Cooperation & Coordination: The Challenges of Independent Media—Discussion with Camila Escalante & Ben Norton

June 20 (Special for OrinocoTribune.com)—On May 28, Orinoco Tribune celebrated two and a half years of its existence with a webinar that focused mainly on aspects of mutual coordination and cooperation among independent media outlets. Based in Caracas, Venezuela, Orinoco Tribune began its journey in November 2018 with the aim of making information from Venezuela, with a Chavista perspective, accessible to an international audience in English. A significant part of the ongoing hybrid war against Venezuela, carried out by the United States and its allies, has to do with the construction of media narratives based on disinformation, half-truths and propaganda against the elected and legitimate authorities of this country, the Bolivarian Revolution, and against Venezuelan people in general. These narratives, which are quite different from the realities on the ground, either invisibilize or downplay the hardships caused by the US-imposed economic and financial sanctions. The narratives are spread far and wide by US imperial mainstream media mouthpieces as if they were an  “absolute truth,” and masquerade as neutral and objective sources of news but actually serve imperialist interests.

Orinoco Tribune was founded with the objective of pushing back against these narratives, bringing information to light that is routinely obscured or distorted by mainstream media. It also reports on social movements and political events from around the world, with particular attention to those that the mainstream media would hide or distort.

The Two-and-a-Half-Year Anniversary Webinar, “Alternative Media: Coordination, Cooperation, and Socialism” featured two renowned journalists, Camila Escalante of Kawsachun News and Ben Norton of The Grayzone, as guests on the panel, which was conducted by Orinoco Tribune’s founder and editor, Jesús Rodríguez-Espinoza. The subject of the webinar was an important and timely one, as there has been a boom in alternative media outlets in recent years, with a significant number of them having anti-imperialist, counter-hegemonic and socialist perspectives. Unfortunately, there is sometimes more competition than cooperation among these alternative outlets, which reduces the reach and the impact that these organizations could otherwise have.

Moreover, coordination and cooperation among alternative news outlets are especially important in the present media war, given that mainstream media organizations have extensive coordination among themselves. This matter becomes evident on reading the articles on a particular event or topic published by different Western mainstream outlets and also by their counterpart outlets in the global South. One can easily find words, sentences, and even entire paragraphs—not to mention editorial lines—that are strikingly similar in articles published by mainstream media across languages. It is thus essential for alternative media to collaborate among themselves also. This was the background in which said webinar was held.

Background stories
The panelists started off by telling their own backstories, describing why they work in alternative media in the first place and how they came to get involved in their respective outlets. Jesús Rodríguez-Espinoza said that his experience in media started in 2002, when the Venezuelan alternative news website Aporrea was founded and he was one of the founding members.

“The coup d’état against Chávez inspired me about alternative media on the web—it was a necessity,” he explained. However, in 2013 he resigned from the site over political differences, and focused on his job as the Consul General of Venezuela in Chicago. After returning to Venezuela in 2017, with experience of the media disinformation war against Venezuela in the United States and as the US government was ramping up sanctions against his country, he founded Orinoco Tribune in November 2018. At the beginning it was just a two-member team, although it has grown since then.

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Camila Escalante of Bolivia, already well-known for her reporting for Telesur English from different countries, founded Kawsachun News in March 2020 in order to “put a spotlight on Bolivia.” The outlet, which is the English-language broadcasting service of Kawsachun Coca, does on-the-ground reporting from Cochabamba and other regions of Bolivia—“the sort of reporting that is closer to the source and gives a more complete perspective of social movements in Latin America,” according to Escalante.

Ben Norton explained that he had started his journalistic career freelancing for the alternative media Mondoweiss, and later moved to the rather mainstream though “left-leaning” Salon, where he spent a year and a half reporting on a number of “contentious” issues including Palestine. From there he went to work for Alternet, where he hosted the program The Grayzone Project with Max Blumenthal. However, “the problem with alternative media in the US is that bipartisan foreign policy orthodoxy in so-called liberal publications is just as strong as it is in conservative media.” Hence, after Alternet was bought by a millionaire Clinton-donor and “went mainstream,” Norton and Blumenthal went independent with The Grayzone in March 2016. “We realized that we don’t need a large institution,” said Norton. “If you have a small team of people who are ideologically developed, smart and dedicated and motivated, it is possible to create an independent platform with the technology available these days.”

