Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 311 | Junio 2007


Latin America

Media Content as Social Property

Another kind of communication is possible. For it to exist, we have to fight for social ownership of the media, for an “agrarian reform” of the air and the radio spectrum. Latin American radio stations today have to raise a banner for content as social property.

José Ignacio López Vigil

Who owns the rainbow? Does someone have title to the property over the oceans, which takes up most of the planet’s surface? What would you think if I wanted to sell a hundred meters of the ozone layer or a bottle of fresh air?

Referring to social ownership of the media is pretty much the same thing. Who owns the radio frequency band, the collection of electromagnetic waves that transport radio and television signals? Who possesses the frequencies assigned to telecommunications operators?

The usual response is the state. Many existing telecommunications laws give the state title over the spectrum, making it the equivalent of national territory or subsoil. Argentine attorney Damián Loreti brilliantly denies this dangerous concept that confuses the goals of radio broadcasting (public service) with the nature of the activity (the exercise of freedom of expression). The technological vehicle (paper, waves, bits) changes, but not the right. “The difference,” Loreti says, “is that public service, by definition, is the state’s property and human rights are everyone’s. The misconception of the state as owner justified the prolonged state monopolies of radio broadcasting in Europe until recently. It still justifies the discretional distribution or even auction of radio and television frequencies many Latin American governments according to purely economic criteria.

More giving their opinion
and fewer listening everyday

Who owns the spectrum? Neither states nor individuals. As explained in the International Telecommunication Union (the 1992 Malaga-Torremolinos Act and Article 33 of the International Telecommunication Convention with the changes made in Nairobi), these frequencies are a collective good, humanity’s common patrimony. But because it’s a scarce patrimony, it’s governed by public administrations in the interest of promoting freedom of expression for the greatest possible number of social sectors.

It’s good to remember that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights isn’t a journalist’s privilege much less a private business owner’s. That article establishes everyone’s right to be informed (receive) and to inform (broadcast). Everyone, every social group, nonprofit or for-profit, of the governing party or of the opposition, belonging to any religion, has a right to compete to run a television channel or radio station. The relevant state agencies, independent of the particular government in power, are responsible for distributing these limited frequencies in the fairest and most representative way possible.

That’s the theory. What happens in reality? Who and how many have taken ownership of word and image in Latin America and the Caribbean? Maybe some of you can update these facts; I’ve only got the 1993 CIESPAL media inventory, which shows that 85% of radio stations, 67% of television channels and 92% of the written media belonged to private enterprises with commercial ends. Cultural and educational radio was just 7% and the active television channels with this purpose covered 10% of the total in the region.

And today? Has the situation improved, or on the contrary, has the administration of the spectrum become concentrated in even fewer hands and voices? Some say that if we continue as we are, in just a few years five to ten giant corporations will control the majority of newspapers, magazines, books, radio and television stations, films, recordings and data networks. Every day fewer opinion givers and more opinion receivers, as Eduardo Galeano acidly concludes.

Why pirates?

The growing monopoly of the frequencies is the most serious threat to freedom of expression in our countries, even though it has never been denounced by the Inter American Press Association or by the International Association of Broadcasting. In response, many civil society groups—indigenous people, youth, women and unionists—are deciding to put their signal on air without authorization. Immediately, they’re classified as “pirate radio stations” and persecuted. In Peru, this crime is penalized by up to eight years in jail.

Why pirates? A pirate steals someone else’s treasure. The radio spectrum is a treasure, but a collective one. As such, it can’t be kept in a locked chest opened only for a few. The real pirates and privateers are the governors who dole out frequencies to their political friends and the officials who sell them to the highest bidder.

They call it illegal radio. Where do they get that? Illegal refers to someone who acts outside the law, or against the law. Freedom of expression and citizens’ right to spread their ideas, free of borders, through whatever communication media is recognized in our countries’ Constitutions. That’s the first law. Moreover, the illegal and unconstitutional ones are those that don’t grant frequencies to civil organizations when they request and file for them. In those debates, the 1943 case of NBC and CBS v. the US is brought up, when the US Supreme Court decided that “the right to express oneself freely does not include the right to broadcast radio without a license. It does include the right to obtain a license in order to express oneself freely.”

