Gatherings & Meetings

Reports from conferences, strategy meetings and other events for organizing media activism; discussion notes, action plans, outcomes, reflections.

Making the Road Whilst Walking: Communication, Culture and the World Social Forum (Waterman, 2005)


An critical look at efforts to improve communications
mechanisms at the 2005 WSF.


Reflections and reports from the International Council Meeting of the WSF in Amsterdam/Utrecht (Mar-Apr 2005), regarding communications mechanisms and descriptions of ICTs operating during the WSF.

Peter Waterman

World Social Forum III: Report from a media and communications activist


A delegate to the 2003 III World Social Forum reflects on the practice of radical gatherings, the role of media & communications and the thematic frames for a global media and communications movement.


An in-depth report-back from the third World Social Forum, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2003 (available in html and pdf)

Aliza Dichter
Article Text: 

[see link below to download as printable pdf]

World Social Forum III

Porto Alegre, Brazil. January 2003.

Report-back by Aliza Dichter (US media activist delegation)

1. General Impressions

2. Major Themes on Media and Communications

3. Conclusion


The 3rd World Social Forum in Porto Alegre,
Brazil, was my first international conference. How will we participants describe
this event to our friends and colleagues back home? Perhaps we'll explain how it
was born in opposition to the World Economic Forum, that annual elite retreat
where 2,000 government and corporate leaders gather at a Swiss ski resort to
network and strategize their globalized economics for a reported $20,000
entrance fee. It is easy to contrast that with the World Social Forum III where
100,000 organizers and educators, activists and journalists sprawled across
Porto Alegre, Brazil, sleeping in hotels, apartments and tents, participating
in more than 1,000 self-generated workshops, paying a registration fee of $50
to come together under the banner, "another world is possible."

But to frame the WSF as a gathering against neo-liberalism,
capitalism and imperialism defines the work only in reaction, in defensive
stance on someone else's grounds. The official line is that the World Social
Forum is "a process" for global justice, beyond simply a meeting
event for the exchange of ideas and proposals, it is a "context for
interrelations" where we advance new strategies and visions for society in
forums marked by diversity and participatory democracy, positioning our issues
in global context. (see the WSF "Charter of Principles")[1]

Did that week in Brazil feel like the manifestation of a new
world? A living example of the body politic at its most democratic, most just?
Global solidarity supporting local autonomy in all the right ways? Of course
not. It was a thrilling opportunity to
be around so many vibrant, engaged people working for social change, from so
many places. And the energy was clearly proud and hopeful, despite what seemed
to be a universal dismay over the state of the world overrun by militarism,
inequalities, corporate greed, poverty, wastefulness, contaminated food and bad
policies. The World Social Forum I attended was mostly like a big, sloppy,
exuberant conference, with lots of volunteers and souvenir t-shirts and
disorganized, confusing schedules. My experience at the WSF did provide a
global context for my work, and, most exciting, I did meet and connect with
amazing colleagues from around the world, planting the seeds for new projects
and learning ideas and perspectives to inform my work back home.

Often the WSF embodied the uplifting sense of possibility
and shared strength of a major political rally or demonstration. It was
palpable in the opening and closing marches, with huge puppets and signs
marking the myriad causes and factions in a collective call for peace and
public rights; you felt it in the din outside the conference centers, with
drumming and chants alongside the long exposition corridors featuring booths
for every NGO and movement group, piles of flyers and posters and pins, handmade
crafts, organic foods and books for sale. The Youth Camp, with more than 25,000
people living in tents and breaking into song and constant bouts of capoeira
(an Afro-Brazilian martial art) felt like a music festival for a band called

The panels and speakers that I heard discussed what we
should care about and how we should frame it. It was a privilege to be able to
hear these thoughtful people and to take the time to think about big
frameworks, the core values or positions that might link us: "human
rights," "cultural diversity," "public good,"
"public domain."

But from my vantage this was not an experience itself of
inclusive democratic community or decentralized movement-building. While I
recognize that the Social Forum has been extended through other proceedings and
events worldwide as "a process," from my experience in Porto Alegre
(and after reading some published accounts by other participants), the World
Social Forum III was visionary perhaps in its focus and participants, but planned
and dominated by all-too-typical forces.

