Rethinking “communication rights” from Latin American social thought and from the epistemologies of the South
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Rethinking “communication rights” from Latin American social thought and from the epistemologies of the South

Camilo Pérez and Jair Vega

The Kogui and Kankuamo communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia understand communication (Jui Shikazguaxa) as a process involving two simultaneous actions: firstly, communication stems from within, from home (both in an individual and collective sense, simultaneously), and secondly, communication is understood as a process that contributes to enlightening the other (not as a unidirectional, instrumental act, but rather as a purpose inherent in the process of communicating with others, be they human or non-human).

This is just one example of the diversity that can be found in the universe called Latin America, or the Abya Yala, which challenges us to rethink the concept of “communication rights” from both the epistemologies of the South and of Latin American social thinking.

From the western perspective, the right to communication mainly focuses on freedom of expression and access to information, mass media, and ICTs as tools to guarantee citizen participation and the circulation of diverse ideas in a democratic society. This approach tends to emphasize individual rights and minimal regulation of the media to foster competition and freedom of expression.

From the epistemologies of the South, communication rights are understood as a mechanism for resistance, emancipation, and decolonization of knowledge and action. Communication is not seen as an instrumental action apart from other dimensions of life; it is always linked to mobilization and is directed towards a social or community purpose, whether in food, health care, environmental care, or the celebration of a ritual. This implies that participation in communicative processes, as well as the political dimension of communication, are understood as practices linked to life itself and not as independent and instrumental exercises to achieve specific ends.

This goes even further than participatory and horizontal approaches, promoted by liberal democracy, where all social actors are supposed to have a voice and agency in the communicative process; it is about assuming communication as inherent to the sense of existence itself, linked either to spiritual experience, collective action, or emancipatory demands.

One example of this is the experience of many indigenous communities in Colombia regarding the appropriation of Western media (such as radio, television, and even ICTs) to adapt them to their own logics. In Colombia, some indigenous communities have been offered licences for community or public interest radios or televisions. Although they found them attractive, they decided to take time to analyze the underlying logic of these media, in order to appropriate them in accordance with their own communication processes, so that they would not go against their culture, social organization, and community purposes. When this was not achieved, they rejected the offers of these media to guarantee their communication rights.

Paradoxically, from an external perspective, having access to these media would mean materializing communication rights for them (in terms of access to technology, production, and circulation of information). When the medium was appropriated, experiences of appropriated media with a collective purpose, with a local meaning, emerged: such as the cases of “Tayrona Estereo” and the podcast “El Mochilón de la Sierra” produced by the Commission of Own and Intercultural Communication of the Kankuamo People, the “Mokana Estereo” process in Atlántico, or the communication processes promoted by Pütchimaajana, the Network of Communications of the Wayúu People, or by TIKCARIBE, the indigenous communication network of the Caribbean.

A fundamental element for understanding the social, cultural, and political challenges

For its part, Latin American social thought has profoundly addressed the issue of communication, recognizing its importance as a fundamental element for understanding the social, cultural, and political challenges of the region. Here, communication is understood as a complex process involving hybridizations, individual and community mediations, construction of meanings, identities, and collective subjectivities, as well as social fabrics. From these perspectives, it is impossible to analyze communication as an action or instrumental space that can serve just any purpose, as is largely assumed in western communication theories.

The relevance of popular communication is then highlighted, recognizing the power of local communities to tell their own stories, express their needs, defend the forms of media representation of their peoples and cultures, and fight for their rights through their own and participatory communication practices. This approach also questions liberal democracy and its limited commitment to communication rights, arguing that media democratization cannot be achieved solely through state regulation but requires social mobilization and a change in power structures.

Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, the re-signification of popular communication by Jesús Martín Barbero, the critical analysis of power structures in communication by Armand Mattelart, and the call for other ways of communicating by Rosa María Alfaro are examples of how Latin American thought highlights the need for alternative and emancipatory communication.

These approaches emphasize the relevance of community participation and empowerment, implying the importance of the active role of communities in decision-making, in content production processes, in choosing the most convenient media for the representation of their own realities, transcending the western formula of thinking about what the media do to people, to think about what people can do with the media, on their own terms.

Returning to the initial example of the Kankuamo people, their types of conceptions of communication challenge Western approaches and emerge from different epistemologies, proposing communication as a relationship in which one interweaves with the other to understand and co-construct a joint path. This is a more complex process than thinking of communication as unidirectional or bidirectional formulas for transmitting or exchanging messages between one another.

In short, the epistemologies of the South and Latin American social thought invite us to rethink the right to communication beyond freedom of expression and access to information and media; and to assume it from the perspective of defending and strengthening those processes of their own and appropriated communication that allow local communities to make their own decisions about communication processes and products that arise on and from their territories, respecting the cultural, linguistic, and epistemic diversity of historically marginalized groups, and generating communication processes anchored in their own knowledge and needs.

Camilo Pérez Quintero is Assistant Professor in social communication and journalism and Jair Vega Casanova is a sociologist and Professor of social communication at the Universidad del Norte (Colombia).

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