Instead of ghost busting against community media, our governments would do better reviewing and revising the current obsolete and discriminatory legal frameworks so we would all have equal opportunity to access the frequencies. This “agrarian reform of the airwaves” is in sight, some Brazilian radio broadcasters are boldly claiming.

As frequencies are supposed to be assigned to favor the greatest exercise of freedom of expression, licenses can also be revoked or not renewed if the operators have misused this common good. If some operators, ignorant of their social responsibility and without respect for the country’s laws, use their signal to make excuses for violence and subvert the rule of law, that concession should be cancelled. That’s the case of the Venezuelan RCTV, which behaved as a “means of contamination” instead of a “means of communication” before, during and after the April 2002 coup.

Technological marriage of radio and internet

We talk about needing to democratize access to radio frequencies. This demand is indispensable, particularly with the new opportunities offered by digital bands. But it’s equally urgent to democratize access to the content. It isn’t enough to have media if we don’t have messages to communicate. It would be like having a plow but no seeds to sow.

A radio can and must open its microphones so people can speak and give opinions and denounce. Direct participation by the audience refreshes and ennobles practically every programming format. We also need to have other, more elaborate programs produced by creative colleagues who have time and resources for that purpose. Let’s be real. How many radio stations produce other materials besides the daily and live programming: i.e. reports, surveys, radio theater, comedy sketches, announcements, radio shorts?

Many community and commercial broadcasters are besieged by the competition of the large chains. With their own evident lack of staff and income, their response is to produce less every day, resigning themselves to offering music with some improvised news segments that are short on content.

Internet is the solution. The formula is simply a technological marriage between it and radio. Only a small segment of the Latin American population has access to the Internet—in 2004, just 9.4% of the population (542 million people). Radio is still the medium with the best social penetration; 91.33% of Latin American homes have radio and, if we separate out the inexplicable case of Paraguay (only 40%), that rate rises to 94.53%. Latin American Internet users represent just 5% of all internet users in the world and less than 1% of the world’s population. One medium is elitist and the other popular. But if we get married? If we fuse the media like they fuse musical styles?

The Internet allows us to break the blockade by the information agencies and recording industry like never before, to overcome distances and monopolies, exchange radio productions in all their formats and topics. For its part, radio will distribute that content received via Internet to its massive audiences.

What’s missing from an inexhaustible
repertory of news and music?

The majority of stations, even the small ones, have some Internet access. In many broadcast booths journalists read information directly off a monitor connected to the Internet. No journalist previously even dared dream of something so ambitious: to be able to monitor newspapers, magazines and timely up-to-the-moment information dispatches from every corner of the world without much effort.

Many of these sources are controlled by the media octopi that don’t hide their conservative skew or worry about their flagrant lies and manipulation being discovered, as happened to Fox News or CNN during the US invasion of Iraq. But it’s relatively easy today to jump the fence and receive other alternative and free news services directly by email: Indymedia, Adital, Altercom, Noticias Aliadas, Pacificar, ALAI, ALER, Púlsar, Minga Informativa, Serpal... The list of progressive information agencies and services is long and practically all of them are free. Or one can easily go into Google and find 700 information sources in Spanish alone.

The range of news sources on Internet is solid, very professional. These documents are usually text, not audio and aren’t formatted for radio, but they’re there, ready for journalists with initiative. There are also songs to give and take, an inexhaustible repertory we can access by P2P networks. Peer to peer: between equals. There are several programs for this, the best known of which are Kazaa, eMule and eDonkey.

Things are a little different in other areas. For example, the educational programming niche is practically empty. Where can we find good radio reporting on the ozone hole? Where can we download dramatized or narrated programming that divulges the obscure intentions of the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the various free trade agreements? Where can we find a good spot, a brief report that deals with World Water Day?

