Disappearing activists, plain-clothed gunmen shooting into demonstrations, flagrant use of torture by state authorities âe" these scenes are reminiscent of former fascist dictatorships in South America or the current U.S. occupation of Iraq.
But these are, in fact, scenes from a new documentary filmed in Mexico, which recently had its Canadian premiere at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto.
Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad (A Little Bit of So Much Truth), produced and directed by Jill Irene Freidberg, documents a teachers' strike in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the strike's growth into a larger social movement against state corruption and electoral fraud, and the eventual violent attempts by state authorities to quell the uprising.
Located at the southeastern tip of Mexico and home to sixteen indigenous groups, Oaxaca has for generations been one of the poorest Mexican states, despite its bounty in natural resources. The enormous difference between rich and poor in the state is a testament to the democratic deficiency in its governance.
But the film is more than just a documentation of a social movement and the attempts of state authorities to violently suppress it. It's primarily a story of how this particular movement latched on to the idea that media is crucial in the battle of ideas and opinions in the public sphere.
In May 2006, 70,000 schoolteachers represented by union Local 22 went out on strike, occupying Oaxaca's capital city with an encampment in the city square. The teachers, the majority of them working in poorly equipped rural schools with students who come to school hungry, were calling for better funding and cost-of-living wage increases.
Although this was not the first time the teachers had gone on strike, it was the first time they had done so with the backing of their own radio station: Radio PlantÃ³n. The film opens with the station's sparse studio airing a public announcement on behalf of the teacher's union:
"Children, next week we won't have classes," a woman's voice explains in the radio spot, to the sound of cheering children.
"But why teacher?" inquires a student.
"Oh Anita, don't you see that the chalkboard is crumbling, and that the only water we have comes from the gutters?" replies the teacher. "We don't even have electricity or school supplies. You children come to school hungry. We're going out on strike for a better education for the boys and girls of Oaxaca." Again the students cheer.
The importance of the teachers' radio station is quickly evidenced when contrasted with corporate mainstream media coverage of the teacher's strike.
"The teachers aren't just causing traffic jams, economic losses, and acts of vandalism," one television news anchor declares, an echo of other messages from mainstream media, "they are also violating the right that all Mexicans have to move about freely."
But on Radio PlantÃ³n, an entirely different picture emerges of public sentiment towards the strike, with a barrage of calls aired from ordinary people supporting the teachers and their actions.
Both sides of the conflict knew the impact this alternative radio station was having, and for that reason state authorities soon decided to put an end to it.
On the morning of June 14, 2006, just a month after the strike had begun, state police shot teargas into the teachers' union building that housed Radio PlantÃ³n, while helicopters swarmed over the encampment shooting teargas into the crowds, seriously hurting over 70 people. Police then entered the union building, confiscated all the radio transmission equipment, and arrested those who were still on air.
But supporters, who had been listening to the station during the police attacks, came out in droves to support the teachers. Soon the police were driven out of the city centre and a new encampment set up.
"It surprised everyone," says Aline Castellanos Jurado, a human rights activist, in the film, "because the teachers' strike didn't necessarily have that much public support." There had been a media campaign against the teachers, saying things like: "Be careful, the teachers are coming, hide your children...But nevertheless, when the teachers were attacked, the people came out in the streets in huge numbers."
The film tells how the attacks on June 14 by state authorities turned out to be a watershed moment in Oaxaca. Students helped the strikers take over the city's university radio station so that regular programming in support of the teachers and in opposition to state government policies could continue.
Two days after the attacks, over 300,000 people took to the streets in the largest demonstration ever seen in the state. But the onslaught of the mainstream media on the movement was unrelenting.
"The television duopoly, TV Azteca and Televisa, are the ones who truly hold the power in Mexico today," the film shows journalist Carlos Fazio saying. âeoeAnd they use their media outlets to express the ideology of the ruling class. Especially Televisa, but also TV Azteca, are fundamental in manufacturing consent, so that when the masses went out to vote, they voted against their own interests and in favour of the interests of those in power."
Despite the attacks from mainstream media, the teacher's movement was becoming a popular social force with the aims of unseating the governor of Oaxaca. It is widely believed that Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz came to power through electoral fraud and corruption.
Protests expanded to include, among others, unions and indigenous groups. The movement eventually called itself the Oaxaca Peoples' Popular Assembly (APPO). They blockaded government buildings in the capital of Oaxaca, shutting many of them down.
But the movement was continually frustrated by the frequent attacks of the mainstream media that gave undue attention to small counter-protests and aired punditry that attacked the movement. One radio station even offered false reports that AIDS-infected APPO activists were raping young women in the middle of the night.
Fed up with the mainstream media, a group of women from APPO took over the state-run media television station and its radio stations.
"All we wanted was a little bit of time on the air. A half hour, maybe an hour, and then we were going to leave," said one of the women. "We just wanted to disseminate a little bit of so much truth. And we told them we would leave. But they denied us an hour of airtime, and I think now they regret not giving us the time we asked for."
In the following weeks, state police stepped up their attacks on the APPO movement, and several incidents occurred of activists disappearing or being gunned down by plain-clothed gunmen. More and more people were being rounded up and detained. Those released had often been brutally tortured.
Late one night, three weeks after the women had taken over Channel 9, the military destroyed the station's transmitter, putting a stop to the women's broadcasts. That same morning, feeling that it had no other choice, the movement took over 12 commercial radio stations.
The next month saw 4000 federal para-police descend upon the city, heavily stepping up their attacks against the protests, killing several activists, including independent American photojournalist Bradley Roland Will.
Despite the attacks from the heavily armed and trained police forces, APPO and its supporters were each time able to repel the trespass or quickly re-establish the movement, thanks to the radio station it still held.
According to the film's producer/director Jill Freidberg, the political situation in Oaxaca remains volatile to this day. Teachers have continued to strike every Friday while demanding the release of political prisoners. Although most detainees have been released, Freidberg says people involved in the movement continue to be picked up âe" with the state using deceptive tactics to do so.
"The federal government invited ...[movement activists] ... to dialogue, and then arrested them on their way there," says Freidberg.
Although Freidberg says she didn't initially set out to make a film about the impact of media in a social movement, she says she quickly realized it was a central aspect of the story.
"What was happening in Oaxaca would not be happening the way it was if it weren't for the media outlets in the hands of the movement," says Friedberg. "There really was no way of seeing what was happening in Oaxaca without taking the role of the media takeovers into account."
"Everyone in Oaxaca, during the conflict, was aware of the importance of the media takeovers - it was a constant topic of conversation."
In fact, Freidberg notes that this awareness has translated into more emphasis on alternative media.
"The more interesting political activity is out in rural communities," says Freidberg, "where different indigenous groups are meeting and organizing, and where there has been an explosion of unlicensed community radio stations going on the air."
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