“Because of and for the Benefit of the People”
Authentic Media from Below in Bolivia
By Jean Friedsky
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
July 4, 2005
They are ubiquitous, appearing in front of every large march, on the site of every confrontation, always directly next to their compañeros en la lucha, their comrades in struggle. They don’t have gas masks or bulletproof vests. They do have cell phones and perhaps a microphone or camera. On the airwaves, you can hear their voices, often short of breath from gas or fatigue and straining to be heard above the explosions in the background. Through dispatches, writings, photos and videos, they let you see what they see, they let you feel what they feel. Some are trained professionals; others learn their craft along the way. All are present for the same reason: por y para la gente (because of and for the benefit of the people).
“We have to be in the streets… and we are always there,” says Julio Mamani Conde, who runs the five-year old Agencia de Prensa Alteña (APA, the El Alto Press Agency). APA is a two-man operation based in El Alto, La Paz’s radical highland neighbor whose Aymara residents have formed the backbone of Bolivia’s several uprisings in the past five years. “We don’t just want to talk to the leaders [of the social movement groups]… talking to the bases is the only way to know what’s really going on,” Mamani explains.
At 7pm every night, movement leaders and journalists look to their computer screens for what Mamani Conde has discovered and summarized in his emailed nightly news briefings. Instantly, they know if FEJUVE (the El Alto neighborhood organization) has extended its general strike, at what time in the morning the campesinos (peasant farmers) of the northern highlands known as the Altiplano will meet to descend into La Paz, and whether Alteños (El Alto residents) are still pissed at Evo Morales. APA has also broken important stories through deeper investigations, such as Mamni Conde’s revelation (published and translated by Narco News) that the Bolivian government and USAID were trying to bribe El Alto leaders.
“Mamani Conde’s daily information is critical because it is comprehensive and because he writes with an insider’s view of those who are at the heart of recent movements: the El Alto and Altiplano Aymaras,” comments Narco News Acting Publisher Luis Gómez. “Without his updates, it would be difficult to accurately understand the day’s events or to know what’s planned for tomorrow.”
Mamani Conde is far from alone in how he views and carries out his work. Along with several radio stations and a vibrant Indymedia collective, APA is part of a network of media outlets whose primary mission is to make heard the voices of those silenced by the commercial media. Their work alongside the social movements and indigenous communities here in Bolivia plays a crucial role in the way protest is carried out in this country.
In the Streets
On June 7, the day after President Carlos Mesa resigned, the capital of Bolivia was nearing a breaking point. The police had grown intolerant of the month-long street protests, and by mid-day the air downtown was heavy with gas. Gathered on a corner two blocks from the Plaza San Francisco, five older indigenous women huddled around a radio. One of Radio Erbol’s reporters was calling in live from the Prado, where, she said, the police were sending out contingents to clear the streets, block by block, to the south and west of this main artery. A group of younger men leaned in to hear as she continued: the police’s advance was being challenged by groups of protesters who were re-filling the area, beginning with San Francisco. Before signing off to let her colleague in El Alto report on the conditions above, she confirmed that Congress had again not met, despite the now urgent need to choose a new head of state.
Heads shook, cigarettes were passed around and within moments, decisions based on what was just reported were made. Everyone would maintain a presence in the streets – the men would descend to support those confronting the police lines, the women would ascend up and away just one block.
This scene was typical of the streets in those days. “During times of conflict, the entire structure [of the radio station] changes… we suspend all other normal programs to bring continuing, live coverage of what is happening in the streets,” states Gladys Mita, the lead social reporter (as in social movements) for Radio Erbol. Operated by a consortium of 70 churches nationwide, Erbol is one of Bolivia’s largest national radio networks.
The bright blue oversized vests with “Erbol” written large on the back have thus become staples on the pavement during social upheaval. These reporters are the eyes and ears most looked-to by the protesters themselves for immediate and accurate information about what’s unfolding.
This radio programming is complemented by a growing use of the Internet as a means for relaying up-to-the-minute information among those involved in the protests. Bolivia Indymedia operates a page that, in times of upheaval, gets an average of 40 postings (and three times as many comments) per day. Many of the reports, photographs and videos are posted by Indymedia La Paz, a group of ten talented and committed young people who spend their days on the front lines of the conflict. Claudia Espinoza, co-founder and head of Bolivia Indymedia, explains that her team puts up breaking developments as fast as possible, making “the page seem virtually live.”
The page also acts a message board. Social movements post position statements; others add analysis and updates from around the country. Movement leaders, students and others with ready Internet access rely on this information to know exactly what the most important actors themselves have decided.
