In Argentina, Community TV defies media consolidation

by Marie Trigona, La Prensa San Diego

Never before in Latin America’s history has media ownership been concentrated in the hands of so few. In Argentina, media concentration dates back to when the 1976-1983 military dictatorship censored most of the press and implemented harsh laws to prevent opposition from being publicly expressed. Media legislation from Argentina’s dictatorship is still intact today. Despite legal challenges, over the past decades groups have emerged that produce alternative and independent media for television, radio, and video to counter mass media’s misinformation.

Ágora TV is a community television production collective that currently broadcasts over the internet. The project reaches a global audience of grassroots activists and citizens tired of status quo media. The site features video productions from all over Latin America dealing with issues including labor conflicts, social movements, indigenous struggles, and experimental video art. The Buenos Aires-based video collective Grupo Alavío built the website ( in 2006 as an organizing tool and alternative media space for groups that would not otherwise have access to the airwaves.

Today’s video activism has deep roots in the cinema and arts movements in Latin America during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Argentine groups like Cine de la Base and Cine Liberación began a legacy of political cinema in the Southern Cone that narrates working class and national liberation struggles. Pirate television or illegal broadcasting dates back to the dictatorship when groups would intercept a broadcast signal, interrupting regular television programming to televise information about clandestine resistance to the military government’s forced disappearances of activists, workers, and students.

The dictatorship used disappearances not just to terrorize the opposition but also to guarantee the political conditions needed to impose the current neoliberal economic model. Lack of restrictions on media ownership and the death of public policies to promote media diversity have led to today’s virtual media monopoly. Less than a handful of media conglomerates now control most of the nation’s media. Clarín, Telefónica, and Telecom are the largest conglomerates and between them they run television channels, news publications, cable, internet, telephone, and radio.

Argentina’s radio broadcasting law (Ley de Radiodifusión 22.285) dates back to 1980, when the military dictatorship was still in power. Dictator Jorge Rafael Videla sanctioned the law, which guaranteed private media holders large profits, promised support for the dictatorship from media outlets, and silenced journalists from reporting on the systematic genocide taking place in the nation. Commando groups killed more than 100 journalists during the military dictatorship.

Since Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983, only minor reforms have been made to the law, but always to promote private media ownership and concentration. According to the law, only an individual or commercial group established in the country has the right to acquire a license to broadcast a television or radio signal. Non-profit groups, universities, cooperatives, or community associations do not have the right to apply for a broadcast license. For community radio and television stations, this law is a holdover from the days of authoritarian rule that has literally blocked any possibility of gaining legal permission to broadcast.

Throughout South America, groups have fought to establish permanent community television stations and have faced increased challenges due to government attacks and lack of infrastructure. One such experience was Utopia TV. Utopia functioned as a 24-hour TV station that broadcast in Buenos Aires from 1992-97. Programming included a daily hour-long news show highlighting struggles against neoliberalism during the administration of former president Carlos Menem. The station acted as a voice for land squats spreading throughout the Greater Buenos Aires industrial suburban belts, for pensioners fighting for dignity after a lifetime of work, for the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo fight against impunity laws for military officers accused of human rights crimes, and for uprisings in the northern province of Salta. Diverse groups participated in the station, hosting music and arts programming that focused on local activism.

Utopia never had any legal standing and the police constantly raided the station, located on the 21st floor of an apartment building in the neighborhood of Flores. Police confiscated their equipment numerous times, but the media activists of the station learned to build their own transmitters, allowing them to quickly replace any broken or confiscated equipment. Often times while in the streets filming, participants were arrested and police broke cameras. The station ultimately closed down due to the relentless police persecution.

With such a bleak legal horizon, many groups have found little incentive for building a community television station, even though activist circles and working class neighborhoods have expressed a desperate need for autonomous media to publicize and unify their struggles. A citizen-run TV station strengthens civil society by coordinating efforts, sharing knowledge, and improving the self-esteem of the citizens participating in it. Ágora TV is doing just that—building a space for exhibition and interaction to motivate organizations and social movements to tell their own stories with video.

Alternative Agenda: A Working Class Point of View

Ágora TV is an alternative community television project that is currently broadcasting through the web site Video collective Grupo Alavío built the site as an initiative to start up a city-wide television station in Buenos Aires. However, to their surprise, the website has become a powerful media tool, with thousands of viewers from around the world tuning into their computers to watch videos seldom seen on commercial television. The objective of Ágora TV is for the audience to appropriate the media and use it as a tool for social change.

Ágora TV comes from the Greek word agora which originally meant an assembly of the whole people, or public plaza where the people meet to practice direct democracy. Grupo Alavío currently administers the site, but Ágora TV is an open space for video collectives and groups to put up their own videos. The idea is for social movements and video producers to use Ágora TV as a space to make their voices heard. The basis for the project is to adapt internet technology and put it to use for the benefit of the community. Grupo Alavío is working to socialize skills training for groups to produce their own audiovisual materials and to transform viewers from passive consumers to critical spectators. Ágora TV is a window for liberation creating a new imagery that reflects the specific interests and needs of the working class and other exploited sectors.

Aside from Ágora TV, a number of community television broadcasts have sprawled out throughout the Greater Buenos Aires suburban belt, including TV Piquetera, TV Claypole, and TV Libre from Matanza. TV Claypole and TV Libre have acquired low-powered television transmitters and broadcast within a specific territory, but without legal recognition.

Skills Training and Popular Participation

Pirate television technology is relatively simple, comparable to pirate radio. But unlike radio, television demands a high level of production quality to catch the eyes of viewers. Aspects of documentary filmmaking and editing need to be incorporated into the production. Learning how to tell a story through audio and video images is the greatest challenge for community mediamakers.

Inexpensive digital cameras and an upcoming generation of media savvy activists have led to a boom in video activism. As Argentina faced its worst economic crisis ever in 2001, a new generation of video activists took to the streets to film the movements that blossomed out of the December uprisings. However, many filmmakers were only interested in the spectacular happenings rather than the day-to-day struggle in unemployed worker organizations, land squats, trade union organizations, and recuperated enterprises. Many of these organizations have since realized that they have an urgent need to tell their own stories, from their own visions and with their own images.

Local-Global Linkages and Limits of the Internet

The Internet has a limited reach due to unequal access. Many of the sectors that would benefit the most from community projects have the least access to technology and resources. Alavío is aware of this limitation and continues to build alternative distribution circuits for their videos. While Ágora TV is currently broadcasting over the internet, the long-term project is to build a citywide station with support from Argentina’s recuperated enterprises, independent labor organizations, and unemployed workers’ organizations.

The Ágora TV website is transforming into an important tool for coalition building and mutual solidarity. Grupo Alavío opened an office space inside the BAUEN Hotel in 2007, which has allowed the group’s work to grow exponentially and become part of a shared larger struggle, in an institutionalized way. On a local and global level, Ágora TV has become a catalyst for other groups to produce short documentaries knowing that they have a viable space to exhibit their work.

In response to misinformation in the mass media, citizens have created alternative media networks that play a fundamental role in today’s Latin America. Together, these community television stations could transform the media landscape throughout the Americas. This redefined space for independent media has three vital functions: disseminating alternative information, providing a space for popular voice, and building community. Ágora TV forms part of a network of community television stations breaking with the norms of commercial media to create a new working class representation. Alavío utilizes the video camera as a political tool by putting it in the hands of the working class, who are the protagonists, reflecting their own points of view and using video to advance their campaigns.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey