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Free but vulnerable

Non-profit media exist, although they do not have the largest audience shares in Argentina. With fewer resources and deep roots in their communities and cities, they attempt to compete and gain ground against the more concentrated, traditional companies in the market. Although being very diverse in background and shape, what unites these media outlets is to consider communication a right, not a commodity, independent from the centres of economic power and detached from the “clicks” mainstream battles.

In early 2019 Argenita accounts for over 400 of those ‘alternative’ radio stations, TV channels, print and online media and the number is becoming larger and larger. Between 2016 and 2018 alone, eight companies were founded. As a result, the total number of media companies doubled across Argentina.

This group includes also media companies that have been “recovered” by their workers to secure jobs where business owners had left behind empty buildings and debts. So in recent years, curiously enough as the global crisis of media looms, the Argentinian media sector is leading the ranking of recovered businesses.

Examples include Pulso Noticias, from the city of La Plata (capital city of the province of Buenos Aires), which was relaunched in paper format, while the MOM Argentina research was being carried out. Pulso is the most recent media cooperative created after the asset stripping of several companies in 2018. It is made up of 20 former workers of newspaper Diario Hoy and radio station Red 92. Both are from La Plata and were previously owned by the Balcedo family. Although the members of this new media outlet started by creating a news portal, one year after having lost their jobs and with no compensation or legal protection, they went back to action with a printed version specially tailored for March 8, Women’s International Strike day.

With great effort, they were able to prepare a special edition and print 1,000 copies in only five days, selling them at the women’s demonstration. The goal was to replicate the initiative in the short term and try to launch, at least once a month, a printed newspaper different from El día, the traditional and only still published paper in La Plata after Hoy’s closure.

These types of situations have occurred over many years, but they have become worse in the last three. The first self-managed media outlets that emerged in 2016 were those that had previously belonged to Grupo 23, stripped by Sergio Szpolski and Matías Garfunkel. In early 2016 new papers emerged: Tiempo Argentino (see disclosure below at the end of this text), Dueños de nuestras palabras, La Web Infonews and El Argentino Zona Norte, which had to be discontinued. Later, El Ciudadano de Rosario, which was closed down by Grupo Indalo and reopened as a cooperative, emerged. This is the only newspaper that competes against La Capital, which belongs to Grupo América and is currently being sold, and La Nueva Mañana from Córdoba, which is an alternative to La Voz del Interior, belonging to Grupo Clarín. That same year La Portada was founded in Esquel. El Correo de Firmat from Santa Fe followed in 2017.

According to an annual report issued by the Facultad Abierta program, coordinated by Agustín Ruggieri at the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras dad de Buenos Aires (UBA), there are 384 recovered companies in Argentina across all sectors of the economy, out of which 38 were created after Mauricio Macri took office.

At least 19 of these companies are media businesses, including radio stations, newspapers and news portals. The most recent cases followed experiences such as the one of El Independiente from La Rioja, which became the first cooperative newspaper in the country in 1971, after operating as such for 12 years. El Diario del Centro, from Villa María (2001), and Comercio y Justicia, from Córdoba (2002), were recovered during the crisis that put an end to De la Rúa’s administration. In 2012 magazine Crítica was launched, which had been created in early 2012 by former workers of newspaper Crítica. Many of these media outlets recently met in Buenos Aires to found an incipient network of self-managed newspapers.

“We have noticed that the consequences of the present crisis are equal to or worse than those of the 2001 crisis. Back then, entire newspapers were recovered (together with their printing facilities). Now, only small or digital media are being recovered. We see our sector growing but, at the same time, that means going backwards in terms of formal employment,” Julio Delgado states. Delgado is the president of the cooperative in charge of editing the newspaper El Independiente from la Rioja and the head of Argentina’s Federation of Cooperative Newspapers and Communicators, which groups 28 self-managed media.

“I believe it is a true alternative, through which we can offer both women and men the opportunity to enjoy their right of access to faithful information. Self-managed media can provide this opportunity in contrast to the single-sided discourse of concentrated legacy media companies. The struggle is unequal since the difference in scale and resources hinders our work. Our investment is slow and lags behind the pace of technology, because we put workers first,” Delgado adds.

Needless to say, organization is key for a community to have their own media. People have organized for several decades and this practice is closely linked to social, union or political movements. However, due to the costs of basic resources such as paper, the dominant position of the large business groups and the lack of public policies to encourage the sector, it has been very difficult to create and maintain those start-ups. The current, deepening crisis of the media sector’s traditional business model also has had a huge negative impact on them. The category of self-managed media may include universities, non-university higher education institutions and school media from across the country, in all cases enjoying a strong role and reputation in their communities despite their legal status as State companies.

With the same purpose as that of many recovered newspapers, hundreds of publications have also cropped up, with many of them deciding to publish without a formal employer. These new magazines have gathered under the Association of Cultural and Independent Magazines (AReCIA), a powerful sectoral voice which represents over 170 media.

Although they deal with different topics, from the satirical magazine Barcelona, THC about cannabis, and Kiné, one of the oldest magazines about the “body”, “all of them uphold the spirit of self-management and independence from the powerful commercial sectors,” Franco Ciancaglini points out. He is the editor of magazine Mu, published by cooperative La Vaca, one of the main promoters of the AReCIA association in 2012.