We need “content factories.” The metaphor is from Aram Aharonian, director of TELESUR. We need free-access Internet portals, where radio broadcasters from all over can offer and use more prepared formats, reports, feature stories, dramas, great Latin American radio series, in-depth interviews, noncommercial music, spots—the most varied products for livening up their programming. Wouldn’t we be promoting the so-desired cultural diversity and stimulating local production with this kind of exchange?

Another kind of communication is possible

For starters, we could have a substantial collection of Latin American productions from more than five decades of good radio. Radio soaps gather dust in the archives of Latin American stations. Hundreds of excellent dramatic productions, children’s stories, patriotic statements, life stories of famous people, radio plays, comedy sketches and fun educational programs sit uselessly gathering dust on old shelves. Couldn’t they be collected, digitized (much of it is still in analog format), uploaded to the web and made accessible to stations hungry for such materials?

Yesterday’s and today’s productions. One station creates a good report on the dangers of transgenic corn or the imposing beauty of Machu Picchu. Wouldn’t other radios be interested in broadcasting it? This intuition is based on a recently appeared page, RADIOTECA, an effort to gather the greatest possible number of radio productions with good quality sound, timely topics and citizen values in a website constructed collectively as a wiki with one sole end: to enrich stations’ programming. RADIOTECA (www.radioteca.net) already has a bank of 2,000 productions and hopes to add another digit to this number soon.

We get content and send and receive programs over the Internet. We reach large audiences by broadcasting over the radio. The best part is that Internet gives us a two-way street. We radio broadcasters can exchange information and content through the web, joining forces to allow another kind of communication, one of mutual solidarity and social responsibility. The technological marriage could be more fertile than we suspect possible.

The three-Gs strategy: Guts, goals and glutes

A Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions was approved during the UNESCO General Conference held in Paris in October 2005. Of the 151 UNESCO member countries present in the hall, only two voted against it: the US and Israel. These two countries considered that cultural products should be bought and sold like tomatoes and soaps and therefore guided by the invisible hand of the market.

Art isn’t merchandise. Cultural goods can’t be submitted to World Trade Organization laws. According to UNESCO, each state is sovereign to create public policy that defends and promotes its literature, language, film, theater and culture. That sovereignty is little exercised, overpowered by the US cultural industry.

We see and suffer the results of this lack of public policy every day on our television screens and on the radio dial. Bloody news, sexualized music, exacerbation of the primal instincts of homo sapiens, a species that only a little while ago separated itself from its cousins the chimpanzees, who have demonstrated themselves to be more peaceful and fraternal than we are.

Most of the news programs—genuine weapons of mass distraction—fulfill to a T the three-Gs strategy: guts, goals and glutes. If it gets an audience, I offer it. Does political fanfare and show business gossip give me good ratings? If so I provide such vapid programming. Where does the media’s social responsibility lie? Some business owners don’t even suspect that these words have anything to do with them.

That this year’s Oscar for Best Picture went to “The Departed,” a violent film with no ethical value, in competition with “Babel” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” indicates how low we can get when everything is ruled by merchandising norms and political favors. I live in Peru, a country that exports “teletrash,” with Laura Bozzo, a Montesino follower, in the lead. When the mediocrity of the media offering is questioned, the response is a dissertation on freedom of expression. We have to give the public what it asks for, say the media owners. Naturally, the public asks for what they get used to seeing. There’s no access to other content.

Welcome “copyleft”

UNESCO talks about protecting culture, defending it. Together with many colleagues, I think the only way to protect culture is to share it. The empire wants to rule us with “mono-thought” and “mono-taste,” so resistance means proclaiming a global knowledge society. Today, thanks to Internet, this dream is possible.

In response to copyright (reserved rights), the philosophy of copyleft is rising and gaining strength. It means shared rights, free software and also free content. The concept of copyleft was invented in the 1980s by Richard Stallman’s free software movement and the license created by the Free Software Foundation (General Public License, GNU). This license blocks the “privatization” of a shared program and gives all users the freedom to redistribute and change GNU software. The GNU license indicates that whoever redistributes the software, with or without changes, should give others the liberty to copy it and continue modifying it. What is not permitted is obstructing another from doing the same; that is, no one can own the license. No one can put a copyright on it. It’s prohibited to prohibit.

