The convergence of activists on the recent World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle signaled not only worldwide concern about the effects of globalization, but also the emergence of a well-organized and increasingly sophisticated network of internationalist media campaigners based both in and outside the media world. While the Internet plays a significant role in linking far-flung participants and disseminating information, these grassroots activists are not reliant on computer connections. They’re using a variety of old and new media–face-to-face communications, leafletting, and street art, along with radio, video, and websites–to organize with social justice movements at every level.
Two successful campaigns illustrate the range of issues raised and tactics used by international media campaigns, as well as the central role of coalition building.
With a simple portable studio that can be plugged into any telephone in the world and operated with minimum training, Feminist International Radio Endeavor has provided live coverage at huge international assemblies such as the World Conference on the Environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the United Nations Human Rights Conference in Vienna in 1993, the United Nations Population and Development Conference in Cairo in 1994, the South African Women’s Health Conference in 1994, the United Nations’ Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995, and the Zapatista-inspired International Gathering Against Neoliberalism in Spain in 1997. Aimed at supporting organizing on the local and regional levels, FIRE’s reports convey the critical information–as well as the passion and organizational lessons–produced at these international meetings to those who can’t participate.
Staffed by Central American feminist activists, FIRE combines journalism with lobbying. For example, after the 1995 United Nations Women’s Conference, feminist and human rights activists organized an unofficial Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Rights with the Lawyer’s Guild of Costa Rica. Twenty-two women gave evidence of violations of women’s human rights committed by private individuals and institutions, as well as the government. The organizers’ intention was to ensure that the Costa Rican government did not back down from its endorsement of the Beijing declarations. At FIRE’s initiation, the group took the tribunal’s proceedings to the president of the Supreme Court and the Legislative Assembly.
“The fact that FIRE was there with the microphone in the meeting with the president of the Supreme Court provides for a better response,” says Maria Suarez, one of the first FIRE staff members. “The [judge] knows that he is talking to an international audience and not only to a bunch of 25 feminists who came to him on the 8th of March. That’s what I mean by a lobbying tool.”
Last September, Suarez interviewed the women’s group organizing against the U.S. Navy base in Vieques, Puerto Rico, and then took her microphone to the major march supporting their efforts in New York. In 1995, she and FIRE staffer Nancy Vargas took their mikes on horseback through the forest near their radio transmitter in Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica, to support a local, ultimately successful, campaign to stop the dumping of garbage from the capital city of San Jose. FIRE members have also participated as activists and media producers at meetings of Latin American and Caribbean networks of women concerned about health, violence against women, laws, and the rights of Afro-Latino and indigenous women.
FIRE was sparked at the United Nations Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1986. Moved by the exchange of news, experiences, and dialogue in the Peace Tent, Texan Genevieve Vaughan began searching for a cheap way to consolidate fledgling women’s communication networks and distribute their messages worldwide. Deciding that radio was the cheapest to operate and most accessible medium internationally, Vaughan hired Latin American feminist activists Suarez and Katerina Anfossi to set up FIRE as a shortwave radio program in 1991. Until 1998, FIRE operated its bilingual program in the Radio for Peace shortwave service on United Nations land in Costa Rica.
Last year the staff set up an autonomous Third World women’s communication association, which operates a bilingual website featuring both text and radio sound clips, an FM broadcast in Costa Rica, and a summer communications and community development training institute. All three projects address the ways that women’s movements are organizing against global neoliberal policies, militarism, and racism, and for the extension of women’s human rights, environmental protection, and the promotion of positive forms of sexuality, education, art, and culture.
Suarez, a veteran of the mass literacy campaigns promoted by the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, says the group’s strategy–to use whatever communications instruments are most available–is drawn from the experiences of women active in Central American social and political movements. “Too many people think that the technology is the communication,” she says. “But we have to liberate the technology to put it into the hands of the women [who are] where the action is.”
In the McSpotlight
In February 1996, Dave Morris and Helen Steel launched the McSpotlight website from a laptop connected to the Internet via a mobile phone outside a McDonald’s restaurant in central London. On trial in London on charges of libeling McDonald’s, and unable to get mainstream media coverage of their case (largely due to the corporate giant’s threats of further libel suits), they had decided to create their own news outlet, with support from the volunteer-run McInformation Network. The Internet was “fast, global, accessible, uncensorable. . . . We were finally going to get the story out the way we wanted to tell it,” says Franny Armstrong, a supporter of the McInformation Network and director of the video McLibel: Two Worlds Collide.
Helen Steel and Dave Morris during their trial.
Aided by media activists in Holland who were fresh from a successful battle against the Church of Scientology, the McInformation Network created several mirror sites outside the reach of English libel laws. Exact copies of McSpotlight were run from servers in Finland, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. The group also circulated a compressed version of the site, encouraging site visitors to download this archive and keep it safe. “If McDonald’s chopped off one head, another could grow somewhere else,” says Armstrong.
This high-tech international effort grew out of a decidedly traditional and local action. In the mid 1980s, London Greenpeace (no relation to International Greenpeace) targeted McDonald’s as a high-profile organization symbolizing everything the group considered wrong with the prevailing corporate mentality. In 1985 the group launched the International Day of Action Against McDonald’s, held on October 16 ever since, and the following year it produced a leaflet called “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s? Everything They Don’t Want You to Know.” The leaflet, passed out in front of McDonald’s franchises in London, attacked almost all aspects of the corporation’s business, accusing it of exploiting children with advertising, promoting an unhealthy diet, exploiting its staff, causing environmental damage, and abusing animals.