It is the readers who define the agenda and commercial independence of these companies. “We support ourselves through sales: our support comes from our readers, unlike other commercial media financed by other businesses,” Ciancaglini explains. He also underscores another key aspect that differentiates them from other media corporations: the role of workers. “I consider these big commercial media to be very chameleonic. Whenever they have to adjust, they do it by firing their workers. Here lies a key aspect of self-managed media. They are based on the voice of the workers and on the contributions made by each of the persons that are part of it.”

The sector represented by AReCIA has grown, in spite of increasing production costs. “In recent years, two things have happened. On the one hand, many of the print magazines went digital due to the costs of paper and the concentrated printing supply chain (paper, distribution and sale). This has had an impact on the magazines, since we live from sales. On the other hand, even though there has been a reduction in the number of magazines, new ones are emerging in this context. When the outlook is gloomy, self-management is a way out,” he explains.

Community radio stations are the most widespread and organized entities in the self-managed sector. There are still 215 radio stations across the country, according to a survey carried out by researchers from national Universities as part of a report entitled “Multiplication of community, popular and alternative media in Argentina. Explanation, scope and limits.”

With the return of democracy and the arrival of FM radio equipment in Argentina, community radio stations burgeoned by the end of the 1980s. The law issued by the last military dictatorship in Argentina, which was in force until 2009, prevented all private non-profit organizations from accessing a broadcasting license. Thus, dozens of radio stations were created on the fringes of the law. Many are still broadcasting, such as FM radio station En Tránsito, from Castelar (Buenos Aires), FM radio station Alas, from El Bolsón (Río Negro), or FM radio station La Tribu, from the city of Buenos Aires. After a ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice, and the subsequent amendment of the law in 2005, a policy aimed at granting recognition to these radio stations was implemented. Since 2009, with the passing of the Law on Services for Audiovisual Communication, another surge of new radio stations took place: 68% of all the existing community FM stations were founded from then on. This was possible after recognizing their right to obtain a TV or radio license and the creation of a fund for their promotion (FOMECA).

Just as print media suffered the increase in the cost of paper, in recent years community radio stations have seen an increase in electricity rates, which have gone up by over 1,500% in the city of Buenos Aires since 2016. This has also had a negative impact on advertisers, small- and medium-sized enterprises, which are also experiencing the economic crisis.

Another important factor to be considered is the vulnerability to which self-managed media are exposed. They face the Government’s delays in authorizing their broadcasting licenses and the scarce allocation of media advertising funds set forth in the Law on Services for Audiovisual Communication.

Pablo Antonini, head of the Argentinian Forum of Community Radio Stations (FARCO), which gathers 120 radio stations from 21 provinces, mentions an additional factor. In addition to the discrimination in official advertising, he mentions and the repressive role that Argentina’s National Communications Entity (ENACOM) played when it included within its functions the power to declare a radio station illegal and to close it down and seize its equipment if it interfered with the electromagnetic radio spectrum. Examples include FM radio station El Grito, from Córdoba, FM radio station Ocupas, in the district of Moreno in the province of Buenos Aires, and FM radio station Sol y Verde, from José C. Paz, also in the Buenos Aires province.

“All this brings about a very difficult situation. If it has not led to the closure of more media, it is solely because we have both a history and strategies to survive. Our main advantage is that there is a community involved and a group of people that make this work. But we want to do more than just survive. We understand that our role is linked to the right of communication, of plurality of voices. This has an impact on the quality of what we produce, because the energy we used in content creation now goes to survival,” Antonini points out.

Community TV channels were also launched at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, but none of them managed to survive. There are currently ten community TV channels across the country that were founded in 2009, but only three hold a license and only two are authorized to broadcast on open digital television: Barricada TV and Pares TV (Luján). All of them had to overcome several barriers along the way. Ever since they were authorized to broadcast in 2015, they have had to struggle against Grupo Clarín, which has interfered with their signal via Canal 13. After a judicial ruling, ENACOM took over a year to solve the issue and move them to a different signal. Now they have resorted to the courts once again, as they have been adversely affected by broadcasting companies Cablevisión, also from Grupo Clarín, and Telecentro, from Grupo Pierri, which have refused to add them to their respective pay TV offers.

“ENACOM has to notify them so that they include us. We have brought the case before justice, but we should not be forced to do so. In the meantime, our signal is not being broadcasted on cable TV. Thus, we cannot reach our audience,” Natalia Vinelli points out. She is the Director of Barricada TV and the head of the National Coordination of Alternative Television, which groups six different TV channels.

Like community radio stations, community TV channels are highly vulnerable. Most of them lack a license or economic support. Antena Negra TV, for instance, was forced to stop broadcasting by the end of 2018 after a federal court seized their equipment twice and pressed criminal charges against their members for allegedly interfering with the signal of a multinational bank security company, Prosegur.

“One of the barriers that prevents the sector from developing is concentration: ownership, editorial line, market and audience concentration. Concentration hampers source diversity and plurality of voices. It also hinders other perspectives from spreading across the globe,” Vinelli explains. She adds: “It is difficult to believe that small media can be a counterbalance to large companies, but we do have to struggle. This should not be the struggle of community media alone, but of society as a whole. The major challenge is reaching massive audiences and being able to share other viewpoints across the world.”

Disclosure: Tiempo Argentino, that publishes the ‘Media Ownership Monitor’ together with Reporters without Borders, is a self-managed and –owned media outlet as well.

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