Media justice and communications rights at the first US Social Forum: Atlanta 2007

by Jonathan Lawson

The first US Social Forum, held in Atlanta this summer, was a historic event. Many thousands of social justice activists and community organizations from across the country gathered for five days of workshops, panels, cultural events and organizing sessions dedicated to the idea that another, more just and democratic world is possible. Youth, people of color, queer folks and immigrants were center stage and leading the way everywhere throughout the forum, showing the broad leadership that a grassroots social movement will need in order to become truly transformative.

Grassroots media activists were there, too, in relatively small but enthusiastic delegations. Groups such as Third World Majority, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, Youth Media Council and Media Alliance attended the Social Forum under the civil rights movement-inspired banner of Media Justice, proselytizing in support of something called Communications Rights. Media justice groups used the forum to discuss how sometimes-obscure policy issues, such as media ownership limits, spectrum management and "network neutrality," can and should matter deeply to social movements, and to develop movement-wide strategies for democratizing our media system.

Media Justice

"Media justice" represents forms of media-critical activism which engage with media policy debates from within the context of broader social movement goals. Distinct from, yet encompassing, "media reform," media justice provides a framework for understanding and responding to media systems whose content and structures help enforce inequality within a racist, patriarchal, capitalist society. A media justice critique asks, where is the media that holds government and corporate power accountable? Where are the voices that fight racism, sexism and homophobia, rather than amplifying them? Where is the media that promotes community engagement, respect, and generosity, instead of commercialism, consumption and competition? Media justice also encourages traditionally underrepresented communities to make use of media tools and technology for community organizing and cultural expression, responding to and resisting antidemocratic trends in how information is shared in our society.

Communications Rights

In much of the world, the phrase "communications rights" is used to summarize these kinds of critiques and organizing priorities. In the US, that concept is less familiar; it certainly lacks the near-universal sacred aura of "freedom of speech." But the basic right to communicate – enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with other concepts sadly unfamiliar to Americans, such as the universal right to health care – has provided inspiration for democratic communications policies and campaigns around the world.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration states that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." In this formulation, communications rights suggest a healthy, diverse public sphere in which everyone can participate in conversation and debate with everyone else, rather than relying on elite gatekeepers. The concept provides a powerful gloss on what free speech rights could and should be in the US, where historically marginalized communities recognize that speech is less "free" than it ought to be. Those communities include the poor, women, people of color, immigrants, queer and disabled people as well as political dissidents.

At the USSF and Beyond

Comprising some 900 workshops among many additional cultural activities, strategy sessions, receptions, plenaries etc., the sheer scale of the Atlanta social forum might have drowned out any single set of concerns. However, media justice activists made their issues a highly visible part of the overall forum by distributing hundreds of printed "Media Justice" hand fans, which quickly became popular among forum participants sweating in the muggy Georgia summer.

Dynamic media justice workshop offerings included "Women Make Media, Not War," organized by DeAnne Cuellar of the Texas Media Empowerment Project. The panel brought together an international and multigenerational range of media activists and grassroots media producers. Several other panels allowed participants to dig into questions of how race, gender and class oppression intersect with media content and media ownership structures - and to explore ways to fight back through community organizing. Third World Majority's workshop "Media Justice Now!" led participants to focus on communications rights self-empowerment through the tools of digital storytelling and grassroots video production.

Many grassroots media producers were first introduced to media justice, at least in name, through visiting the "Ida B. Wells Media Justice Center," a community newsroom where Pacifica Radio set up a broadcast studio, and where media production workshops took place throughout the forum. Organizers from Poor Magazine and other groups had planned the center to provide a location for journalists to conduct interviews, file stories, and broadcast, alongside a public space for workshops and hands-on production training. Some organizers became frustrated, however, when the center's location proved to be relatively inaccessible for some forum attendees and journalists, especially disabled and homeless folks.

A high point for media activist strategizing at the forum was a session titled "There's No Justice Without Media Justice," organized by the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) and facilitated by the Youth Media Council's Malkia Cyril. Here, organizers squeezed an incredible amount of work out of session attendees. In just two hours, several dozen folks had identified concrete needs and opportunities for media justice activism in each region of the country, as well as organizing strengths and liabilities. By the end of the session, the group had assembled the outline of an ambitious yet grounded 5-year plan to advance media justice goals around the States. Media justice organizers with MAG-Net have continued building on the plans developed during that fruitful social forum workshop, and are incorporating them into the network's Ten Point Platform for Media Justice (available online at www.mediagrassroots.net).

After the forum, many delegates returned to their own work with a new or refreshed sense of the strength and creativity of progressive organizing in our country. "What inspires me the most is thinking about all of the great connections I have made this past week and hearing such powerful stories," reflected Liezl Rebugio, an organizer with the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum in Seattle. "It will be a challenge to push ourselves outside of our little world and remember to stay connected to others and to the broader social justice movement – but we have to in order to create another world." The next US Social Forum is likely to take place in 2010.

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