Naomi Klein, a much closer observer of global justice
movement-building, put it well when she asked "How on earth did a
gathering that was supposed to be a showcase for new grassroots movements
become a celebration of men with a penchant for three-hour speeches about
smashing the oligarchy?"[2]

She might have mentioned -- but didn't -- that the official
face of the forum was also overwhelmingly white and of European descent.
Indigenous, African Diaspora and Women's "issues" may have had
prominence as themes, but not necessarily as speakers or public figures. Where
were the community leaders, the artists, the activists?

I heard there was an amazing hip-hop sub-conference,
solidarity meetings for peasants' movements, radical art exhibits. But I didn't
find them. There was far too little information about these sorts of things in
the official Forum programs and the independent daily newspaper which focused
mostly on the big speakers and prominent panels. The schedule of workshops,
printed on day 3 after being held up by a computer glitch, was only in
Portuguese, usually with no descriptions of anything. I did locate a
sub-conference I was particularly interested in, on "communication for
citizenship" and the democratization of communication, but it was not
designed for international participation. I attended one session, with a very
helpful new friend trying to translate and there did seem to be many important
parallel issues and structures between the media policy issues facing Brazil
and those we U.S. media advocates are dealing with. However, I did not discover
any opportunity for discussing those parallels in the apparently closed
framework of that sub-conference. It would have been very helpful to know about
this sub-conference in advance, so to be able to plan participation,
translation and better access the opportunity to learn from the issues and
proposals of the Brazilian movement for communications democracy.

Unfortunately, on the WSF website and in official WSF materials,
there was no information about that sub-conference, or about the afro-Brazilian
forum, the hip-hop conference, the "Intergalactic Global Resistance
Laboratory" or any of the other forums-within-the-Forum. There was one
scheduled sub-forum, "Life After Capitalism," which was promoted
through flyers handed out to every delegate and through many posters and other
information. But, despite the prominent promotion, even the organizers and
participants of the "Life After Capitalism" conference-within-the-conference
left the WSF with extensive complaints about lack of facilities and support,
and the general marginalization of their sessions within the WSF, despite their
advance planning.

As with many conferences and large gatherings like music and
art festivals, the action and innovation was on the periphery. The major forum
sessions were speakers behind a microphone, on a stage. They were not
revolutionary in form, there were no prominent models of inclusive
deliberation, no intentionally collective spaces for engaging. The workshops
may have been envisioned as providing the open, collective space for skill- and
story-sharing, consensus and coalition-building, strategy development -- the
practice of the political behavior we are working towards. But all too often
workshop leaders and participants found rooms reassigned, schedules unprinted
and resources like VCRs unavailable despite advance requests. In contrast, the
major panels had simultaneous headset translation and often a large video
broadcast. Could there be a way to invert the Forum-- to make sure the
resources, the planning, the visibility was centered on the multiplicity and
diversity of self-developed programs?

Can the Forum itself -- in all its local, regional and
international events -- become an experiment zone to raise this periphery to
the center, to find ways to amplify the stories and voices of local and
grassroots leaders, to prioritize the leadership from those who have been
marginalized, to make successful models and strategies from around the world
visible and to create spaces where we can deliberate and decide, interrogate
and discuss and build upon these? What would that look like?

If we are to gather, strategize and synergize in opposition
to the current power centers, putting forth a vision of "another world is
possible," can we show it, not just tell it? Getting back to the World
Economic Forum mentioned in the beginning, can our "gatherings"
become something other than our version on their terms (eg: not just different
panels, more workshops, cheaper fees)? Stepping back from the
"official" face of the WSF, looking at the periphery in all its
diversity and plurality, the WSF does appear to be a genetically different
beast than the World Economic Forum, despite easy head-to-head comparisons (see
the "WEF vs. WSF" report from Sustainability)[3].

To me, one clearly missing piece is communications. Despite
the great independent and community media projects housed in the Press Room of
the World Social Forum, despite the inclusion of "Media, Culture and
Counter-Hegemony" as one of the core five themes of the Forum, the
communications system of the Forum itself was terrible. There may have been
amazing radio reporting of all kinds, from FIRE and AMARC to the radio pirates
set up in the Youth Camp, but I never heard them broadcast nor saw any list of
local frequencies for multilingual coverage. The were reporting out, it seemed, not within this space of 100,000 people. The Forum's Website,
although also attacked by an Internet virus, was not particularly well designed
or helpful to begin with. The workshops could have been indexed and searchable,
the schedule available in advance. Of course there is always the concern/excuse
of scarce resources and time when it comes to such things, but the question is:
what are the priorities? As mentioned, the one main newspaper, produced by IPS
which is part of the WSF organizing establishment, focused mainly on the big
panels and speakers. If there were other newsletters and daily reports
published, I never learned where to find them. There are many innovative,
dedicated and radical media producers who know how to make websites and
newspapers, why weren't more of them enlisted as collaborators on the
"official" documentation?

