an information technology laboratory.”

Other young people set up a radio station during the meeting, calling it “Na Marra” (Born of Necessity), and made their first broadcast on Saturday. “I learned a lot from this workshop; now I’ll be able to teach my colleagues,” said Dougras Ferreira, from the poor region of Baixada Maranhense.

Lozángela dos Santos, who is from the same region, makes video documentaries and also has experience in telecentres. She said she “expected more” in terms of learning about her field, but added that the Laboratory gave her “more knowledge about communication, the domination of media by big capital, and the alternatives.”

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