Participatory communication stresses the importance of cultural identity of local communities and of democratization and participation at all levels – international, national, local, and individual. However, the point of departure must be the community. It is at the community level that the problems of living conditions are discussed, and interactions with other communities are elicited (Servaes 1999; 2003). It points to a strategy, not merely inclusive of, but largely emanating from, the traditional “receivers”. Paulo Freire (1983, 76) refers to this as the right of all people to individually and collectively speak their word: “This is not the privilege of some few men, but the right of every (wo)man. Consequently, no one can say a true word alone – nor can he say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words”.
In order to share information, knowledge, trust, commitment, and a right attitude, participatory communication is very important. The International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, chaired by Sean MacBride, argued that “this calls for a new attitude for overcoming stereotyped thinking and to promote more understanding of diversity and plurality, with full respect for the dignity and equality of peoples living in different conditions and acting in different ways” (MacBride 1980, 254).
The most developed form of participation is self-management of communication media. This principle implies the right to participation in the planning and production of media content. However, not everyone wants to or must be involved in its practical implementation. More important is that participation is made possible in the decision-making regarding the subjects treated in the messages and regarding the selection procedures. One of the fundamental hindrances to the decision to adopt the participation strategy is that it threatens existing hierarchies. Nevertheless, participation does not imply that there is no longer a role for specialists, planners, and institutional leaders. It only means that the viewpoint of the local groups of the public is considered before the resources for projects are allocated and distributed, and that suggestions for changes in the policy are taken into consideration.
Two Major Approaches to Participatory Communication
There are two major approaches to participatory communication. The first is the dialogical pedagogy of Paulo Freire (1970; 1973; 1983; 1994), and the second involves the ideas of access, participation, and self-management articulated in the UNESCO debates of the 1970s (Berrigan 1977; 1979). In spite of wide acceptance of these principles of democratic communication in participatory communication projects, there exists today a wide variety of practical experiences and intentions.
Freire’s Dialogical Pedagogy
The Freirean argument works by a dual theoretical strategy. He insists that subjugated peoples must be treated as fully human subjects in any political process. This implies dialogical communication. Although inspired to some extent by Sartre’s existentialism, a respect for the autonomous personhood of each human being, the more important source is a theology that demands respect for otherness – in this case that of another human being. The second strategy is a moment of utopian hope, derived from the early Marx, that the human species has a destiny that offers a life more than the fulfillment of material needs. Also from Marx is an insistence on collective solutions. Individual opportunity, Freire stresses, is no solution to general situations of poverty and cultural subjugation.
These ideas are deeply unpopular with elites, including elites in the third world, but there is nonetheless widespread acceptance of Freire’s notion of dialogical communication as a normative theory of participatory communication. One problem with Freire is that his theory of dialogical communication is based on group dialogue rather than such amplifying media as radio, print, and television. Freire also gives little attention to the language or form of communication, devoting most of his discussion to the intentions of communication actions.
Access, Participation, And Self-Management In UNESCO Discourse
The second discourse about participatory communication is the UNESCO language about access, participation, and self-management from the 1977 meeting in Belgrade. The final report of that meeting defines the terms in the following way. First, “access” refers to the use of media for public service. It may be defined in terms of the opportunities available to the public to choose varied and relevant programs and to have a means of feedback to transmit its reactions and demands to production organizations. Second, “participation” implies a higher level of public involvement in communication systems than mere access. It includes the involvement of the public in the production process, and also in the management and planning of communication systems. Participation may be no more than representation and consultation of the public in decision-making. Third, “self-management” is the most advanced form of participation. In this case, the public exercises the power of decision-making within communication enterprises and is also fully involved in the formulation of communication policies and plans.
Access by the community and participation of the community are to be considered key defining factors, as Berrigan eloquently summarizes: “[Community media] are media to which members of the community have access, for information, education, entertainment, when they want access. They are media in which the community participates, as planners, producers, and performers. They are the means of expression of the community, rather than for the community” (Berrigan 1979, 8). Referring to the 1977 meeting in Belgrade, Berrigan (1979, 18) partially links access to the reception of information, education, and entertainment considered relevant by/for the community: “[Access] may be defined in terms of the opportunities available to the public to choose varied and relevant programs, and to have a means of feedback to transmit its reactions and demands to production organizations.”
Others limit access to mass media and see it as “the processes that permit users to provide relatively open and unedited input to the mass media” (Lewis 1993, 12) or as “the relation to the public and the established broadcasting institutions” (Prehn 1991, 259). Both the production and reception approaches of “access” can be considered relevant for an understanding of community media.