This may be one key to a more participatory, diverse and
emergent model for gatherings like these: utilizing the maximum capability of
our communications systems, our community media and internet resources, the
skills and visions of the producers and programmers who have been structuring
media for social change work. There was no system for locating other people or
forming affinity groups at the Forum, but there could have been. There was no
obvious way to access any of the media being produced all day long in the press
rooms, but there could have been. (And now I know to bring a radio to such

As we communications advocates and independent media-makers
continue to push for communications and media issues to be part of a
social-change agenda, perhaps we can also focus on better supporting and
informing the communications priorities of gatherings and events --including in
the planning and organization stages. By using media and communications
technologies, by focusing on communication over information, we might help move
forward with more democracy, more participation and less of the
"all-too-familiar" dominance of certain models and voices. The
Indymedia centers (IMCs) have done this as communications networks

for protests and particularly anti-capitalist activism
worldwide. In turn, the people who get involved with IMCs become engaged with
the political and policy issues of mass media. If we are trying to build or
connect movements for more democratic, accessible media, supporting that kind
of media in the service of other social movements is a good way forward.


Overall in the WSF, there was a focus on "positive
vision," the question of what this "another world" would look
like, how it would function, what better models do we have to hold up in
opposition to the current systems? In addition, discussions, particularly from
panelists and speakers, looked at frameworks: how do we tie together these
calls for global justice?

This came up strongly in several of the media/communications
sessions I attended. In particular, the workshops focusing on the upcoming
World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and the responding campaign
"Communications Rights in the Information Society" (CRIS), included
much discussion of top level themes or ways to frame the issues. This was not
presented as a semantic question, but rather critical to advocacy and
organizing work. Many of the panelists I heard in the media sessions focused on
language and a need for frameworks to talk about media issues. This may be a
typical European left intellectual approach, but it was also clear that this
field of media/communications as a social issue doesn't have a common language
we use to talk about it. There was a strong sense that we, media/communications
advocates, like all global justice advocates, need to redefine the terrain--
advocate our vision, not just be reactive and protective in the current context

This discussion of frameworks echoes similar conversations
we are having among media advocates in the U.S. and was directly relevant to my
media organizing and education work. However, I also found it at times
frustrating to be discussing on this level of theory and concept without
grounding in actual change models and without strategies for advancing these concerns
in media/communications policy and structure.

Here are notes on some of the specifics:

• "Public Good" -- water was a top issue at the
WSF, the privatization of water systems, the public right to access potable
water. Some media advocates discussed ways to make our issues more resonant by
talking in the frame of a "public good" -- communications systems and
media, like water, belong to the public and are to be regulated in their

• "Universal Services" -- Media scholar and
analyst Armand Mattelart spoke to this framework, addressing the idea of access
for all, saying "this suggests the main problem is restructuring business,
but it leaves out democracy." He proposed "public service" as an
important counterpoint. In the WSIS workshop it was discussed that "public
services" is an important concept in France.

• "Cultural Diversity" -- several speakers
expressed concern that this term could be or has been co-opted by corporate
media, or emptied of its meaning. Others expressed doubt that it could have any
legal meaning, such as within the WTO. It was also challenged as a
"defensive" concept. Italian, French, Indian and Malaysian speakers
spoke of "monoculture" and the Hollywood-ization of the world.
"Cultural diversity" cannot be a stand-in for all cultures that are
not the Hollywood monoculture. Susana George (ISIS) spoke of the problematic of
"world music" where music from Africa, Asia, Latin America, etc are
smushed into one narrow genre.

