May 2009


Homes effected by the flooding that began last month in North East Brazil. Photo courtesy ofhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

Homes affected by the flooding that began last month in North East Brazil. Photo courtesy ofhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

 

Earlier this month North East Brazil experienced a series of extreme flooding events which have displaced thousands of people. In the last few decades remote cities like Salvador, in Northern Brazil, have felt the effects of climate change with increased intensity and frequency of flooding. This latest episode has taken a heavy toll. Thousands of people have been made homeless by days of heavy rainfall and there has been a heavy death toll due to collapsed houses, fallen trees and landslides. During this flooding event new media platforms, such as Twitter and the blogosphere, took centre stage as information disseminators for flood victims as well as keeping the rest of the world up to date. This example feeds into current theories that have stipulated the importance of new media during environmental hazards and other tragedies. New media, due to its immediacy and user generated contact, is quickly taking over from many mainstream media platforms in times of crisis.

Climate change in Brazil…

Firstly, lets put climate change in Brazil into context. Some critics argue that Brazil is just not properly prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change and does not have an efficient national climate change policy. In many areas of rural Brazil climate change is taking its toll. For some, whom it has rendered landless and homeless, the impacts are even worse than the current economic crisis. Whilst in urban areas shoddy buildings and inadequate planning regulations mean that flooding effects penetrate infrastructure and can destroy whole towns in one go.

This comes after new research has revealed that fiercer storm surges and extreme weather conditions brought on by climate change will claim the most land in Latin America than in any other continent. See here for the full report. Economists at the World Bank’s, who carried out the research say worsening weather threatens 52 million people and more than 29,000 square kilometers of agricultural land, across the globe. Mexico and Brazil, with larger coastal zones than other countries in the region, are predicted to suffer from the most severe coastal inundation.

Despite these ongoing threats from nature and repeated warnings, the media affords climate change little coverage.

Widespread flooding began in North East Brazil in April and has displaced thousands of people. It is thought this due to the increased impact of climate change in Brazil. Photo courtesy of http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

Widespread flooding began in North East Brazil in April and has displaced thousands of people. It is thought this due to the increased impact of climate change in Brazil. Photo courtesy of http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8046955.stm

Brazilian bloggers…

Brazilian blogs have played an integral role in covering of the flooding and getting information out to the wider population where it would other wise by impossible. Facebook, Twitter, You tube and the blogosphere have played a key role in disseminating information on the number of victims and how to assist those who needed help. Liberdade Digital (Digital Freedom) called for more help from social network users to spread information about the situation and ask them to help flood victims: “If you have a blog, a website, a mailing list or if you are a member of a social network, do pass this information on.” Whilst one local journalist took interactivity to a new level. Sarita Bastos published a map on Google Maps showing the most badly effected areas. Others internet users then updated the map with their own local information. The end product has been a community resource that has aided the local population with recovery from flooding.

The power of the Twitteratti…

In Salvador, Twitter took centre stage by giving detailed accounts of what was happening in the city day by day and at a mush faster rate than other media platforms. This contrasts greatly with the role played by mainstream media and especially commercial television who gave only brief and superficial news reports and whose news agenda was dictated by scheduling and advertising. Cottle and Nolan (2007) argue that this is the very nature of mainstream media; ‘the media spotlight is apt to roam from one disaster to another and does so in a competitive environment informed by the pursuit of readers, ratings and revenue.’

Mainstream media are only interested as long as it makes exciting news. This emphasises the importance of the role played social networking sites in news dissemination and cyber-activism. They are bottom up and participatory platform allowing everyday people, affected by these issues, to control the news agenda.

One blogger comments that: “there’s no doubt that the coverage via Twitter was the best about the tragedy in the city of Salvador.”

André Lemos, Communications professor at the Federal University of Bahia, reported the experience as an “alternative media show” and as a “sample of how mass media is losing influence” in his blog:

 “I went to look for some news on local online newspapers but I didn’t find anything very… informative. I gave up on it and came back to Twitter, much more deep, fast and detailed.’

One last point…

There was a clear lack of interest in this event from the rest of the country. Here in the West, if it wasn’t for the internet, and blogs especially, we would never have heard about these problems. This is again due to the differing controls and agendas of mainstream and alternative media platforms. Cottle and Nolan (2007) effectively sum up the fact that geopolitical issues dictate news agendas. Disaster reporting is all about focusing on ‘home connections’ and regionalising stories. If there is no cultural connection with an event then it goes unreported. People are left to fend for themselves and often lack the support needed for recovery from natural disasters. This is what has happened here in North East Brazil .The rest of the country and continent just aren’t interested as it does not affect them and for many climate change is old news and dull. Beck (1999)  has argued that climate change reporting focuses upon dramatic impacts at the expense of useful information and such ignorance increases the environmental risks. This perhaps reiterates the importance of new media platforms and user generated content in the future for environmental and disaster reporting.

