Activist media are radio, television, and other media practices that aim to effect social change and that generally engage in some sort of structural analysis concerned with power and the reconstitution of society into more egalitarian arrangements. Many activist media practices are also committed to principles of communication democracy, which place at their core notions of popular access, participation, and self-management in the communication process. These dual characteristics – structural analysis and democratic communication practice – often create a tension that some activist media projects are unable to negotiate successfully. The topic of activist media is closely related to development communication inasmuch as they both focus on the uses of communication for social change. But the traditional twin concerns of structural analysis and communication democracy distinguish these two fields of study. Studies of activist media emerged in response to transnational, capitalist communication with the goal of countering class, gender, ethnic, and other forms of domination, placing it within the tradition of critical scholarship. At the same time, activist media have established a commitment to democratic communication principles, forging relationships with underrepresented groups and social movements.
Perhaps the earliest example of activist media practice can be traced to the Bolivian tin miners’ unions and their establishment of radio stations beginning in 1947. This practice reached its peak in the late 1960s with about 30 stations that augmented the union struggle against a private oligarchy, then later a state monopoly, and finally brutal military dictatorships. Dozens if not hundreds of activist media exemplars have followed the path blazed by the tin miners’ radio stations, including two well documented cases: the people’s reporters of Nicaragua and Video SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) of India. Following the 1980 revolution, the ruling Sandinista party gave journalistic training to workers and campesinos (peasant farmers) and provided preferential access to a network of radio stations to discuss issues, problems, and solutions to problems facing poor people. Likewise, Video SEWA directly involved poor women – mostly vendors – in the production of videos that not only focused on their everyday struggles, but also shared information with the association’s 30,000 members.
Scholarship of these sorts of media practices received a great deal of theoretical attention, starting in the 1970s, especially in Latin America. The rise of authoritarian regimes in the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America resulted in the exile of numerous intellectuals, who began forming important research centers such as the Latin American Institute for Transnational Studies (ILET) and the Center for the Study of the National Environment (CEREN). These attracted the attention of notable scholars including Armand and Michele Mattelart, Fernando Reyes Matta, and Herbert Schiller, among others. Bolstered by UNESCO’s calls for a New World Information and Communication Order, these scholars argued that communication democracy was the key to achieving wider reforms in politics, economics, culture, and society. The central task that animated this research was how to create a communication praxis (a neo-Marxist term meaning theoretically informed practices) that was simultaneously democratic and participatory in structure, while oriented toward radical social change in outcome.
In accounting for the wide variety of specific, activist media practices that emerged around the world, scholars began to use the dichotomy of process versus product to make sense of apparent contradictions in different projects. Media projects with a process focus tended to emphasize grassroots participation, access to technology, and personal empowerment. Activists taking this approach paid scant attention to the quality of the audiovisual products, size of audience, or impact on external readers, listeners, or viewers. In contrast, activist media producers with a product orientation were willing to sacrifice significant grass-roots participation in order to achieve objectives of producing high-quality and persuasive audiovisual programs capable of attracting a mass audience. Observers of this process/product dichotomy have called for research and practices that can reconcile the difference by consolidating isolated micro-projects and linking them with broader social movements.
Despite a return to democracy in Latin America and an apparent rise in civic movements around the world, interest in activist media has not declined in recent years. Indeed, the early stimulus to resist transnational, capitalist communication domination is more relevant than ever with increased media conglomeration occurring worldwide. A robust, recent example of the activist media movement is the establishment of Indymedia centers: highly democratic, digital news operations that emerged in opposition to the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. The centers practice “open source publishing” wherein the members of the Indymedia movement act as journalists using print, video, audio, and photography to document events from the perspective of activists in a wide array of social justice movements. Since its emergence, Indymedia has mushroomed to include over 110 centers in 35 countries around the world. Studies of these centers demonstrate that they often emerge out of specific social movements (e.g., feminist, environmental, gay rights), but tend to continue as protests against the tendency toward neo-liberal globalization policies imposed by transnational regulatory bodies.
A persistent challenge for activist media regards the assessment of their outcomes. Many of the objectives of both processand product-oriented projects, such as empowerment and social transformation, are difficult to measure and evaluate. Furthermore, activist media projects are typically low-budget operations of limited reach or short duration. Nevertheless, scholars have documented numerous instances of such projects with seemingly profound impacts on participants and have argued that in the long term, activist media do play a role in significant social changes.
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