Tactics for Democratizing Media During the Olympics and Beyond
Hendrik Beune walks into the cafeteria at the Carnegie Centre in Vancouver, scratches his cell phone number on his business card and passes it over to me. The back of the card has an imprint: Biluminous Solutions = ethological reporting! (his exclamation mark). He explains its meaning as, "Observing how something relates to its environment is like finding sources of light in the dark." Beune and April Smith are directors of AHA Media, self-described hyper local citizen journalists. "My wish", Smith says, "is that AHA Media be a democratic system that is made for messages from the Downtown East Side."
Smith and Beune have deep ties to the community in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver. They believe that the democracy of information, new media, and social media are good things for this community of marginalized residents. "We can support each other by showing what is happening in the DTES and broadcast it out on a local level, national level, and to the world," says Smith. They both agree that this is especially important during the Olympics. John Douglas, a poet working with AHA Media doesn't have much faith in CanWest and other mainstream media portraying what will be happening on the streets of Vancouver during the Olympics. "According to them, the 'world is coming here to party'. My take on that as a veteran Single Room Occupancy inmate is that the rich 5% of the world are coming here to party."
Single Room Occupancy (SRO) accommodation in the DTES is in disarray. Douglas explains that he lives in a building where there is no security. Anything of value that is left in his room will be taken the moment he leaves. Given the opportunity, he'd like to put his poetry online, but he won’t risk having a computer. Beune sees bridging the digital divide in the community a key for reaching those in SROs and aboriginal youth.
The W2 Community Media Centre in the massive Woodwards redevelopment is helping bridge the divide. The result of persistent of strong community advocacy, W2 is poised to become a cultural hub for the arts, community groups, and residents in Vancouver. Construction delays have slowed the opening of the Centre in the heritage portion of the development, and in the interim it operates out of a space across the street. They're in the process of getting ready for the Olympics.
"W2 is all about using intelligent tactics to provide a place for Vancouverites to tell their stories", says Irwin Oostindie, executive director. Although partially embedded in the Olympics in their relationship with the Cultural Olympiad, they are comfortable with the dialogue that will result from the games. "We're an independent cultural institution that provides guaranteed access for its citizens for training, access, broadcast, and sharing their stories," says Oostindie. With partners in alternative, independent, and citizen journalism, they expect to be here long after the Olympics leave.
Global marquee events such as the Olympics create complex tensions within a host city such as Vancouver. This tension is manifest on the streets of the city, within the venues of the site, and in the critical and celebratory conversations that take place around the event. Beune believes there will be demonstrations at the Games about free speech, and media activist groups have plans to be there.
Franklin Lopez moved to Vancouver in 2005 just as he got a job with Democracy Now in New York. But he fell in love with the mountains and came back. He is helping organize people to cover the protests. Lopez has ties into the activist community and experience at a number of convergence type events such as the upcoming Olympics. He's involved with the Vancouver Media Coop and is setting up media spaces to support incoming media independents. "As part of the activist community", he notes, "We have ties that have developed over the years that connect us into what is happening on the street. Just like mainstream journalists have relationships with the police, and corporations."
Lopez has mentored Smith and other members of the AHA Media Group. She’s grateful: "Frank's been instrumental in us forming AHA Media. He said get online, be independent, report on issues, and the stories that you want to tell. And don't be afraid of what people say. It can be good, bad, it can be ugly. If you get a reaction, it means you've done your work."
In addition to his work with AHA Media, Beune sits on the board of the Pivot Legal Society, and is part of the legal observer program created in partnership with the BC Civil Liberties Association. There are about 200 people trained to observe and record situations with video and still photography. Besides supporting alternative media, Hendrik cites another important task: "We have a particular interest in looking out for 'agent provocateurs' as they are called. They are people put into the protests to create a ruckus. Then the authorities move troops in and create even more chaos derailing protest. So, whenever they disrupt us, we are going to hold them responsible."
It's only natural to expect alternative media to emerge around the Olympics, but community media is not a new phenomena. Sid Chow Tan has volunteered within community television for nearly 25 years. According to Tan, "Canada has played a central role in the development of community television and is considered by many to be the birthplace of community broadcasting." The Canadian Broadcast Act clearly states that our broadcast system is to be composed of public, private, and community elements—essential for maintaining and enhancing our national identity and cultural sovereignty.
The community trust of the right to broadcast is currently under the control of major cable operators in the country. Eight hundred million dollars in public money has been handed out to cable companies over the past 10 years, with approximately $60 million going to Rogers and Shaw in Metro Vancouver. And yet, these companies have little accountability to the community. Tan is dismayed, "There is no logic when community programming produced by volunteers is only available by subscribing to a corporate service."
Cultural institutions such as W2 are looking to fill the gap left by the increasing corporatization of community media. When it opens in the historic Woodward's building, the W2 Community Media Arts Society will be operating a multipurpose multi-platform media arts facility, including live performance, print, radio, television and new media. "We're looking at building a media centre for the citizens of Vancouver. We'll be here in 2010 and 2020 and beyond," says Oostindie.
As mainstream media focuses on counting gold, silver, and bronze medals, community media in Vancouver looks to document the voice of the people within their neighbourhoods. Beune cautions, "The IOC has no responsibility to any legacy, they're not affected by the neighbourhood and they don't value the assets of our community. We want to stress the benefits of people working together. My philosophy is be happy with what you've got. If you have enough be content. If you have more — share." The stories gathered by the community will be plentiful and shared with the world.