The Venezuelan government issued a decree (Decree 6649) back in March 2009 which sought to forbid “superfluous or luxury spending in the national public sector”. These so called ‘luxuries’ include mobile phones, the use of the Internet and other technological equipment. Things that we take for granted in the West as a neccessity. This has sent shockwaves throughout the online community who are increasingly concerned about the impact that this will have on the capacity of ICTs to foster social development and economic growth. They fear that education, research and development projects will be severely hampered if internet use is further eroded by what Chavez defines as ‘rational’ use.

In response to these draconian measures a wave of internet activism has sprung up and a cyber-war has begun. The University of the Andes has launched a campaign, Internet Prioritaria (Essential Internet), to raise awareness of the importance of access to the Internet and pressurize the government to amend the decree.

The logo for Internet Prioritaria who are internet activists lobbying the government to keep internet development as a priority.The campaign argues that developing an information society is integral to economic development 

 

Their objectives are as follows:

We seek to revise the inclusion of Internet and its technological infrastructure in the list of superfluous and non-essential items published in Decree 6649.

To  maintain research and educational programs that is made possible because of the Internet.

To maintain the status of Internet use as a priority, to develop technologies associated with Internet use that could be helpful in the public sector, and to support research on information technologies.

To place the use of these technologies in the discussion around Venezuelan media so there could be a deep dialogue on the weight of Internet in development, as well as the importance of digital literacy.

 The campaign has embraced all kinds of new media. They have used the power of social networking sites to get their voices heard by using YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Numerous blogs and other digital spaces have also joined in. However the views of the Venezuelan blogosphere are divided. Some argue that the decree is another attempt to restrict freedom of speech. Whilst others feel that these cyber-activists are over-reacting to this new law and purposely trying to raise alarm. One blogger argues that there has been a misinterpretation of the new decree:

“The decree says clearly that the main goal is to “optimize savings in the public sector.” This does not mean that the Internet is going to be banned or eliminated; it means that it is necessary to purge this activity, even if it is a very reasonable and necessary activity, “using limited resources in a better way.”

The campaign should be devoted to INFORM and to point out clearly what are the elements that could make Internet a sumptuary expense. They should talk about how social organization can help to generate more “solidarity” in their proposals.

Other blogs on the topic worth a look:

http://www.nosumacero.org/

http://khandika01.blogspot.com/2009/04/internet-prioritaria-atencion-blogs.html

http://www.el-nacional.com/www/site/p_contenido.php?q=nodo/81763/Tecnolog%C3%ADa/Usuarios-defienden-a-Internet-como-insumo-necesario

The government has defended its decisions by arguing that they don’t want to ban the internet and are merely putting more focus and funding into economic priorities.

Whatever your viewpoint, this kind of cyber-activism has opened up a debate forum for bloggers across Venezuela to discuss issues of freedom of speech, media censorship and the role of the internet in the development of their country. If one good thing has come from this decree, it is that at least people are now openly talking about the issues affecting the media.

To put the impact of this decree into context it is worse a brief look at the academic discourse surrounding the relationship between ICTs and economic development. Howard (2007) argues that digital communication techonologies play a critical role in economic and political development whilst Lugo-Ocando (2008) recognises the direct links between economic wealth and the development of an information society in Latin America. The role of the internet in development should not be underplayed. Stratton (2000) argues that it promotes non-english cuture to the world through cyberspace as webpages, podcasts and blogs have, espcially in the case of Venezuela,  created imagined communities and greater connectivity between everyday people.

In my opinion this decree will inhibit development and increase the digital divide between the internet ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ both within South America and with the rest of the world. Castells (2000) has already warned that the ‘network society’ is creating wider economic and social disparities across the globe and singled out South America as a continent that could become ‘fourth world’ because of its limited technological advancements. This decree stands directly opposed to media development discourse and it seems Chavez’s decree might force this Castell’s predictions to come true.

I read a ridiculous article in El Universal, a Venezuelan paper, today titled ‘Chávez, Correa call for regional body on media and human rights’. If any more proof was needed of Chavez’s increasingly authoritarian method of rule then this is it. President Correa of Ecuador and President Chavez of Venezuela have called for an agency that “defends governments from abuses of the press” and described the media as the greatest enemy of the socialist model. They have clearly set their sights on the media as their enemy and seek to curtail their freedom every further.

