Alternative Media in Hostile Environments

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Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Despots despise the visibility that a truly free press can provide. It is their unchallengeable iniquity that would receive the most intense airing. Under oppressive regimes, the circulation of information, literature, and other art forms can be dangerous. People can be harassed, beaten-up, imprisoned or even executed for possession of forbidden information — or the means to create, reproduce or distribute it. Journalists face even greater challenges and require an extensive collection of techniques to get the news out to all who need it.


This pattern focuses on journalism during hostile conditions in which citizens have a greater need to engage with the forbidden knowledge and share it with members of their community. The future of reform often depends on the success of this collaboration between journalists and citizens. The ideas in this pattern (including new distribution practices, for example) also can be used in the US or other countries that have a nominally free press yet one that is dominated by a few strong voices with deep pockets.


The world can be very hostile to independent and alternative journalists and to people who read and think. Even countries where there are no legal restrictions to a "free" press have major problems. The journal Index on Censorship and the organization Reporters without Borders regularly report on the barbarities visited upon journalists worldwide. Despots know that the truth can damage their reputations and ultimately their regime. Although the truth is difficult to hide forever, postponing its arrival, limiting its exposure, and casting aspersions on its accuracy may be adequate for their purposes.

A hostile environment is one in which coercion or force — either formally through laws and police — or informally through thugs or contract killers is employed to stifle the free flow of ideas. The most common form of choking off the flow of information that could be damaging to the government, corporations or wealthy individuals is distraction. Serbian media during the Milosevic years with its breezy lightweight confections of schmaltzy pop as well as nationalist songs and slapstick served up in many cases by scantily clad women, provides a good example of this.

One appendage of the unfree press (at least as conceptualized in the U.S.) is a ruthlessly efficient secret police that stomps out every aspect of alternative point-of-view the instant that it surfaces. This modus operandi seems to be uncommon in practice (and would no doubt be the envy of all the despots). The defenders of the status quo, though loutish and dangerous, are often capricious and incompetent, and they are generally stymied by insufficient resources. The ambiguity of the laws and the ambiguity of the presumed offenses also can work in favor of the journalist.

The former Soviet Union and its satellites provided the fertile soil for an independent press that operated on the margins of the law for several decades. This is the classic "samizdat" distribution in which readers painstakingly and secretly copied by hand or via typewriter and carbon paper, multiple copies of entire books which were then passed on to others who would do the same.

In the "developed world" journalists and other media workers are specialized: one person intones the news of the day, using video clips that another person edited which was shot by another person during an interview conducted by another person as ordered by another person. When the political climate turns nasty and journalists are beaten-up, threatened or killed by government soldiers, paramilitary troops or thugs, when resources dry up or when disaster or wartime situations erupt, journalists habituated to the strict division of labor may be unable to adopt the more flexible and improvisational mode of news production when that becomes necessary. Journalists with overspecialized, deep but narrow, skills will find that they are unable to respond quickly and flexibly when their tried-and-true practices fail due to unexpected circumstances.

Alternative news distribution involves a canny cat and mouse game between those who believe in the free distribution of information and those who don't. Living within an actively hostile environment, it will be necessary to keep changing the way that business is done to meet new challenges. Unlike journalists in the US or other developed countries, journalists must adept in many modes of reporting, many approaches to distribution, a variety of tactics and strategies and the inventive use of what's available to get the job done, as befits what B92 journalist Veran Matic calls a "universal journalist, not an encyclopedic polymath who is informed in different fields, but a professional familiar with print journalism, radio and television, online journalism and information distribution mechanisms." This is what I call a bricoleur-journalist who sends the sounds that accompany the scene at voting station in Africa can go directly over the air via a cell phone with an open line to the radio station. Audio cassettes, printed broadsides or, more commonly today, DVDs can be distributed when the plug is pulled on a radio station (as it was three times during B92's early years of confronting Milosevic). And bricoleur-journalists in different cultures and settings, such as Chinese pro-democracy or environmental activists, will assume any number of local variants.

An interesting, unexpected issue seems to surface from time-to-time by the underground media (and society in general) after the fall of an oppressive regime. (fate of art and literature) Ironically, many people who worked closely with clandestine media over the years now feel unsettled in the post-soviet environment. After communism fell the former trickle of information became a tsunami of mostly commercial offerings. When information was scarce and in danger of extinction possessed an almost sacred allure. Now the same type of information is lost in the flood, just more anonymous flotsam and jetsam in a torrent of images and sounds.

Samizdat or clandestine journalism doesn't always succeed of course. Translating the success of the samizdat or underground press to other regions under oppressive regimes is far from automatic. A potential audience that is interested in the material must exist — as with the media in any situation — and there must be some way to get the material to them. Some of these people earnestly want social change and believe there is some degree, however small, of hope that this outcome is achievable. Interestingly, and somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom, some people in the potential audience are motivated by their desire to know the truth whether it helps to actually change the situation or not. At any rate, the larger and more active and supportive the audience is, the more likely that the alternative press will succeed. On the other side of the equation are the journalists — potential and actually — and the absence of either audience or journalists can prevent the enterprise from being successful.

Although precarious, alternative media production actually builds civic capacity. According to Anna Husarka who worked for Poland's Solidarity Information Bureau in 1989, the journalism they practiced "was a political blueprint for the democratic struggles that dismantled communism." It is also important to note that traditional "news" is not the only "product" of an alternative media project. The B92 enterprise (which started as a college radio station in Belgrade) now includes Radio B92, Television B92, (Web site), B92 publishing (books and magazines), B92 music label, B92.Rex cultural centre, B92.concert agency, and B92.communications (Internet provision and satellite links) amply illustrates the rich potential of a "media" that chooses to embrace the widest range of outlets. One of their biggest and most successful projects was "Rock for Vote," the biggest rock tour in Serbia's history, "a traveling festival with 6 to 8 bands playing in 25 cities and towns throughout the country." The tour was organized while organizers and activists "were being molested, harassed and detained by the police on a daily basis." In spite of that 150,000 citizens attended the concerts. Most importantly the results of the 2000 elections demonstrated that their main objective was attained: "80% of first-time voters did go to the polls after all ... casting their ballots to bring about fundamental changes in the country."

As mentioned above, some media operations that developed during a period of hostility have had a difficult time making the transition from a post-war or post-oppressive regime. On the other hand, Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland's leading underground newspapers in the 1980s, which was started in a kindergarten classroom became one of the most influential and commercially viable dailies in Poland [Smillie, 1999].) B92, in least in the immediate aftermath of the troubles in Serbia, continued innovative programming that reflected their terrifying past. For example, they launched a Truth and Reconciliation process that included radio shows and a series of books about the wars (including the Srebrenica crimes) and disintegration of former Yugoslavia. They also convened a conference "In Search for Truth and Reconciliation" in 2000 that was attended by journalists, intellectuals and representatives of NGOs from all former Yugoslav republics took part and another conference "Truth, Responsibility and Reconciliation" the following year that featured experiences of other countries in similar processes. Radio B92 also set up a special documentation archive on the wars which included testimonies, documentaries, video footage, books and other documents. They also arranged "exhibitions, screenings of documentaries and public discussions on these topics are being organized throughout Serbia" (Matic, 2004).


Producing — and consuming — or other types of cultural or journalistic media with hostile societies can be hazardous to emotional as well as physical health. It is often a unrewarding enterprise at the same time it can be absolutely critical.

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