• "Communication Rights ... as a human right" -- the
concept of "communications rights" was accepted as a baseline for the
WSIS workshops, but Maria Suarez (FIRE) in particular stressed that it need to
be explicitly framed as "a human right" to make clear these are not
just the rights we have as communicators, but that as humans, we have rights to

• "Freedom of Information Act" -- Indian editor
and journalist Prabhash Joshi urged that this should be (in the Indian context)
reconsidered a "Right to Information Act." But Sally Burch (ALAI), in
another setting, insisted that "freedom of information" and
"free speech" were not enough, as they don't emphasize
"participation" in communication. Policy, she said, needs to ensure
people have not only access to participate in communications systems but also

• "Communications Democracy" -- this was help up
as a possible thing to advocate for. It resonates with the Brazilian movement
for "democracy of communication." As is often noted elsewhere, some
people are concerned about the loaded term "democracy" and how it has
been co-opted. However, when Sally Burch spoke to an audience of about 20,000
people, the line "without democracy in communications, there is no
democracy in society" got a huge applause.

• "Access" vs "Control" -- in the WSIS
discussions it was clear that for post-industrial countries like the U.S. and
Italy, the issues are about media control, who dominates the communications
systems, media concentration, etc. But for the South and developing countries,
the needs are much more fundamental. They need access, education and
infrastructure. It was clear that from the U.S. model, access is not enough to
advocate for.

• "Digital Inclusion" -- the inversion of the
"digital divide," a framework to advocate for systems that build in
access and skills for participation in new media for all sectors of society,
particularly those usually marginalized.

• "Intellectual Property" -- It was noted that for
Latin America and other countries in the South, the NGO sector is taking on IP
when it comes to access to medicines. But this could conceptually be extended
to issues of free and open-source software, currently a big issue for media
NGOs in Europe.

• "Fifth Power" -- A new organization "Media
Watch Global" was launched at the Forum, an international media-monitoring
network. This group identified itself as the "Fifth Power," a
watchdog on the "Fourth Power" -- the media-- which had lost its
independence from the other power centers in society and is now embedded and
serving the ruling powers.

I recognize the importance of identifying these big themes
and frameworks. And I understand the importance of articulating collective
values. But I also felt frustrated in some of these discussions. There seems to
be a lot of focus on articulations-- a desire to frame the issues and state
them in declarations or manifestoes. But there was far less attention on
strategy, on the methodology for working to advance those frameworks. I wanted
more discussion of strategies, tactics and change models. I wanted more examples
of effective projects and campaigns where access, control, participation in
communications system was achieved. There was little discussion of specific
points of engagement, points of leverage where we as political actors can help
shift the media and communications system to achieve this "communications

Sally Burch of ALAI did address this a bit in her speech,
when she talked of five levels of action:

  1. Citizen Action. Media monitoring and accountability campaigns, led by issue
    groups (feminists, racial minorities) or consumer groups.
  2. Media Education. Teaching people to view/hear/read critically.
  3. Legislative Action. Against
    monopolies or in support of minority medias freedoms.
  4. Creating & Supporting Alternative Media
  5. Policies For Pluralism: We need
    to develop proposals for a public system of communication that provides both
    space and skills to be truly participatory.

This breakdown was helpful, and it resonated strongly with
the broad ways I and many of my close colleagues have been talking about these
issues. It was an action map laid out in a speech to 20,000 people (the packed
session on "media and globalization" was one of the highlights of the
WSF for me) and as such was very general and more descriptive of areas of
action rather than strategies for implementing change.

ALAI is a member of the World Social Forum's International
Council and, in a small workshop group, Sally described the challenges of
getting communications/media issues as a main theme of the WSF (of the five
themes, one was "media, culture and counter-hegemony"). Recognizing
the Forum's goals to be an open, pluralistic meeting and framework for
interaction, Sally spoke of the intentions of ALAI and other media groups to
continue to promote media and communications as an important target of the
social-change agenda within the Forum.

Media issues did have visibility at the conference,
primarily through the prominence of the newly formed Media Watch Global. This
new international media-monitoring network was discussed on several panels. On
the front page of the WSF newspaper, published by IPS, one of Media Watch
Global's leading founders, there were daily promotions for the launch seminar.
At the official closing press conference for the Forum, the leaders of Media
Watch Global were introduced to a packed room of hundreds of journalists.

But this new group seems only concerned with only the first
action level mentioned above, only media-monitoring of the dominant/mainstream
media to hold them accountable for bias and imbalance. The stated focus of
Media Watch Global is a "return to professional ethics in the media."
While clearly important, this narrow approach ignores the critical policy and
infrastructure issues that so many participants in the media sessions had been
raising. This media-monitoring is simply reactive, and does not look towards
changing systems and advancing new models. I might also mention another
discomfiting fact: this new Media Watch Global network seemed to be replicating
some of the most obvious weaknesses of the official WSF. At the Media Watch
Global launch panel I counted nine men and only one woman in the leadership of
this new group, which spoke of representing citizens, serving social movements
and marginalized groups. Yet there appeared not one representative of social
movements among this leadership. I am familiar with many of the organizations
and individuals who joined together to launch this Media Watch Global, and I am
sure it will do important, necessary work as a watchdog on big media
journalism. I just hope that this group's dominant position within the WSF does
not obscure or obstruct efforts to prioritize many other aspects of the
struggle for fair access, media plurality and the right to communicate.


