Notwithstanding the “happy” globalization that appears to be called into question, information flows are nevertheless on the rise. Unopposed, they have laid and continue to lay a web of interdependence as tenuous as irreversible within societies. Both captives and cardinal points of this web, the media and more generally the producers of information have risen to the level of actors evolving on the surface but also in the substrate of political life, even of geopolitics. The past fifty years have truly catapulted them forward. But they are also dealing with a vast reconstruction of the intermediation landscape in step with the world, the spirit of the times and the flows of opinions. In the face of mutations which are becoming more complex and accelerating, the media, and more generally the perceptive compasses, are facing new challenges and responsibilities which are as urgent to rethink as to construct.
“Free” media are, so to speak, an original avatar in this landscape. With the opening of information networks in the past two decades, thousands of practices have exponentially expanded the development and sharing of information for the purpose of media communication. Around this proliferation, an independent, “reappropriated” and contextualized use of communication has evolved, implemented by individuals and collectives who choose to exercise their right –if any– and their capability to communicate with others according to a project they have imagined themselves. Far from being anecdotal, this phenomenon gave communication a pervasive and transversal boost which allows individuals usually immersed in mass communication to have a say and in turn become a vector of meaning and opinion. Although this observation seems obvious today, this physiognomy is still unique and a change in itself. From centralized mass media communication –the backbone until the 1990s–, a “mass inter-communication” was gradually established, compounding the socio-political transformations as well as the strategic confrontations.
Who are and what do free media do?
However, we need to understand precisely this new situation in which free media,i as well as traditional media, are engaged. But first, who are the free media1? Or rather, what do they do? Basically, and without claiming to provide a definitive description here, we can say from the outset that they are embodied in journalists, whistleblowers, bloggers, researchers, communicators, citizens, activists, but also organizations –not necessarily formalized–, engaged in media action taking place in a specific context and making a non-corporate and inclusive use of communication. On the one hand, their media action is embodied outside of the dominant media systems and therefore claims to be more independent, not monopolistic or even counter-hegemonic. On the other hand, they tend to reconstruct horizontal solidarities with dominated, excluded or stigmatized actors, including victims of injustice by traditional media radars. One of the inspirations of the movement is the double vise of concentration and commodification of information. But it is far from being the only one.
In greater depth, their emergence responds to issues that are biased or insufficiently addressed by the media industries whose objectives are now even more embedded with those of financial and economic logics. It can be seen that they are tightly linked with organizational processes or institute new sociabilities and political subjectivations. Such as collectives working on international relations, migration movements, feminisms, energy and climate transitions, anti-extractivist or democratization mobilizations, to name a few. In general, the free media community participates in a micro-media movement which brings communication back into the field of politics and cultural and territorial roots. By taking hold of contexts and issues usually neglected by macro and meso- media structures, their project “relocates” and is accompanied by ways of doing things that also contribute to restoring legitimacy to the media, including consistency in politics: rooting in the diversity of local struggles possibly associated with transnational coordination; democratic pluralism and multiculturalism; open cooperation and participation in the social economy; defense of rights, including the right to communicate; and support for citizen telecommunications technologies and infrastructures. Another fact to take into account is the absence of a single ideological family within this movement. The demand for the right to communicate and democratization is a common basis. However, diversity is a norm in identities and ideological frameworks. The World Charter of Free Media (2015), which was the first draft of convergence, fairly reflects what has just been mentioned.
The new division of the world and its implications
This quick portrait leads back to the strategic field where this movement evolves. That is, what is its social and political basis? What are their weaknesses and their contributions in the current changes? First, let’s start from the fact that the rise of free media in itself reflects a questioning into the media systems and certain global developments. Putting the idea of freedom (of expression, action and association) philosophically forward is of course nothing neutral in a tightening global chessboard. After the multilateral opening of the 1990s and the standardization model which supported it in order to stabilize a deeply heterogeneous geopolitical chessboard, a new division of the world is being organized before our eyes, this time around powers embodying interests or even models in competition. The return of national borders or the political and identity tension of some are the counterpart of the appetite for influence and the neo-imperial pretension of the new competitors. Since 2001, the symptoms have become more clearly visible in the rebalancing of media flows and the strategic use made of information as a means of influencing power struggles. In addition, the model of “liberal” communication, based on critical thinking, rights and free press, is questioned by the detractors of liberal democracy, sometimes rightly insofar as it has exaggeratedly conveyed an imperialism of influence. All these dynamics in turn interfere in the media and information panorama. The negative consequences are manifold: narrowing of the room for maneuver in civil action; government control and rising repression of opinion makers on a global scale; erosion of press freedom; disinformation, skepticism and loss of confidence in conventional discourse and media; ideological dispersion and instrumentalization of the civil sphere as a propaganda tool.
The list is long and nothing bodes well for the moment for a relaxation of this transitional order in which new communication technologies and their corporate players will have a decisive role. But nothing indicates that the media seeking independence will be silent. Given the instability of this order and its heterogeneities, excesses will continue under the effect of more “formed” and interconnected social aspirations. The mobilizations underway in twenty countries in the name of dignity and inequality are there to remind us. In terms of international relations, it is significant to see how much of the conventional media (sometimes independent media too) continue to disseminate the newspeak of a productivist, inter-state and neo-national order, thus turning their back on a social world, interdependent and in search of sustainability, cruelly demanding new frameworks of interpretation. One of the challenges for free media is probably to position itself in such upheavals, all the more so when they destabilize the perceptual bases and contribute to put the traditional intermediation bodies in the spot. The widespread boom of complotism and the rejection of the media establishment are symptoms.