Off the Streets
Radio here in Bolivia not only aims to reach those participating in the protests, but also to paint an unavoidable first-hand portrait of events for the entire population.
In La Paz, October 11, 2003 was progressing like any normal Saturday. Stores were open, tourists filled the streets and every radio station was broadcasting their regularly scheduled Saturday music line-up…except for El Alto-based Radio Pachamama.
“There’s one death and many injured here,” the Pachamama reporter relayed in a shaky voice . “We need to get them to the nearest clinic right away.” In El Alto on this otherwise calm Saturday, the Bolivian Gas War had turned bloody. The government of “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada was trying force gas cisterns into the capital city through the Altiplano roadblocks that had cut off La Paz’s supplies. Accompanying the shipment of gas were armed military officers who, when met with obstinate but unarmed protesters, began to shoot indiscriminately on those manning the roadblocks and into nearby homes.
Pachamama’s exclusive broadcasts from that day are chilling. In the background, you can hear bullets being fired and helicopters circling above. Most stinging are the voices of the people in the midst of this massacre. “This makes no sense. They are putting shrapnel into our people who are armed only with rocks… Please, stop, stop murdering your own people, Goni… We can’t let them do this to us, tomorrow the women will be on the streets of the capital because they have killed our families… We will never let them bring us down… This is war absolutely… The government must step down because it now has blood-stained hands…”
“This reporting changed everything,” notes Indymedia member Jorge Osca. “Hearing the voice of the reporter standing right next to those shot dead altered everyone’s understanding of what was developing in Bolivia.” No one could say that this wasn’t a war or that they didn’t want to be involved, he explained. When that broadcast floated across the airwaves, every Bolivian suddenly had to pay attention and admit that what was going on in the Altiplano was of national concern.
Linking the World
With the ability to link the highlands of the Altiplano and the streets of Europe, Bolivia’s alternative media outlets take advantage of the world of globalized communication in which we live.
On September 12, 2003, a group of almost 2,000 campesinos from the twenty provinces of the department (equivalent to a state or prefecture) of La Paz went on a hunger strike in El Alto that was all but ignored by the commercial media. Indymedia members visited the group and posted an article on their web page about the situation. Over the following days, the website was flooded with messages of support from around the world for those fasting.
Indymedia workers returned to the site of the strike to read aloud the notes of worldwide solidarity. “Their faces lit up,” recalls Indymedia co-founder Paty Costas. “After each message, the crowd would chant ‘Jallalla Colombia’ or ‘Jallalla Ecuador’ [Jallalla is an Aymara word similar to ‘vive’ or ‘long live’]. It was clear that just knowing that thousands of people from all over the world had offered solidarity gave them hope and strength.”
Part of the worldwide Independent Media Center network, Bolivia Indymedia is a blessing for those outside of the country who want to know what’s occurring on the grassroots level. Their first-hand reporting makes a people’s perspective just a click away.
Erbol too understands its international role. “We don’t change anything if we can’t get those not directly involved with the social movements – the middle class here in Bolivia or people in other countries – to understand what’s really going on,” explains Mita. To reach these audiences, Erbol maintains a web page with articles and that has the capacity to broadcast their radio programs live over the web. Commercial media outlets here and international news agencies use Erbol’s polished site as a primary resource in their own reporting, notes Mita. In the past month Erbol got approximately two million hits per day, many of those from outside Bolivia.
Beyond Conflict Coverage
This alternative media work was born out of necessity. Like most countries today, Bolivia has a mass media dominated by a select few that, in the eyes of many Bolivians, presents the interests of the wealthy elite rather than that of the impoverished millions. These outlets offer the usual mix of business-side slants, intellectual analysis and perspective from above. “They pretend to be impersonal and unbiased but they are not. They say what is most convenient for them…not the truth,” notes Costas. Particularly in times of unrest, “the media was either ignoring or misrepresenting what was happening in the streets.”
Boivia’s network of alternative media has certainly filled the void of accurate reporting during upheaval. But their work extends much farther than simply being information messengers during periods of extreme social unrest. In times of relative tranquility, they all continue to provide a public space that focuses on the daily lives and struggles of the majority of Bolivians.
For Mamani Conde, the El Alto Press Agency is a project in creating a “written history” for his young city and in self-empowerment for his people. “I am an Alteño. I do this work to counter the sigma that Alteños don’t have the capacity to produce for themselves,” he explains. APA has sent email news briefings virtually every day for the past five years. It also publishes newspapers and pamphlets about issues that concern Alteños when the resources are available.
