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On the Growing Free Media Movement
Recent trends in radical media organizing
Greg Ruggiero & Kate Duncan
From July 26 through August 3 more than 3,000 people gathered in Spain for the Zapatista initiated Second Encuentro for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. Following up last years Encuentro in Chiapas which analyzed globalization from economic, political, social, and cultural perspectives, the goal of this years gathering was to continue the first Encuentros work by building networks of resistance and communication that link and strengthen individual liberation struggles around the globe.
The Encuentros structure is a study in decentralized networks. An experiment in political organizing, the Encuentro aims to embody in its own process the social dynamics it hopes to realize in the world. Thus, the Encuentro presents no speakers or panels; the purpose is for all to speak and listen equally. Its agenda is determined not by its organizers but through a "consulta," a process key to the Zapatistas bottom-up organizing, in which all those who might participate decide what issues will be subject of the gatherings many mesas. The consulta also invites participants to organize working groups, volunteer labor, and in any way help ease the work of holding a major international gathering. Generous donations of food, space, and labor, and a break-even attitude on the part of the organizers, drove the registration fee down to $120 for ten days of transportation, food, and a place to sleep. The year-long consulta for the Second Encuentro decided upon six subject areas for the conference to address: (1) economics; (2) globalization and equality; (3) patriarchy; (4) land and ecology; (5) marginalization; and (6) culture, education, and information.
When the mesas, which met separately in far-flung villages and cities throughout Spain, squatted a southern farm and set up tents for a ten-hour plenary, their report-backs were tellingly similar. Every mesas report included the words, "We need a network." So many different social struggles under one tent affirms the Encuentros premise that they are all resisting the same thing: Neoliberalisms consequence of placing profit before people. But the information mesa had a unique twist. While other mesas organized networks within struggles, the information mesa aimed to organize a network between struggles, to blueprint an intercontinentalal network of alternative communication.
Many of the info mesas ideas were derived from projects that were inspired by the first Encuentro that took place exactly one year earlier in La Realidad, Mexico, where 4,000 people gathered to critique the economic, political, cultural, and social impact of neoliberalism and to propose new ways of organizing and doing politics. The importance of international networks of alternative communication was the subject of widespread discussion during the First Encuentro, as expressed in both the various mesas reports and in the Zapatistas Second Declaration of La Realidad read by Subcommandante Marcos during the closing session of the Encuentro: "Lets make a network of communication among all our struggles and resistances. An intercontinental network of alternative communication against neoliberalism...(and) for humanity. This intercontinental network of alternative communication will search to weave the channels so that words may travel all the roads that resist...(it) will be the medium by which distinct resistances communicate with one another. This intercontinental network of alternative communication is not an organizing structure, nor has a central head or decision maker, nor does it have a central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who speak and listen."
Over the next year, the Zapatista proposal sparked a series of discussions, proposals, teach-ins, and gatherings, each a unique strand which wove together and informed the Second Encuentro.
The first strand began emerging the day after the proposal was read, when a number of Encuentro participants met in San Cristobal to discuss possible ways of carrying out the EZLN proposal. Out of this meeting came the "Red Intercontinental de Comunicacion Alternativa" (RICA) proposal. The core of the RICA proposal is a plan for using the Internet to create links between previously existing communication lists as a way of further diffusing information about resistance and liberation struggles. Though well thought out and concrete, RICA has yet to be realized in the form of any recognizable projects.
A second strand began forming in New York City where organizers planning a "Freeing the Media Teach-in" invited Subcommandante Marcos to elaborate on the Second Declaration of La Realidad. Organized by The Learning Alliance, Paper Tiger and FAIR, the purpose of Freeing the Media was to critique corporate media concentration while exploring ways to strengthen progressive communication. Marcos accepted the invitation and made a 10-minute video message that was screened at "Freeing the Media" on January 31, 1997. "The work of independent media," said Marcos "is to tell the history of social struggle in the world." Marcos went on to advocate that media activists fight to open spaces within the mass media monopolies (to acknowledge news of social movements), and at the same time, to continue developing a network of independent media and information.
As a follow-up to the Teach-in, organizers joined with the Cultural Environment Movement and organized "Freeing the Local Media" in May. Freeing the Local Media then formed the New York Free Media Alliance, a local collective intended as "a slugging arm to give community groups more strength," according to Steve Rendall of FAIR. To inform the process, Freeing the Local Media invited members of media collectives from six North American cities to tell their stories. On June 1, members of the various collectives wove a third strand by deciding to form an alliance that was directly inspired by the Second Declaration of La Realidad and a proposal made in the April 1996 issue of Z Magazine calling for a Federation of Alternative Media Activists and Supporters (FAMAS). The June 1 group temporarily dubbed their coalition the International Federation of Independent Media (IFIM) consisting of "autonoumous, sovereign media activist groups in the service of spreading the movement for human liberation, participatory democracy, and community building."
In July, a fourth strand formed, as dozens of political groups came together in Austin, Texas for a local Encuentro. The report of the Austin Encuentros Media, Information and Education Mesa reads, "Access to information, lack of resources and infrastructures for alternative media, de-emphasis of public support for public media, lack of inclusivity in terms of community representation, globalization of media corporations and concentration of ownership, are all current problems under neoliberal economic regimes. Within this framework are opportunities for grassroots activists. Community development needs to be at the core of our information projects."
These four strands, all offshoots of the First Encuentro, wove themselves together at the Second Encounter. Members of the Information Mesa attended the First Encuentro, worked on RICA, participated in Freeing the Media, were active in local collectives, the IFIM, and the Austin Encuentro. The Information Mesa agreed that building this network will be divided in three categories: (1) Internal Communication, meaning how we will exchange information within the network; (2) Production and Distribution, meaning how the network will get information from people who need to speak to people who need to listen; and (3) Action, meaning how the network will serve as a coordinator for global liberation movements.
The group further agreed that two interlinked networks needed support: one which coordinates regional collectives into a federation, the second which is completely "rhizomatic" and centerless, disseminating news in a prioritized but unfiltered manner.
In the end, the Second Encuentro was really just another beginning. It was agreed that a follow-up Information Encuentro was in order, and a listserve was set-up to coordinate the effort and exchange reports.
Because it was another beginning, the Encuentro is hard-pressed to point to any concrete results. Yet it is one more step toward a concrete network. People meeting for the first time at the microcosmic information mesa discovered they shared friends and had shared information. Because people shared the experience of the information mesa, its most tangible outcome will continue in this vein of turn to accidental information exchange into purposeful premeditated actions. So much of the real results come from the process of getting to know one another.
Proposals made at last years Encuentro have triggered a series of linked grassroots organizing efforts set on countering globalization by building networks of resistance and communication. These efforts are localy rooted in community groups and internationally linked by the Internet. Two manifestations are unfolding. The first shows an increasing set of working alliances among active media collectives, and the formation of an increasing number of collectives. This network is calling itself the International Federation of Independent Media. The second shows increasing communication between individuals and organizations within specific movements, increasing links between movements, and increasing outreach to civil society. Primarily Internet driven, this network of networks is calling itself many names, of which RICA is one. The combination of these two trends, joined by organizing work occurring in the microbroadcast network, is creating a powerful, leaderless, and autonomous Free Media Movement intent on accessing, producing, and disseminating information as neccessary conditions for living with greater freedom within genuine democratic community.