I have returned inspired and invigorated. I came to Porto
Alegre as someone dedicated to promoting media and communications as a social
justice issue, to advancing efforts for media reform, accountability and the
democratization of communications. So to stand among some 20,000 people who had
packed into a hot stadium to hear a talk on "media and
globalization," to hear them roar at calls for a "new media
order," was an amazing experience.

I had come to the WSF III at a particularly formative point
in my work, when I was considering the new strategies and projects, shaping the
directions of my own work. Some people I met expressed far more frustration and
confusion than I experienced. I was fortunate in many ways: I had a focus in my
participation. I was part of a great delegation of media people from the U.S.
with whom I was able to navigate the Forum with and debrief with each day. I
was already part of an international network and thus could easily identify and
connect with many colleagues and familiar organizations. There were many
international people I already knew "electronically" (online) that I
was eager to link up with in real space. As well, although this was my first
international conference, I have had many opportunities to travel & live
internationally, to spend time in Latin America and am able to communicate
roughly in both Italian and Spanish, overcoming many of the language barriers
others faced.

If I'd had any less preparation, if I didn't know the issues
I wanted to explore, if I didn't have colleagues and friends there, I think I
might have been lost among the thousands of workshops, perhaps inspired by the
speakers, but not empowered to act for change.

It is remarkable to realize that there are 100,000 other
sets of experiences from the WSF III. Through this report I have described some
of the impressions, lessons and connections I gained through following my one
thread. I particularly look forward to "report-back" conversations
and the reports of other attendees. It will be interesting to learn what
happens with the WSF next year in India, and to see how this
"process" evolves as it is adopted, expanded and reacted to in other

I came home from the World Social Forum III with many new
projects to cultivate, and ideas that are helping my ongoing work to evolve.
From the particular to the theoretical, the WSF provided opportunities for me
to reflect on and to build on my work. My focus on communications structures
includes not only policies and economics that affect the mass media systems but
also the structures and systems that we, as organizers and educators for social
change, use to communicate. The WSF reaffirmed my belief in the importance of
gathering spaces, and of thinking strategically about them.

Aliza Dichter
Palenville, NY
March, 2003

[2] Naomi Klein, "The Hijacking of
the WSF"

[3] Sustainability, "WEF vs WSF:
Heavyweight Championship for the World"

WSIS Report: Organizing for Social Justice and Human Rights in Global Media and Communications Policy (2004)


A report from U.S.-based representatives who attended UN World Summit meetings in December 2003.
Includes reflections and assessments of the Summit and related events,
next step Action Ideas and a copy of the Civil Society Declaration. (90


"A World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Report:
for Social Justice and Human Rights in Global Media and Communications Policy," collective report from nine U.S. delegates to the 1st WSIS.

Includes reflections and assessments of the Summit and related events,
next step Action Ideas and a copy of the Civil Society Declaration. (90
pages, March 2004)

Aliza Dichter, Dirk Koning, Sasha Constanza-Chock, Elizabeth Robinson, William J. McIver Jr., Barry Creech, Dorothy Kidd

Strengths, Challenges, and Collaboration: Advocacy groups organizing on media ownership and beyond


Media activists and advocates reflect on their collaborations during the 2003 media-ownership campaign and consider the needs and opportunities for effective media-change activism. (37 pages, March 2004)


After collectively organizing a national campaign to fight media ownership deregulation at the FCC, twenty-five media advocates discuss the successes and lessons of their experiences and needs for moving forward. This report includes recommendations for next steps for both media-advocacy organizations and funders to build effective activism and strengthen the field.

Sheetal Matani, Catherine Borgman-Arboleda, Aliza Dichter,Gerri Spilka
Article Text: 

The Media Diversity Meeting took place in Philadelphia, September 12-13, 2003. Click below to download the report in pdf format. For more information about this report, contact CIMA at cima [at] mediaactioncenter [dot] org (cima @

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