Correa claimed that these new measures were aimed at tackling corruption within the media industry and came out with fighting talk:

‘We have to confront and defeat this great, unpunished power … and punish those abuses that are committed in the name of freedom of expression.’

Both presidents have accused the media of following the dictates of the opposition and distorting information in an effort to harm their governments. Chavez has effectively intimidated the media into submission with only a few mavericks continuing to defy him. This latest announcement shows that his regime will not tolerate any kind of criticism in the future.

Here is the link to the article. In my opinion it is a step closer to full media censorship taking hold in Latin America and is extremely worrying…

Gisele Bundchen in the America Express (RED) campaign to help eliminate aids in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.joinred.com/Learn/Partners/AmericanExpress.aspx

Gisele Bundchen in the America Express (RED) campaign to help eliminate aids in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.joinred.com/Learn/Partners/AmericanExpress.aspx

In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, the partnership between humanitarian agencies, like Red Cross and Save the Children, and the media is of paramount importance. These NGOs use communication strategies and marketing to raise awareness of their cause and ultimately to raise funds. Cottle and Nolan (2007) argue that this has resulted in many NGO’s seeking to ‘brand’ themselves and use celebrities and personalised media packages to gain media attention and further their cause. Their article titled ‘Global Humanitarianism and the Changing Aid-Media Field’ looks at the pros and cons of this new strand and strategy of global aid media. They conclude that these developments (branding and increased reliance on global media) are threatening the ethics of global humanitarianism.

It is now worth analysing this ethical argument and posing the question: are aid organisations now ‘selling’ suffering to satisfy the news agenda of the media at the expense of the respect and dignity of the affected people? Is this a typical example of the ends justify the means or just ‘the pornography of suffering?

Many NGOs are now spending huge proportions of their budgets on expensive media campaigns and courting celebrities instead of focusing on the real causes and effects of poverty. The media has a ridiculous penchant for the ‘celeb’ and aid agencies are playing up to this:

‘Until you’ve got a celebrity or a photo worthy person up there to sell it…then its going to be a steep hill.’ (Public affairs officer, Save the Children 2007).

The work of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen – the so called lady of charity – is a perfect example of this new media logic at work. Her image has been used to lend support to a number of humanitarian causes. In a campaign for HIV/AID’s sufferers in Africa, her face appeared on American Express Red card, an initiative by U2 front man Bon and Bobby Shriver, in which some percentage of money earned from the credit card’s transaction went to support African’s victims of HIV/AIDS. She has also appeared naked in a recent ad campaign for a Brazilian eco-charity. She is well known for her support of charities that protect the Amazon rainforest , such as Nascentes do Brasil, ISA, Y Ikatu Xingu, and De Olho nos Mananciais. She posed clad only in leaves on the cover of US magazine American Photo to promote her Forests of the Future project for the reforestation of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. The initiative, which was set up with SOS Mata Atlantica in 2004, has planted over 1 million new trees in Bundchen’s name to start reforestation of the Brazilian rainforests. Bundchen has also donated $150,000 to Brazil’s Zero Hunger program.

The Red Cross in Latin America has also recently joined up with Sony Erikkson to promote their cause and aid communication. Their moto is now ‘when there is a human need to communicate Erikkson is here.’

Of course I am not criticising the charitable work done by these celebrities and companies and I just highlighting the often hidden problems or by-products that they create. Aid organisations do need the media promote their cause but in my opinion this obsession with the celebrity is taking too many resources away from actually physically helping people, distorting the goals of many agencies and leading to an over-reliance on media practices. A quick analysis of the new rhetoric emphasises the shifting agendas in aid media. The word ‘brand’ highlights the increased use of corporate promotion and marketing principles and the integration of NGOs into the corporate world. Jobs Selasie, head of charity African Aid Action has gone as far as saying that campaigns led by Bono and Bob Geldof have actually made problems worse in Africa by increasing corruption and dependency.

Beck (2005) argues that humanitarian agencies are actually playing a leading role in defining a new global social landscape. They are the leading players in connecting the poorest people in the third world with those in the developed world. How is this done? Through sophisticated television campaigns and the dissemination of images and ideals through new media. In this way the media act as a bridge between the first world and the third world. Cottle and Nolan contend that a new ‘media logic’ has emerged with inherent contradictions within it; NGOs need the media to bring public attention and support to global humanitarian issues but in order to attract this support they use communication strategies which detract from their original purpose. Funding is being focused in the wrong places.