In this regard, Norton asserted that on-the-ground outlets like Kawsachun News should be replicated in different countries for reporting national and local level news. He also commended Orinoco Tribune for bringing much-needed news from Venezuela in English, as there exists an extreme deficit of information on and from Venezuela in the US. “Grassroots funding and popular support can counter the corporate and big donor funding of corporate media,” he emphasized.

Coordination
One of the main areas of coordination which Rodríguez-Espinoza stressed is the use of certain keywords and key phrases and maintaining consistency across different outlets, without anyone imposing any viewpoint on anyone else, in the style of old-school radio stations and newsrooms that used to have charts displaying words and phrases that should be used consistently. In this regard, Camila Escalante remarked that “this is an issue that we are revisiting in a sense,” referring to the April 12 ALBA-TCP meeting of High-Level Authorities on the Communication and Information Area that focused on coordination among ALBA member states for a shared communication policy. She also gave a glimpse into the operations at Kawsachun to explain how the radio station works to broadcast events in real-time, “something that was missing during the 2019 coup in Bolivia.”

“Each worker of Kawsachun is a correspondent,” she continued, detailing that the members of the radio station do on-the-ground reporting of events taking place in various parts of the country, and also interview those involved in social movements and unions. Being a community radio station managed by the unions of Cochabamba, Kawsachun Coca has a massive reach and has become the most popular outlet in Bolivia at present. In contrast, in late 2019, as the coup was unfolding, although many small media platforms were trying to circulate news from the ground, they were so region-specific that their efforts went mostly in vain, and people searching for real news could not find those outlets on the web. Therefore, Escalante suggested, alternative media organizations should not constrain themselves within the boundaries of the internet but should also try to have presence in other forms of communication, like the radio. “We need to boost the presence of alternative outlets all over Latin America so that people looking for news would not have to go to outlets receiving funding from NGOs which in turn receive their funding from the US State Department,” she emphasized.

In addition to the issue raised by Camila Escalante, Ben Norton emphasized the importance of rooting independent journalism in grassroots movements and of thinking about what the constituencies and audiences are for independent media outlets rooted in a social and political movements, like the case of Orinoco Tribune which is based in the Chavista tradition. In Norton’s words, the idea behind the creation of The Grayzone was also politically motivated: “The Grayzone is part of the idea, a project to develop an anti-imperialist left in the United States.” This has not been an easy task, for Norton’s outlet has suffered constant smears and attacks which have not been directed towards their actual reporting—they have never had to retract any of their articles—but of a political nature, or against the political viewpoints of the members of the outlet.

Another important aspect brought up by Norton was the issue of fundraising. Although The Grayzone has had success with the use of Patreon, Norton remarked, “I don’t think this is necessarily a long-term solution,” thus it is important to look for other forms of crowdsourcing so as not to depend on Patreon or Paypal or similar funding mechanisms. This is particularly necessary taking into consideration the blockades and sanctions that Venezuela and many other countries face. According to Norton, although the main aim of economic blockades is to carry out regime change in sanctioned countires, its has another goal also—to create what is refered to as “electronic apartheid” or an “electronic iron curtain,” so as to smother the voices of the sanctioned nations.

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In the ambit of cooperation, the Orinoco Tribune editor highlighted the need for a common response to the censorship that alternative media outlets encounter both through social media algorithms and in terms of search engine optimization (SEO) in web traffic. In this regard, he suggested that members of alternative outlets could help one another with whatever technological skill each possesses. In this sense, he considers it important that there should be cooperation and solidarity beyond competition among independent media outlets. “Of course, competition is not a bad thing per se,” commented Rodríguez-Espinoza, but one must be careful not to fall for “the negative side of competition.” Instead, he suggested that such outlets should develop tools or ways to work together and move forward on a common ground, with a common approach.

Ideology
This led to the last point to be discussed in the webinar—the issue of ideological perspectives. “The most complicated part of coordination is to be ideologically aligned,” stated Rodríguez-Espinoza, adding that there should be a minimal consensus in certain basic concepts for leftist media outlets, such as anti-imperialism and aligning with working class causes. According to him, there will always be ideological differences over how to advance towards socialism, but finding common ground amongst independent media outlets is important to reach common goals. For this reason, it is necessary to allow the ideological debates to remain open. For Orinoco Tribune, defense of Venezuela and Chavismo as well as anti-imperialism and socialism are fundamental pillars, but none of the outlets in a cooperation platform should impose its editorial line on others, stressed Rodríguez.

