Imperialism


Media ethics in the third world - a tough balancing act? Photo courtesy of: http://www.pjreview.info/issues/11_02_05.html
Media ethics in the third world – a tough balancing act? Photo courtesy of: http://www.pjreview.info/issues/11_02_05.html

The journalists’ role in developing countries is complex and contradictory. There is a set of universal principles of journalism which include freedom of expression, objectivity, truth and social responsibility. There is controversial debate surrounding the question as to whether these principles, code of ethics and professional ideology inherent in western journalism actually translate into practice for the development journalist in the third world, where conditions are very different. According to Musa and Dumatob (2007) in post colonial societies there are tensions between social responsibility and journalistic principles and the practicalities of implementing these principles. For them development journalism is distinct from other forms of journalism; professional values of development journalism do not align with the western model.

What is a development journalist? A simple question but extremely hard to answer. Are they truth tellers? Civic advocates? Liberators? Watchdogs? Government propagandists? The truth is they still aren’t sure themselves:

“Development journalism eschews a dogmatic adversarial posture toward government…it doesn’t require journalists to become lapdogs” Musa and Domatob (2007).

They argue that a balance needs to be found between these two extremes. Sooner or later development journalists need to decide what role they want to play and stick to it. Is there a need for a re-examination of media practices for the third world?

The media as a lapdog?

As Latin American countries gained independence their leaders saw the media as an institution that could and would play a salient role in fulfilling development goals and national building (Schramm 1964).  Media is still seen as an instrument of modernisation imposed by the west as development journalists are expected to partner with the government in a drive to improve socio-economic conditions for the people. Conversely in developed countries the media emerged as part of the economic structure of these countries.

The media as the peoples’ advocate?

To return briefly to the argument of Musa and Domatob, they stipulate that development journalists can take on the role of ‘peoples advocate’ – giving a ‘voice to the voiceless’. Latin America boasts a plethora of examples of the ways in which development journalists have empowered the marginalised and raised indigenous issues onto the governmental agenda. “The People’s Radio” of Vila Nossa Senhora in Brazil powerfully illustrates Musa and Domatobs’ argument.

Vila Nossa Senhora Aparecida today - photo by Vitor Rodrigo Dias courtesy of http://images.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://www.panoramio.com/photos/original/7173268.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.panoramio.com/photo/7173268&usg=__D9VJTPrbs_g3-LNQq4wnw3YQx8A=&h=1536&w=2048&sz=795&hl=en&start=2&tbnid=11NDGQqrifwWDM:&tbnh=113&tbnw=150&prev=/images%3Fq%3DVila%2BNossa%2BSenhora%2BAparecida%26gbv%3D2%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DG

Vila Nossa Senhora Aparecida today - photo by Vitor Rodrigo Dias courtesy of http://images.google.co.uk/imgres?

This community radio project was established on outskirts of Sao Paolo in the 1980s by migrant workers to provide them with the means of receiving information about government events; radio was also used as a medium through which they could voice their concerns and initiate debate. TV programmes were westernised in outlook and portrayed industrial southern Brazil and its relatively affluent lifestyle as the true urban Brazil. This image attracted rural populations in their droves and ultimately led to problems with integration and identity for these once subsistence farmers. The radio project was inspired by the use of loudspeakers as popular radios in Villa El Salvador on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. The station was set up using a basic tape recorder, amplifier, microphone and loudspeaker wired to the church tower and transmission was over an area of 3 km. The broad aims of the station were to use the oral medium as a vehicle for mobilisation and empowerment.

‘In Shanty towns nobody knows how to read…people have an aversion to paper’ (Sao Paolo News 1986).

Radio reiterated the importance of the oral culture for rural migrants and overcame the hurdle of illiteracy. After the success of this project 19 sister stations sprang up across the region under the umbrella of the ‘Project for Non Written Communication of the Eastern Zone’. The group developed communication and technical skills at a grassroots level, ideas were exchanged between communities and locally produced programmes and audio visual materials were made. A news group was created to read daily papers and journals as well as providing a critical commentary on them. Schelling (1999) describes this as the development of a ‘new communicational order’ where communication is participatory, two way and dialogic. The poor were not seen merely as receivers of information but producers of it.

The results of this communication network are far reaching. Firstly radio played an educative role by raising awareness of social and political issues and providing basic information to help the community. It also created a sense of community and celebrated the values of rural culture for these migrants.

Secondly it created a culture of resistance by giving these migrants the power to resist marginalisation and push for development from below. This is an example of how the ‘radio’ can be a double edged sword for the development journalist. Empowering the masses also politicises them and can ultimately lead to rebellion. This brings me back to my first point that the development journalist is stuck in the middle of the government and the people unsure of who he/she is serving. On one hand the development journalist is partnering with the government to disseminate its literature and publicise its events. On the other by educating workers about their rights and providing them with civic media tools they are breeding discontent and workers begin to demand justice and equality. This inevitably means that authoritarian governments will limit work like this as it threatens their own power systems.