Bolivia Indymedia, too, is much more than a webpage. The group hosts a weekly radio program through which it can deliver news, offer airtime to those in the social movements and present in-depth reports on current events. They also use periods of calm to collect and record the stories neglected during conflicts. In 2004, they produced a documentary about the 2003 massacres, and now are hoping to put together a visual and written compilation of histories from this second phase of the Gas War.
That radio is virtually the common denominator among these groups demonstrates that they craft their work in response to what makes the most sense for their country’s people. “Most Bolivians live their lives in the streets,” notes Pachamama’s Director Lucia Sauma. “They work, eat, and talk outside amongst each other.” Portable radios therefore make sense for this type of lifestyle. Additionally, they are cheap (about 15 bolivianos, less than $2, gets you one that works) and the signals are often strong enough to reach even remote rural areas.
But, Sauma notes, radio’s prominence is rooted in more than these practicalities. “Radio is a participatory form of communication. It invites action and participation… and we are a communal people who want to be mobilized.” There are no television equivalents to Pachamama or Erbol. Sauma believes this is because TV requires a passive immobility that goes against the Bolivian’s nature. Any group that wants to reach the masses is not going to waste the time and energy with a television program.
It is their presence on the airwaves, in the streets and their consistency after times of conflict that earns these journalists the trust of their people. “Everyday we are in the neighborhoods and this gives them confidence in us,” explains Sauma whose radio station dedicates its usual programming to salient issues for the Alteños. Indeed, on the night of October 11, 2003 during the first Gas War, it was the people of El Alto who rescued Pachamama from being shut down by Goni’s government. Community members barricaded the door while reporters spent day and night on the air to ensure that the broadcasts continued.
Espinoza admits that gaining trust “is slow work. The people don’t just open their doors to you.” But over the years, the small group has undoubtedly gained both recognition and respect. “They know it is their space,” notes Indymedia member Jorge Osca, and because of that, the people listen.
Gaining trust among the people is almost as hard as sustaining it. Free from the meddling hand of advertisers or profit-driven CEO’s, these media outlets are then bound to the will of the people they want to represent. “We have owners: the people,” Espinoza explains. And they are paying attention.
Indymedia is the most actively engaged with the social movements, often bringing what’s posted to the groups and then altering their reporting based on movement feedback. Though this back and forth is necessary, notes Espinoza, it’s not easy.
This fine line between being part of the movements and maintaining some journalistic distance is a source of constant debate, particularly for those in Indymedia who have chosen this work to be active in their nation’s social justice fights. On the streets, this conflict resonates inside.
Costas recalls one day running into a fellow Indymedia member in the middle of the protests. “He had ripped off his press credential, saying he didn’t want to be ‘press’ that day, he just wanted to march with the people. When we are the media, even Indymedia, we are viewed as distant and he didn’t want to feel that distance that day.” She admitted that she often felt similarly. “Sometimes I want to be part of what is happening but I know there is a necessity to separate in order to see better… and we must remember that the people are the protagonists and it is their struggle.”
The work is also personally draining. When there are uprisings, these journalists spend up to 12 hours on the streets and “witness it all,” notes Costas. “One minute I am inspired by everything around me, but then there is the hard part—we see the very sad, human side of these conflicts.” For her and others, the hard part is seeing the effects of the infinite sacrifices protesters make to fight for what they believe: the starved faces of those on a hunger strike, old women sitting on the curb nursing their aching feet, the man with 10 rubber bullet wounds in his legs, the worried expressions of campesinos from far in the Altiplano who have left their children at home to be present on the streets of the capital, a family mourning the death of their son who was killed by their own government.
But it is this sincerity and intimate connection to the struggle that truly separates these journalists from their commercial counterparts. “Media is power,” Indymedia member Ivan Terceros comments. Indeed, Terceros and his journalism comrades have great power and what they are able to achieve goes beyond simply informing. By offering up the entirety of the social movements’ experience – the sounds, the thoughts, the images of what the people themselves are living – this alternative journalism imparts the humanity of the struggle itself. The masses are suddenly individual people. Each one has a name, a face, a heart and a life. Their political battle thus becomes something more: a human journey…a journey por y para la gente.
 Quotes from these 2003 broadcasts are from the Radio Pachamama CD entitled “Para que el tiempo no borre la memoria, no a la impunidad (So that time doesn’t erase the memory…no to impunity),” a compilation of archived coverage from 2003.
Jean Friedsky was part of Narco News’ “swarm” coverage of the Bolivian conflict last month. See a full list of reports here, in the Narcosphere.
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