Citizens’ media is a term used by communication and media scholars to refer to electronic media (i.e., radio, television, video) and information and communication technologies (i.e., text messaging, cellular telephony, Internet) that are controlled and used by citizens and collectives to meet their own information and communication needs. As an academic term, citizens’ media belongs to a large family of concepts that, among others, include community media, alternative media, autonomous media, participatory media, and radical media.
Although all these terms express more or less the same reality of media controlled by citizens and collectives, each of them emerges from a different conceptual framework. For example, “alternative media” accentuates the potential of these media to alter the social world in which they operate, and differentiates between these participatory, inclusive media and commercial media, driven by the need to produce a profit, produced by professionals, and limited to certain formats and genres. “Autonomous media” underscores the absence of political and financial interests in these media ventures. “Community media” highlights their collective nature and connects to theories of community building. “Participatory media” puts emphasis on the fact that these media are commonly open to anyone in the community to produce their own radio, television, or any other media product. Finally, “radical media” stresses their potential to express and embolden discourses, practices, and politics of resistance.
The term “citizens’ media” was first coined by Clemencia Rodríguez in Fissures in the mediascape: An international study of citizens’ media (2001). It emerges from the need to overcome oppositional frameworks and binary categories traditionally used to analyze alternative media. As a concept, citizens’ media moves away from binary definitions in two different directions. First, instead of defining alternative media as that-which-is-not-mainstream-media, citizens’ media defines media in terms of the transformative processes they bring about for participants and their communities. In other words, while “alternative media” define community media by what they are not – not commercial, not professional, not institutionalized, “citizens’ media” define them by what they are – the processes of change triggered with media participants.
Second, citizens’ media breaks away from a binary and essentializing definition of power, whereby the mediascape is inhabited by the powerful (mainstream media) and the powerless. Instead of limiting the potential of alternative media to their ability to resist commercial media owned by large media conglomerates – and restricting our understanding of all other instances of social change facilitated by community media – the focus of citizens’ media is on the metamorphic transformation experienced by their producers and participants. That is, citizens’ media is a concept that accounts for the processes of empowerment, “conscientization,” and fragmentation of power that result when men, women, and children gain access to and reclaim their own media. As they disrupt established power relationships and cultural codes, citizens’ media producers and participants exercise their own agency in reshaping their own lives, futures, and cultures.
Citizens’ media is a concept anchored in the theory of radical democracy and citizenship of political science scholar Chantal Mouffe. Mouffe takes distance from liberal democracy’s definition of citizenship and proposes a move toward re-appropriating the term. Liberal democracy defines citizenship and citizen in terms of a legal status granted (or denied) to an individual by a state. Gaining citizenship is one of the foundational principles of representative democracies, because only citizens have access to full democratic rights. In this light, Mouffe proposes a reinterpretation and redefinition of the term “citizen” and “citizenship”; according to Mouffe, “citizenship” should be defined in terms of political action and access to power, and not as a legal status controlled by the state.
Mouffe defines citizens as political subjects not in terms of legal status that secures individuals’ rights and responsibilities, but as localized subjects whose daily lives are traversed by a series of social and cultural interactions. Citizens exist in a mesh of interactions also localized in a specific context – family interactions, relationships with neighbors, friends, colleagues, peers, etc. It is precisely from these interactions that each citizen gains access to power – symbolic power, psychological power, material power, and political power. According to Mouffe, when citizens use their power to redirect and shape their communities, they enact political actions as political subject – and these actions are the building blocks of a democracy. It is this power that allows citizens to shape their communities (or not) according to their own needs and visions for the future. Thus Mouffe defines citizens as those individuals who generate power from their quotidian interactions and relationships and use this power to transform their community step by step.
Adopting Mouffe’s definition of citizenship, Rodríguez coins the term “citizens’ media” to refer to those alternative, community, or radical media that facilitate, trigger, and maintain processes of citizenship building, in Mouffe’s sense of the term. Rodríguez’s “citizens’ media” are those media that promote symbolic processes allowing people to name the world and speak the world in their own terms, formats, and aesthetic values.
Rodríguez uses the term more as a qualifier than as a category that defines the legal status of the medium. In this sense, a medium can have a “community” license and still not qualify as “citizens’ medium.” A community medium will qualify as a “citizens’ medium” only as long as it triggers processes in which local producers can recodify their own identities and reformulate their own visions for their communities’ futures. Rodríguez has carried out case studies of citizens’ media in Nicaragua, Cataluña, Colombia, Chile, and among Latino communities in the US.
In other less academic contexts – such as Colombia, for example – media activists have adopted the concept of citizens’ media, although they are not necessarily referring to Rodríguez’s definition. In Colombia, the term is used to emphasize the role that community radio and television stations play in diversifying the public sphere and strengthening “a culture of citizenship.” Citizens’ media facilitate access to the public sphere for different political, social, and cultural views, thus encouraging public debate. Colombian citizens’ media are becoming important elements of the public sphere where counter-publics express their views, disseminate information not accessible through the mainstream media, and demand transparency and accountability from local and national government authorities.
- Atton, C. (2002). Alternative media. London: Sage.
- Downing, J. (2001). Radical media: Rebellious communication and social movements. London: Sage.
- Fraser, N. (1993). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. In C. Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 109 –142.
- McClure, K. (1992). On the subject of rights: Pluralism, plurality, and political identity. In C. Mouffe (ed.), Dimensions of radical democracy: Pluralism, citizenship, community. London: Verso, pp. 108 –125.
- Mouffe, C. (1988). Hegemony and new political subjects: Towards a new conception of democracy. In L. Grossberg & C. Nelson (eds.), Marxism and the interpretation of culture. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 89 –102.
- Mouffe, C. (ed.) (1992). Dimensions of radical democracy: Pluralism, citizenship, community. London: Verso.
- Rodríguez, C. (2001). Fissures in the mediascape: An international study of citizens’ media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
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