Norton explained that when it comes to ideological issues and independent media in the US, The Grayzone has suffered attacks from many people and outlets including those that call themselves anti-imperialist but have supported the dirty war in Syria and regime change in Nicaragua. In this sense, Norton considers that “the left in Latin America is so much more sophisticated and developed and powerful as it actually has roots in political movements, whereas in the US the left has been astroturfed by NGOs and big billionaire-funded foundations” and this is reflected in the problems that occur between left media and real political movements in the US. This would not be the case of Orinoco Tribune or Kawsachun News which are outlets based in social and political movements. Thus, he opined, other outlets should look at these models and try to replicate them in their own social, political and national contexts.

In this regard, citing the example of Kawsachun News which is rooted in community-based projects, Camila Escalante stressed the need to reach out to one’s base for support and creation of new projects. An example is Kawsachun’s upcoming program—a weekly show to be produced and presented by the youth movements of the Six Federations of Cochabamba, where Kawsachun is based. She also cited her personal experience of reporting for MST [Landless Rural Workers’ Movement of Brazil] radio and Telesur, where recording events on cell phones and uploading them on social media was a method to spread the word. Such experiences among young people can bring about more independent outlets in the future, she believes.

Rodríguez-Espinoza added that one cannot overlook other forms of communication such as radio, street art, printed newspapers and the like that go beyond the internet, that are also “connected with the people… and rooted in the people.” Orinoco Tribune hopes to eventually reach that level of involvement with the people, he concluded.

Questions and Answers
In response to a question from the audience, asking whether there is a way to circumvent the omnipresent search engines like Google and create a system where people can find alternative news easier, Norton said that it is a complicated issue. On the one hand, it is necessary to use the search engines that most people use, in order to reach a larger audience. On the other hand, it is no secret that a lot of independent outlets, including The Grayzone, are blacklisted by these very search engines to prevent them from coming up on search results. “There is an entire industry of people who get paid and probably work for governments and intelligence agencies and corporations” to carry out such blacklisting, commented Norton. Although this “massive issue” of search engines cannot be solved by individuals, it is important to encourage the use of alternative search engines, with future expectations.

Escalante agreed, saying that “only through the use of Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, Telesur was able to share the body of work that was The Empire Files… when Abby Martin went to Venezuela in 2017 and shone a spotlight on the guarimba protests.” It was in this way that Telesur could counteract the mainstream narratives that romanticized the coup-mongering guarimberos as “protesters wanting democracy.” Another example was the 2019 coup in Bolivia where it was through Facebook and Whatsapp that Bolivians could spread the news and “disseminate those messages” after Evo Morales had to flee Bolivia.

Escalante, responding to a question on her personal experiences during the coup in Bolivia and its effect on Kawsachun News and other media outlets, explained that she had been monitoring since a year before the coup how opposition forces were pushing health and environmental agendas as part of a smear campaign against Morales’ government. She reported from Bolivia during her annual leave from Telesur—it was her own independent work. Most of her reporting was featured in Telesur which, along with RT En Español and HispanTV, were the only outlets covering the real situation in Bolivia. This made her realize how media blackouts could bring about a coup even in a politically stable country, and led her to establish a news outlet in English, covering Bolivia for international audiences.

[view webinar: “Alternative Media, Coordination & Cooperation—Camila Escalante, Ben Norton, Jesús Rodríguez-Espinoza”]

Featured image: Alternative Media poster. File photo.

Special for Orinoco Tribune by Gabriel Martínez, Saheli Chowdhury and Steve Lalla

 

Gabriel Martínez Saldívar
Gabriel Martínez Saldívar
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Gabriel Martínez Saldívar is from Mexico. He holds a BA in Modern Literature from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and an MA in Critical and Cultural Theory from the University of Leeds, England. He is interested in Marxism and in Critical Theory from an anti-imperialist and decolonial perspective. He is a contributor and volunteer at Orinoco Tribune.

Saheli Chowdhury
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Saheli Chowdhury is from West Bengal, India, studying physics for a profession, but with a passion for writing. She is interested in history and popular movements around the world, especially in the Global South. She is a contributor  and works for Orinoco Tribune.

Steve Lalla
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Steve Lalla is a journalist, researcher and analyst. His areas of interest include geopolitics, history, and current affairs. He has contributed to Counterpunch, The Canada Files, Resumen LatinoAmericano English, ANTICONQUISTA, and others.