Bolivia has the lowest Internet penetration in Latin America--about 10.8% of the population are "Internet users" and 0.4% have Internet broadband connections--but it's approaching its dismal statistics with spunk. With support from the national organization Voces Bolivianas (Bolivian Voices), the citizen media project "Web 2.0 Para Todos" intends to disseminate the way and the word of Web 2.0 to underrepresented groups in the country through free workshops. The plan of action is to rear Bolivia's masses on a steady diet of Facebook, Flickr, Youtube, Twitter and all that is the Gospel of blogging.
Web 2.0 Para Todos kicked off a new media teaching series last Friday in the city of Cochabamba. A hodgepodge of the middle-aged and the working class gathered to learn at the cultural space and public art hub of Cochabamba, the mARTadero, a previously abandoned slaughterhouse built in the 1800s and renovated to house what is now an artistic cooperative.
The "teachers" included schoolteachers and university professors, graphic designers, businessmen, marketing execs, engineers, travel agents, "professional" bloggers and the odd psychologist-by-day, blogger-by-night (wouldn't you like to read that blog). The first set of workshops, including "Que es la Web 2.0?" opened to favorable reception: a Bolivian bloggero writes, "The truth is, it surpassed all expectations. It was a very well-organized event in Cochabamba--a city where there are few or none of these types of events. I hope that this is a concrete step to continue promoting Web 2.0 and blogs to all sorts of people without regard to age, religion, or economic situation."
It's difficult to say how effective an initiative like Web 2.0 Para Todos could be. Even if the programs and workshops are free, it's hard for underrepresented peoples to take time off from work to attend the techie festival, to say nothing of the difficulty many people of the older generations encounter coming to terms with media illiteracy. But it's indisputable that Web 2.0 Para Todos screams with the possibility of social and political consequences for Bolivia. Though the press releases tend to steer away from any strong political convictions, Web 2.0 Para Todos stands to teach the Blogger interface and the art of Facebook tagging to the people best poised to use Web 2.0 not as the soft-hewn tools of high school drama or career networking, but as potential weapons for social change.
A project like Web 2.0 Para Todos has the potential to foster the kind of grassroots media realized by Pakistani students during the political emergency in 2007. President Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency on November 3 ushered in a period of media vacuum. The content of the mass media was severely policed; nearly 30 privately owned television channels were taken off the air. Citizen journalists in command of new media platforms in Pakistan were able to stay one step ahead of the censorship, with an onslaught of tweeting and Youtube videos, midwifing suppressed information and helping the rest of world understand what was happening.
Where's your press pass?
Indirectly, President Musharraf's crackdown on television stations in Pakistan speaks intimately to a similar sort of potential violence that threatens traditional media in Latin America today and points to an empty role that new media could possibly fill.
Take into account the troubled history of Peru's foremost television network. Frecuencia Latina launched in 1962 and relaunched in 1964. But a series of brutal suppressions due to a military coup, and seven-year dictatorship kept it defunct throughout the '70s. Restoration of civil rights in Peru allowed the station come back in 1982 with live broadcasts and color under the direction of an Israeli-born Peruvian, Baruch Ivcher.
Frecuenia Latina returned, but not without renewed threats of extinction. In 1997, Ivcher was stripped of his shares in Frecuencia Latina and of his Peruvian nationality, then forced into exile. This was Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori's response to the channel's investigative reports on the corruption of his government, linking the head of Peru's intelligence service Vladimiro Montesinos to a major drug trafficker. Frecuencia Latina's exposure of government corruption included an on-air interview with former military intelligence officer Leonor La Rosa, who alleged that the army had tortured her and murdered a colleague to prevent them from revealing a secret military plan to assassinate journalists (Fujimori is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for abuse of power and facing trial for a number of human rights violations).
Ivcher regained ownership of the channel in 2000 after Fujimori fled the country. Since then, the television station has withstood attacks from Peru's Maoist guerrilla group, the Shining Path. In 1992, a terrorist attack against the television network killed three people. Today, the Shining Path regularly dispatches spies into the television station under the guise of menial workers. Under fire from both the official government and the marginal insurgents, freedom of the press in Latin America is an endangered right that awaits the promise of Web 2.0's information-sharing technologies.
Old school, new school
In 1997, before resigning in protest of Ivcher's removal from the station, Frecuencia Latina's news director Fernando Viana told reporters, "We were doing the kind of investigative journalism that is normally carried out by the print media. That's not something the authorities have accepted."
Viana's remarks on Frecuencia Latina's jurisdiction in the media world pick up the convoluted relationship between the responsibilities of print and those of broadcast media. Rather than limiting itself to entertainment, Frecuencia Latina took on a role of political and social responsibility. The expos√©s aired on Channel 2 had a hand in overturning Fujimori's government and helped bring the cases of political corruption to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Now the torch passes on as new media technology stands to mobilize a force of citizens in the name of disseminating information--broadcasting the uncensored truth that once got Frecuencia Latina in trouble.
The Pakistani precedent highlights the possible refuge new media offers to Latin America when a political situation renders its traditional media--the newspaper, television, or radio--less powerful even than individual citizens themselves. Recourse to Web 2.0 technologies can inculcate a sense of participatory behavior and civic activism and wean populations away from a dependence on controlled mass media outlets.
Self-sufficiency is the best lesson that Web 2.0 has to teach populations who cannot find support from their own governments or mass medias. New media could prove to be a particularly important component of citizen education for countries and cultures still in the heat of political unrest, and help lead the realization that the news is not a distant, mediated image on the screen, a frozen photograph with a time-delay, but the words and streaming video of the people themselves, real-time.
Bolivia's foray into the wide-open spaces of the Web capitalizes on the Internet's inherent impossiblity of specific "site." The opportunity that Web 2.0 Para Todos offers is a decentralization of the site of media production, where the physical and political obstacles of Latin America are blindsided by the technologies of new media--there is no particular site or television station to raid or target in a terrorist attack. For many newspapers and television stations, their status as registered corporations and physical locations endangered them; the dislocation of individual Latin American citizens and the dissipation of production centers offer an erasure of site, a useful suspension of political conditions and restrictions and all the social and cultural handicaps the inescapable reality of place produces.
And perhaps more important than the act of erasure is its opposite: reinscription and representation, in the way that Web 2.0 Para Todos claims to bring Web 2.0 specifically to Bolivia's working class. Web 2.0 Para Todos plays on the phrase "cogito ergo sum" when they posit to their audiences that "Blogueo luego existo," I blog therefore I am, suggesting that the engagement with Web 2.0 technologies will be a way to empower and map the lost, underrepresented peoples of Bolivia.
Web 2.0 Para Todos seems both well-intentioned and sorely needed, but perhaps something hides beneath the slick user interface. Voces Bolivianas' simple and seamless formula of pedagogical salvation glosses over what is often the last word in any matter of the Third World: the economic barriers still brutally vivid in these countries. Consider Panama, whose media work is some of the most technically accomplished of Latin America--it's no surprise given the sweet commercial relations it has with the United States. For most other Latin American countries not as economically tight with the US, the issue of monetary resources remains an insurmountable hurdle. One lone commenter on the site of Web 2.0 Para Todos points out that the real problem for him is the cost of Internet access, wishing that it were lower, "like in other countries."
DANIELA POSTIGO B'10 dice, "No mames, wey."