In my opinion this new media logic is counter-productive. Media organisations seek to provide video images of the latest unfolding humanitarian disaster and deliver it to the global media to satisfy their appetite. ‘Everyone was dying for footage’ – those were the mis-chosen words of a communications manager of an aid agency referring to the media’s clamourings for footage and not the vitcims of the last humnaitarian disasters. This powerful highlights the now distorted focus of these agencies.

Images are becoming more sensational and more graphic. They flood our television screens. We’re constantly being told by Bono or Gisele Bunchen or some diamond earring wearing footballer, that we can end this suffering with just two pounds a month. This commercialisation of suffering has in some ways had an ironic side effect; many people simply change the channel. They’ve seen it all before and have become de-sensitised to death and suffering Branding has depoliticised development.

President Chavez presenting 'Alo Presidente'. His programmes are notorious for spoteneity and longevity - He once talked for more than eight hours non-stop. Photo courtesy of - http://www.alopresidente.gob.ve/

President Chavez presenting 'Alo Presidente'. His programmes are notorious for spoteneity and longevity - He once talked for more than eight hours non-stop. Photo courtesy of - http://www.alopresidente.gob.ve/

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been celebrating this week as his television and radio program ‘Alo Presidente’ marked its 10th anniversary. The program, which goes out live every Sunday, is watched by both supporters and opponents of the Chavez regime. The show involves the unveiling of new policies, retorts to criticisms, lambasting foreign and opposition leaders, live phone-ins from a carefully selected audience and even celebrity guests. These guests have been as diverse as Diego Maradona and Danny Glover to a live phone call to best chum Fidel Castro. It has become an arena for Chavez to strengthen his loyal support base and further manipulate the power of the media for his own gain. He has truly developed the Chavez ‘brand’. The BBC’s Will Grant sums up the programme aptly:

 “Whether Venezuelans dismiss Alo Presidente as a crude propaganda tool or consider it the best thing on television, the programme looks set to remain on air for as long as Mr Chavez remains in office.”

Others have not been so diplomatic and reiterate the idea that television can be a top down and elitist medium used by dictators:

‘Chávez will go down in history as one of the major operators of a media outlet invented for dictators, that is, television. The stages in the short and violent life of the media are becoming distinct. And after the era of the press and the movies, beginning with the 1940’s, the era of radio and TV started for 55 years. Perfect tools to prevent the message from returning and allow the transmitter to speak to the entire world with no answer: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin.’ (Antonio Pasquali, communication theorist – see here for the link)

This all comes after fresh concerns from United Nations (UN) and Organisation of American States (OAS) officials that Chavez’s government is threatening free speech and intimidating the media. It’s all part of a long running battle between Chavez and the private media whom he seeks to control. The government is currently ‘investigating’ a leading anti-government television station; Globovision TV network is being accused of “media terrorism” by the government who claim that they incited panic and anxiety in its coverage of a minor earthquake on May 4th. It would seem that the station did what a credible media establishment should do – tell the facts and give a balanced account of the event. By openly criticizing the government for its slow response to the quake they’ve now been branded as ‘media terrorists’. Globovision is now the only anti-Chavez channel left on air as the rest have been intimidated into submission by arrests, revoking of licenses and raiding the homes of television executives.

Chavez has now imposed sanctions against the network. Frank La Rue of the United Nations, who monitors freedom of speech warned that these kind of actions “generate an atmosphere of intimidation in which the right to freedom of expression is seriously limited.”  Chavez’s retort was somewhat predictable. He accused the UN of having a media imperialist agenda and imposing the will of the West on Venezuela.

Chavez came to power in 1999 and his regime has been met by both adulation and loathing at home and abroad. Venezuelans remain split on their president: some say he speaks for the poor and is a man of the people whilst others fear he is becoming increasingly autocratic. A referendum in February 2009 saw the people vote for a change in the constitution allowing Chavez to run for office an unlimited number of times. It would seem ‘Alo Presidente’ might be around for another decade. This latest erosion of civil liberties and crack down on the opposition highlights the power that Chavez exerts over the media in Venezuela. He crushes any stations that criticize him and uses his own dedicated and thoroughly self indulgent Television programme as a blatant propaganda exercise.

Torres Del Paine, Chile, 2007

 

Purchasing your own ecosystem seems to be the latest trend to hit South America. From Chilean billionaires to Goldman Sachs…it would seem big businesses and entrepreneurs want a slice of South America’s environmental heritage. It’s all in the name of conservation (so they say).Millions of hectares worldwide are being bought by business leaders and placed in private charities, conservation trusts or handed over to governments as a bid to conserve and protect fragile environments. Has the corporate world suddenly woken up to the tired rhetoric of social and environmental responsibility? Or is this just another PR stunt to soothe their battered reputations during a worsening global financial crisis?