The legitimacy of this new concept is based on the universal right to culture, to reading, to see and listen to artistic works, to receive knowledge of every kind from any communication medium. Isn’t this the underlying meaning of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration?

Both art and journalism have a social origin and function. There are no solitary genes; we aren’t gods who can create something from nothing. Precisely because it’s always a collective production, culture must be within everyone’s reach. Types of literature, musical genre, poetry structures, the plots of novels, all areas of human knowledge, including the scientific and technical, the whole human cultural storehouse evolve, like life itself, from old ideas, from shared inventions, from memes that, like biological genes, pass from one brain to another, as Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins so brilliantly explains.

Where did Walt Disney find the stories for his films Cinderella and Pinocchio? Who inspired García Márquez to make Remedios la Bella rise to heaven, body and soul? From what northeastern mouths did Vargas Llosa take his captivating narration, “The War of the End of the World”? In the cultural universe, we’re all debtors and creditors. I wrote a radio manual. Didn’t dozens of radiobroadcasters from Latin America and the Caribbean share their knowledge with me? As David Bravo says so well, “creation is, in reality, a collective process. Foreign ideas that we take and imprint with our personal touch, making them different; stories already told that, mixed with others and with our imagination, we adapt and make current; foreign songs that for years our ears have filtered and are others when they leave our mouth.”

Three commandments that must be fulfilled

What about the author’s rights? What will become of intellectual property if we put everything in common by copyleft?

Let’s clarify. The author continues to own her or his work with the copyleft license. No one has a right to appropriate it or put a copyright on it. The goal of the non-profit, nongovernmental organization Creative Commons is to offer a legal model and a series of computer applications that facilitate the distribution and use of content within the public domain. Creative Commons puts at the disposal of the public and its creators simple legal instruments that permit the licensing of a work with various degrees of protection and free¬dom. According to the work’s characteristics and the author’s wishes, Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org) has a series of licenses adapted to the legislation of more than thirty countries.

Authors conscious of culture’s social purpose offer their ideas, texts, articles, music, photos, recordings and videos freely over the Internet. Internet users agree to copy them and distribute them freely. In this way, radio workers can exchange productions and broadcast them at their stations, obtaining more diverse and competitive programming.

What is the happy net surfer’s commitment in exchange for having this marvelous and modern library of Alexandria called Internet at a click? To follow three commandments. 1) Respect the integrity of the works. You can’t manipulate a text or a radio program like programmers do with free software, continuing to perfect it collectively. 2) Respect authorship: cite the source, give credit where credit is due. 3) Don’t make money off the works you’ve copied, because you would have to share it with the author. The copyleft literally fulfills the generous advice of Jesus of Nazareth: Give freely what freely you received.

That’s it. Where’s the crime against intellectual property? We talk about the virtue of cultural solidarity, but just as they call broadcasters “pirate radio stations” when they exercise their freedom of expression over the radio spectrum that belongs and is denied to them, they also brand as “pirates” those who photocopy a book or download a song from Internet.

Who benefits from the copyright?

Who has caused the poorly-named “piracy” of human knowledge? The businesses that set exaggerated prices on books, music CDs and movies. Where are the lucky people who can pay $30-40 for a book and $15-20 for an original CD? Consumers of the new digital age have reacted to this greed by demanding and exercising their right; that is, by copying the cultural goods, employing P2P networks for exchanging music, downloading recordings and videos from the web. Who says that’s a crime? The true crime is making culture inaccessible to the majority.

San Basilio and other priests of the early Christian church said that when a starving person takes some bread it isn’t stealing because bread that you have more than enough of belongs to those who have too little. This sacred principle of solidarity is also valid in the cultural sphere. Who is it hurting when a boy listens to his favorite music by downloading it from Internet? Who does it harm if a Guatemalan woman can listen to a program on sexual and reproductive rights that her favorite station got on the web from an Ecuadorian station?