Projects such as the ‘Peoples’ Radio’ have developed from the belief that Latin America needed to follow an alternative route of development that reflected its historical, social and economic identity. Today most Latin America post-colonial societies are experiencing waves of democratisation with communication at the centre. Globalisation is constantly changing and re-defining the roles and impacts of development journalists. The question is how will they adapt to these changing landscapes and best serve both the government and the people?

Can they find the balance between working with these new governments to aide development and becoming their lapdogs and propaganda tools?

 With so many competing interests, contradictory principles and unforeseen effects of reporting it’s proving a challenge.

In his article headed ‘Chavez taking Venezuela out of poverty into the space age’, May 4th, Juan Pedro Zapato wrote that Venezuela is at ‘the forefront of cutting-edge technology and advancement.’  He predicts that under Hugo Chavez, Venezuela is becoming ‘one of the super powers in technology in the western hemisphere.’

He has the facts to back this up too.  In January, Venezuela sent its first satellite into space. In a few weeks Venezuela will be selling its first cellular phone, the Vergatario, and producing up to a million phones a year. And who could forget Chavez’s present giving and hand shaking with President Obama last month marking in his words a ‘move forward in having better relations with the new government in the United States’.

So it would seem that Chavez is using the media and new technology to propel his country to the forefront of development in Latin America. Chavez’s form of socialism marks a general shift in the Latin America continent towards the left. However Chavez is a hugely polemic figure…an icon and liberator to some and a dictator and tyrant to others. For many, articles like this are just another part of the Chavez propaganda machine.

The state propaganda machine...Chavez Memorabillia including Chavez as Superman T-shirts and Dolls. Photo courtesy of http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/blog/blog.aspx?id=506

The state propaganda machine...Chavez Memorabillia including Chavez as Superman T-shirts and Dolls. Photo courtesy of http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/blog/blog.aspx?id=506

Venezuelan Cartoonist Roberto Weil uses his cartoons as a social commentary for the events unfolding in his country. He’s equally as sceptical about this unlikely new global friendship…See here for latest cartoon.

Cartoon by Roberto Weil - Obama, Chavez and Facebook. This mocks the unrealistic warming of relations between Venezuala and US over night. Photo courtesy of http://devilsexcrement.com/

Cartoon by Roberto Weil - Obama, Chavez and Facebook. This mocks the unrealistic warming of relations between Venezuala and US over night. Photo courtesy of http://devilsexcrement.com/

Some interesting blogs about the Chavez effect and Venuezuala more generally…

http://devilsexcrement.com/

http://liberal-venezolano.net/blog/en/

As well as great human suffering in Potosi, and Bolivia as a whole, the environment has paid a heavy price for centuries of mining. Potosi is now one of the most polluted places on earth! The water, the air, the landscape…things that we in the West take for granted as a fundamental human right…are toxic here.

The water is choked with lead, cadmium and arsenic that have leaked out of the mines. Running water is tinted grey. The pollutants have inevitably entered the watershed causing health problems for the wider community and the presence of heavy metals in crops downstream. This resulted in considerable damage to the region’s agriculture. This is because there is no effective mine-drainage treatment system and environmental-law enforcement has been cavalierly disregarded for decades. All eyes are on the profits.

Silica dust in the air causes blackened lungs and silicosis. Few miners live longer than 20 years after starting work in the mountain. Health care, just like environmental law, is nonexistent here.

The mountain looks devastated like its people. The surrounding landscape is still dominated by the imposing shape of Cerro Rico as well as a strange yellow and orange tint. That is the colour of toxicity. There are heaps of slag and shavings dumped all over the hillsides have created toxic mounds of contaminants hundreds of feet high. The holes of dozens of air shafts and the entrances to the mines pockmark the mountain face whilst the scars of deforestation and the resulting landslides are everywhere.

Money and economics are the only things that seem to matter here.

Until investment is put into the local community and the environment both will inevitably deteriorate further. The government has vowed to implement remedial action to combat these  problems. These are empty promises. Nations throughout Latin America have been left with ravaged landscapes, polluted crops and extensive health problems because of a long history of irresponsible mining practices.

This brings me back to our basic rights as human beings. Surely clean water and clean air for these impoverished miners is the least we can do? Basic rights not commodities!

Following on from my last post it is worth examining what mining conditions are like in Potosi today, the environmental consequences and what role tourism plays in the future of this area. And…what on earth was I doing  down an asbestos filled mine in Bolivia?

My whole experience of Potosi is somewhat spine chilling when I look back. I actually feel guilty that I partook in this ‘tourist’ excursion to Cerro Rico. Was I conned into thinking that I was actually helping these miners by giving them some extra bolivianos to top up their measly wage? It was described as an experience of a lifetime. We were further lured in by the promise of being apply to buy dynamite, as if it was a toy, and set off  explosions on the hillside. In reality I was a naïve backpacker giving my money to western based tour companies for the pleasure of crawling on my hands and knees in the pitch dark for three hours.