These ideas are important and widely accepted as a normative theory of participatory communication: it must involve access and participation (Pateman 1972). However, we should note some differences from Freire. The UNESCO discourse includes the idea of a gradual progression. Some amount of access may be allowed, but self-management may be postponed until sometime in the future. Freire’s theory allows for no such compromise. We either respect the culture of the other or we fall back into domination and the “banking” mode of imposed education. The UNESCO discourse talks in neutral terms about “the public.” Freire talked about “the oppressed.” Finally, the UNESCO discourse puts the main focus on the institution, for which participatory or community radio means a radio station that is self-managed by those participating in it.
Participatory Communication for Social Change
Participation involves the more equitable sharing of both political and economic power, which often decreases the advantage of certain groups. Structural change involves the redistribution of power. In mass communication areas, many communication experts agree that structural change should occur first in order to establish participatory communication policies. Mowlana & Wilson (1987, 143), for instance, state: “Communications policies are basically derivatives of the political, cultural, and economic conditions and institutions under which they operate. They tend to legitimize the existing power relations in society, and therefore, they cannot be substantially changed unless there are fundamental structural changes in society that can alter these power relationships themselves.”
Therefore, the development of a participatory communication model has to take place in relation to overall societal emancipation processes at local, national, as well as international levels. Several authors have been trying to summarize the criteria for such a communication model. The Latin American scholar Juan Somavia (1977; 1981) sums up the following (slightly adapted) components as essential:
- Communication is a human need. The satisfaction of the need for communication is just as important for a society as the concern for health, nutrition, housing, education, and labor. Together with all the other social needs, communication must enable the citizens to emancipate themselves completely. The right to inform and to be informed, and the right to communicate, are thus essential human rights, and this both individually and collectively.
- Communication is a delegated human right. Within its own cultural, political, economic, and historical context, each society has to be able to define independently the concrete form in which it wants to organize its social communication process. Because there are a variety of cultures, there can therefore also arise various organizational structures. But whatever the form in which the social communication function is embodied, priority must be given to the principles of participation and accessibility.
- Communication is a facet of the societal conscientization, emancipation, and liberation process. The social responsibility of the media in the process of social change is considerable. Indeed, after the period of formal education, the media are the most important educational and socialization agents. They are capable of informing or disinforming, exposing or concealing important facts, interpreting events positively or negatively, and so on.
- The communication task involves rights as well as responsibilities or obligations. Since the media in fact provide a public service, they must carry it out in a framework of social and juridical responsibility that reflects the social consensus of society. In other words, there are no rights without obligations.
The freedom and right to communicate, therefore, must be approached from a threefold perspective: first, it is necessary for the public to participate effectively in the communication field; second, there is the design of a framework in which this can take place; and, third, the media must enjoy professional autonomy, free of economic, political, or whatever pressure.
In sum, participatory communication for social change sees people as the nucleus of development (Jacobson & Servaes 1998). Development means lifting the spirit of a local community to take pride in its own culture, intellect, and environment. Development aims to educate and stimulate people to be active in self- and communal improvements while maintaining a balanced ecology. Authentic participation, though widely espoused in the literature, is not in everyone’s interest. Due to their local concentration, participatory programs are in fact not easily implemented, nor are they highly predictable or readily controlled.
- Berrigan, F. J. (1977). Access: Some western models of community media. Paris: UNESCO.
- Berrigan, F. J. (1979). Community communications: The role of community media in development. Paris: UNESCO.
- Freire, P. (1970). Cultural action for freedom. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Freire, P. (1973). Extension o comunicacion? La concientizacion en el medio rural. Mexico: Siglo XXI.
- Freire, P. (1983). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
- Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
- Jacobson, T., & Servaes, J. (eds.) (1998). Theoretical approaches to participatory communication. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Lewis, P. (ed.) (1993). Alternative media: Linking global and local. Paris: UNESCO.
- MacBride, S. (ed.) (1980). Many voices, one world: Communication and society, today and tomorrow. Paris: UNESCO.
- Mowlana, H., & Wilson, L. (1987). Communication and development: A global assessment. Paris: UNESCO.
- Pateman, C. (1972). Participation and democratic theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Prehn, O. (1991). From small-scale utopism to large-scale pragmatism. In N. Jankowski, O. Prehn, & J. Stappers (eds.), The people’s voice: Local radio and television in Europe. London, Paris, Rome: John Libbey, pp. 247–268.
- Servaes, J. (1999). Communication for development: One world, multiple cultures. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Servaes, J. (2003). Approaches to development: Studies on communication for development. Paris: UNESCO.
- Somavia, J. (1977). Third world participation in international communication. Perspective after Nairobi: Paper symposium “International Communication and Third World Participation,” Amsterdam.
- Somavia, J. (1981). The democratization of communication: From minority social monopoly to majority social representation. Development Dialogue, 2.
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