 

So here are some of the facts…

Sebastian Pinera is one of the richest men in Chile and is more attuned to managing real estate and aviation companies that the environment. Pinera bought Parque Tantauco on Chiloe Island, near Patagonia two years ago. He’s the proud owner of 120,000 hectares of inland virgin forests and a delicate ecosystem which supports offshore blue whales. He says his sole aim is to protect the area. Whilst Goldman Sachs acquired 270,000 hectares of alpine forest in Southern Chile and Argentina back in 2003. Laurence Linden, the then bank director, said: “Goldman Sachs is an investment bank, so we know what to do with shopping malls and apartment complexes. But an ecosystem down in Tierra del Fuego? We had to get out an atlas.” But even they recognized the environmental value of this land. The land is one of the last remaining pieces of a fragile alpine and coastal beech in South America and home to the guanaco, a llama-like animal and native lenga tree which takes 200 years to grow just 20 metres. Industrial forestry projects, overgrazing, oil spills and over-fishing have already taken their toll on this fragile eco-system. The bank have also vowed to protect the fragile eco-system.

First let me set the scene. Patagonia, is a region straddling Southern Chile and Argentina, and the most southern tip of the world before you hit Antartica. It has an abundance of rare flora and fauna, a population of endemic species from Magellenic Penguins to the elusive orca, and is framed by ‘crystal green lakes, volcanoes, untamed mountain ranges and magnificent glaciers that follow the Andes coastline’. Despite this obvious environmental value, only 5% of the area is protected as a national park and environmental threats are rising with increasing numbers of tourists and mineral miners flocking to the region. So basically it’s all about stewardship – should we (I) really be so cynical about who is in control of preserving this landscape? Surely the most important thing is that the West (American big business) is interested in conserving it and who really cares what their real motives might be.

 

The Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina - The world's last advancing glacier

The Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina - The world's last advancing glacier

Pinera, now an eco baron and a billionaire businessmen, has apparently been won over by the deep ecology movement. A philosophy that calls for a radical re-evaluation of man’s relationship with the planet. This theory stipulates that ‘we cannot go on with industrialism’s “business as usual.” Without changes in basic values and practices, we will destroy the diversity and beauty of the world, and its ability to support diverse human cultures. This radical environmental movement advocates redesigning our whole way of life to focus on values and methods that preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems. Basically putting nature first. The movement has focused much of its work in Patagonia, picking it out as an area at risk from the monoculture of the industrial and modernist development model. I find it ironic and a little bit ridiculous that this billionaire has treated himself to an ecosystem in the name of deep ecology. Has he actually read any of their literature? When he eventually gets round to it…he might finally realise that his whole ‘corporate’ way of life conflicts with the basic environmentalist discourse that emerged after the publication of Rachel Carson’s highly influential book Silent Spring.

I am not saying that it is a bad thing that the corporate world and America’s business men are taking an interest in environmentalism. It should be celebrated that these kind of issues are being put on the international agenda. What I am saying is that it should be for the right reasons. My worry is that some may be buying land to improve their public image and as a kind of status symbol, whilst others may have considerably darker motives. Patagonia is resource rich as highlighted by recent mineral mining ventures and proposed hydro-electric dams. Chile and Argentina are newly emerging economies on the global stage. The West want their slice of all these things, not just a pretty little ecosystem.

One last fact…

Prices are soaring in Patagonia. When American conservationists bought 70,000 hectares several years ago, they paid about $10 million. Today 9000 hectares will set you back $12 million.

 Is this all about making money and exerting control?

The success of the People’s Radio in the shanty towns of Sao Paolo, Brazil, was marked by a celebratory festival in 1988 where the community produced music and poetry. A ‘new communication order’ has developed as a direct result of this project and has strengthened the social networks of this community and given these rural migrants an urban identity. This is an example of radio’s ability to empower the masses. These migrants are now using the media to resist marginalisation and fight for better rights. This is illustrated by one of the poems written for the celebration…

 

Who is outside, wants to come

Who is in, doesn’t want to leave

Our shanty town is good

I no longer want to leave

We have a good church

And a priest who prays

We have piped water

And a small school

What we still need is a small hospital

For we already have the school

To teach us to read

With the protection of the priest

And the social worker

We will struggle for land

Without our rights as voters.

 

Here are some interesting links discussing this topic further…

 Radio Rebelde – another radio station born out of a culture of resistance…http://www.radiorebelde.cu/english/

The role of radio across Latin America: – http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/3689

Theoretical background to development journalism: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/The-City-Cultures-Reader/Malcolm-Miles/e/9780415302456

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