So far one only hears the laments of the hypocrites: How will the artists, musicians, writers, radio broadcasters live? Do they think us fools? Do they think we’ll swallow the story that these “pirated” copies are ruining the income of authors, artists and creators and that the copyright protects them? Whose interests do the so-called intellectual property laws defend? Those of the artists or those of the multinational middlemen? What percentage do the authors receive—if they get paid—for a music CD? Four percent? And what does the writer of a book get? Eight percent? How can they check the true print run using the balances provided by the publishing house? The big slice, by contract or by hair-pulling, goes to the recording companies and the producers. The business owners’ claim of defending authors is a simple pretext. The recording industry alone makes $40 billion annually.

Back to the question: How will the authors make a living? Curiously, most musicians interviewed think the P2P network exchange benefits them economically. Why? Because Internet gets them better advertising. A musician’s living isn’t made in the ridiculous percentage given by the recording studios but in live concerts. They state that broadcasting their music over the web multiplies the number of concerts and concert attendance.

The wind can’t be harnessed

Writers, especially the cultural industry’s best-selling authors, don’t make their money in book sales. What usually happens? If I find a book on Internet that interests me, I download it and read it. If I like it a lot, I recommend it to a friend. He goes to the bookstore and buys it. Since he also likes it, he buys another copy and gives it as a birthday present to a friend. Even I, who read it on-line, decide to buy it because I want to have it bound and be able to underline and reread it—if the price is reasonable, of course. Statistics show that the more a book is offered on Internet, the better it sells in bookstores. Following the basic publicity principle, one buys what one knows. Curiously, sales haven’t dropped for books that have a copyleft license. On the contrary, they have done better.

Authors continue receiving their ridiculous percentages from publishing houses. They’ll get their real compensation, which is to be read and become known, through digital publication. And once they’ve established their fame, they’re invited to conferences, hired as consultants and they get more work. That’s where they’ll get better income.

The wind can’t be harnessed, as David Bravo reminds us. He also says that music won’t die, but in a few years record sales will probably be a relic of the past, like kerosene lamps or like horse-drawn carriages that gave way to motor cars. The fact that inventions can’t be uninvented is the major fear of many businesses and of workers who see themselves inevitably replaced by machines. “In the past,” he reminds us, “those who had done the work manually protested against the mechanical looms that made them obsolete. That call for destruction of the machine is what the recording industry is doing now in a 21st-century version. The only difference is that the sticks and stones of yesterday have been replaced by today’s laws and lawsuits as the weapons of choice.” Another difference Bravo might have added is that when the workers rebelled against being replaced by technology, the business owners argued that you can’t fight progress. Now it’s the business owners themselves who are calling foul, and they expect to be heard.
Today, the miniaturization of equipment and the near dematerialization of the medium is making it impossible to control access to content and copies of it.

A new and provocative banner

A curious similarity. The so-called “pirate radio stations” found Internet as a way out of the discrimination from the radio frequency regulatory entities. Without asking anyone’s permission, they now broadcast over Internet. It isn’t ideal, of course. Social movements shouldn’t use this solution because Internet still reaches only a minority segment of the population and the most economical wide bands don’t permit very many simultaneous listeners. But these new on-line radio stations are there, laughing at the censure of the Telecommunications organizations. The same this is happening with content. The youth, the ingenious hackers, are combining their knowledge, exchanging music and software.

Thanks to the rebelliousness of the new citizens of the digital age who exercise their freedom of culture, many stations have been able to shake free of the recording industry’s musical dictatorship, which imposes the “formula radio” model of the 40 hits they want to promote. Thanks to Internet, we can free ourselves from teletrash. We can now access a variety of movies from other countries, other horizons, and do without the unbearable superficiality of most made in Hollywood films. At the radio level, Internet lets us rejuvenate all programming spaces, from music to news, including the near-forgotten genre of dramatic production.

For years, we’ve defended the social ownership of the media. It’s now time, in the light of 21st-century Socialism, to raise a new and provocative banner: media content as social property.

José Ignacio López Vigil is the Coordinator of Radialistas Apasionadas y Apasionados (passionate radio broadcasters). This was his talk at the international communication event “El derecho ciudadano a informar y estar informado” (citizen’s right to inform and be informed) held in Caracas, Venezuela, May 18-20, 2007.

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