When Media Ownership Means Life and Death

Every year, for the last quarter-century, teachers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca converge on the capital city of the same name to remind the politicians that they exist. Oaxaca is very poor, mostly indigenous, and ruled like a colony by the Mexican central government. The teachers’ convergence is thus both widely-known and respected, but this year it’s taken a dramatic turn.
The teachers have been on strike since late May, seeking relief from a crumbling educational infrastructure and benefits for the students they serve. To force home the point, the teachers set up a tent metropolis in greater Oaxaca, effectively occupying the center city.
It should be noted here that Mexico has long embraced unlicensed broadcasting as an organizing and educational vehicle. In Oaxaca alone some three dozen stations broadcast regularly. They are openly operated and supported by a variety of groups, even though they are technically illegal. The teachers’ union set up a such a station, Radio Plantón, after last year’s convergence.
In the early morning hours of June 14, a thousand state and federal police forces were brought into Oaxaca to pulverize the occupation. The cops charged in, batons a-swinging, backed up with air support in the form of tear gas dropped from helicopters. The teachers dispersed, though several were injured in the melee. Radio Plantón’s equipment was targeted and destroyed.
That sort of assault in an urban environment harms everyone who lives there. By the next day a group 30,000 strong – teachers backed up by city residents – re-took the square. The day after that, half a million coalesced, calling for the ouster of Oaxaca’s governor. Students at a local university turned over control of their radio station to the teachers, who brought the programming of Plantón back to the city. Saboteurs tried to forcibly remove it from the air.
Mexico held a presidential election on July 2. All over the state of Oaxaca, citizens voted in massive numbers against the incumbent quasi-institutional national party. Underlying discontent, inflamed by the events of May and June, was fed by anger from the highly contested (and somewhat questionable) results of Mexico’s national vote. Furthermore, all commercial and state-run broadcast media in Oaxaca had either ignored or effectively whitewashed the series of events that began with the night raid of the teachers’ encampment on June 14.
On July 5, a broad swath of Oaxacans formally declared the formation of a revolutionary people’s assembly, whose major aim was to “create ungovernability” and rebuild a corrupt and non-responsive state from the ground up. The teachers’ encampment was supplemented throughout the month of July by several more throughout Oaxaca. These encampments are assisted greatly by sympathetic citizenry, many of whom bring food, drink, and defensive assistance when threatened by armed men. All of this was nearly absent from radio, and invisible on television.
On August 1, thousands of women marched through the streets of Oaxaca and into the lobby of CORTV, Channel 9, a state-run television station. They demanded that the teachers’ side of what happened on the night of June 14 be told. When denied, they marched on, and assumed control of the TV station, as well as a state-run radio station. They aired amateur, uncensored footage from the streets and kept the general public informed about the peoples’ assembly and the state’s new moves to crush it – targeted mob attacks, drive-by shootings, outright disappearances.
Reality broke through, and the movement of citizens in action surged. A general strike ensued, and a community forum convened to further actualize the rebuilding of Oaxaca. Police and paramilitary attacks grew in frequency, and the occupied media facilities were hit more than once. On August 21, paramilitaries loyal to the governor conducted a pre-dawn raid on state radio/TV transmitting facilities. The stations were shot and burned to pieces; at least one more person was killed.
But this resistance is past critical mass. In response to the direct attack on the movement’s ability to freely communicate, at least 10 commercial radio stations in Oaxaca have been occupied. These are now also under fire. In fact, the intensity of the state-sanctioned hit-and-run attacks are growing, and neighborhoods in the capital are organizing self-defense brigades.
Nobody seems to be keeping track of the number of unlicensed stations on the air anymore, though they still serve their purpose. There are a lot of political, social, and cultural dynamics at play here, but the media has played an unprecedented role in every step of this sequence of events. The radio dial in greater Oaxaca is now firmly in the hands of its citizenry, a breathtaking transformation to behold.