Me with my dynamite stick bought from a miner. Shortly after this picture was taken we set off a series of explosion on the hillside - al part of the 'tourist experience'. Potosi is the only place in the world where you can buy dynamite over the counter.(Potosi, Bolivia 2007)

The dynamite stick I bought from a miner. Shortly after this picture was taken we set off a series of explosion on the hillside - all part of the 'tourist experience'. Potosi is the only place in the world where you can buy dynamite over the counter. (Potosi, Bolivia 2007)

First we were given a history lesson by our tour guides…Cerro Rico silver paved Potosi’s streets, fuelled the European Renaissance and helped fund the Spanish Armada that sailed against England in the sixteenth century. It is hard to believe this was once the richest city in the world. As the tour went on we all seemed to develop a conscience. To me this is a powerful example of dark tourism like a tour around a necropolis, or the Cambodian Killing Fields or Auschwitz. Tourists seem to be driven by some kind of sinister voyeurism or a taste for the macabre. I began to question what I was actually doing.  The line was being crossed between what was acceptable tourism and what was not. Is this actually cashing in on tragedy? Is death being commodified? (Well that’s another posting all together!)

Today Potosi is dying a slow death. Although this is the largest silver mine in the world, deposits are running out and the city’s 12,000 people have few other forms of income. The impact of this brutal mine on the local people is visible everywhere. Children as young ten work in the mine with a life expectancy of just 29. Adult miners work 10 hours days fuelled only by their bags of coca leaves. Two-thirds of the population have respiratory ailments. The infant mortality rate is 135 per 1,000 and more than 30% of the population are illiterate. Women and children beg daily on the streets. This is the lasting legacy of the Spanish colonisers who stole this city’s wealth and left it to die.

Miners shovel buckets of rock for upto 10 hours a day. Photo taken during my tour of the mine.

Miners shovel buckets of rock for upto 10 hours a day. Photo taken during my tour of the mine.

So is tourism actually a life line to this city? An alternative source of revenue? A source of hope?

Unesco is backing restoration projects for the city’s colonial buildings and is monitoring the conservation of the Cerro Rico as it is now a World Heritage siteI’m unconvinced.  Firstly because of the way that this form of tourism is operated. Miners are portrayed by tourist literature and western marketers as a primitive other and a throw back from a bygone era that can now be commodified. The story of human tragedy is being manipulated for profit. Secondly because Potosi is one of the most polluted places on the planet and the health ramifications are shocking.

It is worth examining the way that the media and tour providers portray miners in their literature. It soon becomes clear that imperialism is very much still alive here.  Descriptions of a ‘labyrinth of tunnels’ and ‘primitive tools’ and the opportunity to ‘step back hundreds of years’ dominate the tourist brochures. The promise of dynamite as well as ‘unforgettable memories of Potosi’s fortune and tragedy’ make the experience sound like it’s some kind of Hollywood blockbuster. 

 Lets not forget, El Tio, a kind of devilish goblin who lives underground and supposedly watches over the fate of the miners. Well he’s not been particularly vigilant with millions of miners dying over the centuries. Again this plays on the idea of primitive practices, superstitions and ‘mysterious’ folklore which legitimated imperialist ideology for centuries. There have been various films and documentaries made about the plight of these people. The Devil’s Miner  and Grito de piedra  are particularly chilling.

In my opinion the world acknowledges the past and present brutalities of this mine but nothing is done to put a stop to it. Eduardo Galeano’s (1973) ‘The Open Veins of Latin America‘ is a must read and powerfully sums up the wider debate about the imperialist legacy and the ongoing exploitation. It is an example of a very short list of investigative journalism to come out of Latin America. John Pilger’s (2006) ‘Tell me no lies’ places Galeano’s book in the wider theoretical context.

I regret paying my 210 bolivianos to go down the mine and see teenagers with blackened faces and mouths full of coca leaves struggling with their pick axes and shovels. My money went straight into the pockets of the tour operators who are owned by fat cats in the western world; the money is subsequently re-invested in advertising these kind of socially irresponsible tours which attract naïve backpackers like myself. The cycle keeps going round.  Romanticised images of the life of a miner, emotive descriptions of tragedy and courage and a play on the splendour and opulence of a bygone era – are all manufactured to bring in the tourists. Little if any of the money generated goes to help these miners. One last rant…the Lonely Planet is just as bad for recommending these tours and sending more hapless backpacker’s down the mines. 

So is tourism Potosi’s lifeline? I think not. It’s just imperialism and exploitation by the global north in a different guise. My next blog in this collection of posts focusing on Bolivia examines the environmental implications of Cerro Rico…