Brief look at some free media experiences
After these global considerations, let’s go to the field of media action. How do free or independent media produce perceptual advances and ultimately exercise cultural and political influence? How to understand their cultural battle strategy? Quantitatively, it seems logical that the independent media weigh on a different audience scale than the mainstream media. It is impossible for them to reach the hegemony and saturation effects practiced by the influence industries. However, on the symbolic field more than elsewhere, it is the innovations and cultural breakthroughs that it is important to understand, much more than the simple accumulation of media firepower. As such, the story speaks for itself. From the 1997 landmine treaty where exchange networks boosted the formation of an international coalition and put pressure on the powers of the UN Security Council, the WTO summit in Seattle in 1999 with the Independent Media Center that injects the voice of social actors into negotiations and opinions, to the 2016 Panama Papers forcing certain political figures to leave office, up to E-Joussour’s action in the Maghreb to counter Islamophobia, Quebec’s “garbage radios” arguing on extremist discourses, and the free media collectives in Brazil highlighting the involvement of corporate media in the removal of Dilma Roussef, not to mention the underground collectives documenting war crimes in Syria, being the subject of an unprecedented disinformation campaign on the part of the belligerents, examples and formats abound. Media actions are rooted in action, add and give a stronger voice to social actors or certain dynamics remaining imperceptible (or hidden) in the vertical media strata, often abstract and elitized. Standing in counter-discourse and trying other cognitive approaches, they highlight the contradictions or abuses of the current systems, seizing perceptual gaps and obliging to deepen both the quality of the arguments and the counter-arguments. New technologies and networks allow them immediate and decentralized propagation which is also a guarantee to escape control and ensure a certain security.
Intelligence and asymmetric struggle
All things considered, it is useful to reconcile this physiognomy with that of asymmetrical power relationships in which a weaker actor is able to modify a status quo, even to make a more powerful actor fold. Ideology and intelligence are particularly effective resources there. In fact, the advances made by free media clearly refer to three forms of intelligence. First, a situational intelligence, that is to say, the ability to visualize the flows of opinion and their morphology to accommodate them by taking advantage of a vulnerability or an opportunity provided by events. Then an intelligence of interpretation and decryption, insofar as this brings a better understanding of the facts or the issues, with more critical depth and consistency. Finally, an organizational intelligence, given that these networked media have the major advantage of taking root in the social fabric (from which they derive a power of understanding and mobilization), while being decentralized –therefore less captured by the existing powers– and adaptive to the course of events. Added to this intelligence is the ability to take advantage of technologies and dissemination networks, including corporate social networks and their selective logic (filters and algorithms). These few elements in themselves convey significant innovations vis-à-vis classic models of organization. They also imply weaknesses. Among them, diversity, which on the one hand is a power of ascension of “social” information. But because of the lack of a common ideology, it makes it more difficult to form alliances within a constellation of initiatives. There is moreover a difficulty in forming sufficiently large and solid media ecosystems to connect the questions between them, to increase the audiences and to counter the strategy in “kaleidoscope” that has for some time taken up the information landscape. These ecosystem strategies and their epistemological fragmentation effect are today known and practiced techniques to generate disinformation and confusion (or more precisely, agnotology, i.e. ignorance). The lack of structural funds is also a pitfall to give sustainability to initiatives. In fact, free media face issues similar to those which run through organized civil society when it comes to taking a step forward in its political agenda.
Broadening the issues
Of course, we should go further in the strategic view of organizations and be careful not to generalize perspectives too much. Other questions arise. Beyond the event-driven blind support that permeates the media language, can the perceptual gaps opened by the free media attain deeper cultural foundations? Should or can their influence compete with the editorial structure of public and private media, whose intermediation function is relatively stable despite the decline in confidence and media concentration? If we admit that a good number of societies still have to grapple with their structural contradiction and a translation of modernity in their cultural foundations, could the free media participate in this essential role of translator, that is to say, finally engage in an eminently political mediation? How can they fit into temporalities and combine short-term operation with action on the medium term? Can they survive on the fringes and invent economic models? Many answers remain to be written.
To conclude and consolidate this reflection on the issues, let us remember that there must be a broader look at the “media function” that the world and its transition efforts need. The initiative mosaic demonstrates that the grammar of free media is part of a renewal of intermediation and politics on an international scale. This already drives them before the challenges common to social movements and civil society. How can it see itself as a movement? How to become a collective actor and organize itself from the local to the global in an information landscape that heightens new cognitive, identity and political battles? In such respect, the systemic transition movements have recently recalled a series of perspectives2 which is appropriate to repeat here. According to them, in essence, it is necessary to get out of the self-referential bubbles and from the ideological and identity-based self that has often characterized anti-globalization spaces or transition movements; develop a “science” and practices allowing for more in-depth cultural developments; create a transversal movement capable of defragmenting and coordinating questions, issues and transition actions; invent new ways to create meaning and produce narratives based on reality. In addition to making direct references to the narrative and media dimension, these perspectives are likely to stimulate the imaginaries. All of these questions need to be grasped by the efforts and individuals who engage in free media. They can also potentially strengthen them in their local and daily struggle.
- Fora do Eixo (Brazil), Coordination permanente des médias libres (France), Real Media (United Kingdom), Nawaat (Tunisia), Mada Masr (Egypt), Al-Jumhuriya (Syria), Fann magazin (Germany), el Salto (Spain), Collectif pour un nouveau journalisme international, etc. are some names of these media within a constellation whose amplitude is presently difficult to define.
- Switching off the autopilot, An evolutionary toolbox for the Great Transition, Smart CSOs, 2019.