Up to that point, McDonald’s had been able to wield its enormous corporate clout and public relations budget to stifle most criticism. The company was aided by British libel laws, which favor the plaintiff. Threats of lawsuits had been enough to stop most McDonald’s critics, from the BBC, the Independent, the Guardian, the Daily Mirror, and the Sun, to the Scottish Trade Union, New Leaf Tea Shop, a children’s theater group, and even Prince Philip, the titular head of the World Wildlife Fund. If warning critics of impending lawsuits didn’t work, McDonald’s would threaten to pull its advertising. (During the Morris and Steel trial, the company allegedly threatened to remove £80,000 worth of ads from the Independent, one of only two UK newspapers to cover the trial in any depth.)
McDonald’s went to even greater lengths to stop London Greenpeace. Because the organization was not incorporated (and therefore could not be sued), McDonald’s hired spies to infiltrate London Greenpeace and gathered enough information to sue five of the activists. Faced with a daunting court case, three reluctantly apologized for distributing the leaflet; Morris and Steel decided to defend themselves in what became the longest trial in English history.
The trial judge eventually ruled (on June 19, 1997) that Morris and Steel had not proven the leaflet’s allegations that McDonald’s contributed to rain forest destruction, heart disease and cancer, food poisoning, and starvation in developing countries, nor that it subjected its employees to poor working conditions. He also ruled, however, that the two had proved that McDonald’s exploits children with its advertising, falsely advertises its food as nutritious, is “culpably responsible” for cruelty to animals, is “strongly antipathetic” to unions, pays its workers low wages, and risks the health of its most regular, long-term customers. In light of these findings, he awarded McDonald’s only half the claimed damages: £60,000. Morris summarized the defendants’ response: “McDonald’s doesn’t deserve a penny, and in any event we haven’t got any money.” The news was up on the website within two hours of the judge’s issuing his verdict.
Morris and Steel went back out on the street, and with supporters, distributed 400,000 leaflets outside 500 of McDonald’s 750 UK stores. Solidarity protests were held in more than a dozen countries. Eventually McDonald’s dropped its claim for damages and its threatened injunction against further leafletting. The defendants are appealing the trial verdict, however, arguing that the public has a right to criticize companies whose business practices affect people’s health and the environment, and that multinational corporations should not be allowed to sue for libel.
The McSpotlight campaign was hugely successful in terms of its original goal–to get the story out. Drawing more than 75 million hits in its first three and a half years, the website has enabled campaigners, workers, researchers, journalists, and interested people from around the world to find out about McDonald’s and the organizing against it. And the trial was eventually covered by major commercial media around the world.
McSpotlight is still up and running, “dedicated to compiling and disseminating factual, accurate, up-to-date information–and encouraging debate–about the workings, policies, and practices of the McDonald’s Corporation and all they stand for.” The site also highlights opposition to McDonald’s and other transnational companies.
Armstrong attributes McSpotlight’s success to several factors. First, the David and Goliath story–a multinational corporation attacking two working-class activists–resonated with a wide range of McDonald’s foes. Initially the site was particularly attractive to those opposed to censorship and people who just wanted to see what McDonald’s didn’t want them to know. But it continues to draw everyone from those who hate McDonald’s burgers for nutritional and taste reasons to ecologists who object to the destruction of Brazilian rain forests to provide grazing land for beef cattle, workers organizing against low wages, and people generally opposed to corporate globalization.
In addition, the website was launched when Internet activism was in its infancy, and an enthusiastic volunteer technical team created several innovative features, such as a Debating Room and a link to McDonald’s own pages with McSpotlight’s critical commentary displayed on the side. And finally, everything on the site is presented with irreverence and humor.
The McSpotlight campaign reached beyond the Net with the documentary video McLibel: Two Worlds Collide, completed in 1997 by a volunteer crew directed by Franny Armstrong. Originally promised support from both the BBC and Channel 4, the program was pulled by both stations. As a result, its producers turned to alternative forms of distribution, such as home video, cable and satellite networks, film festivals, mobile solar-powered cinemas, and once again, the Internet. From one email they organized 104 screenings in 19 countries.
And the impact on McDonald’s? The company was reported to have spent £10 million on the trial. And it’s spent untold thousands more on public relations to counter the criticisms. More importantly, the power of McDonald’s to control information, censor criticism, and bully its critics was severely challenged. Campaigners were able to publish information and an alternative perspective about McDonald’s and the global food industry. Perhaps not coincidentally, this year’s international Anti-McDonald’s Day on October 16 also included 425 protests and pickets in 345 towns in 23 countries.
The Campaign for the Right to Communicate
Both FIRE and McSpotlight support and are supported by other networks of alternative media producers, larger international campaigns for media and democracy, and nonmedia-related social justice movements.
Dutch Internet activists helped the McSpotlight campaigners set up their mirror sites, and Armstrong garnered support for international distribution of her video from the Next Five Minutes Network, an Amsterdam-based coalition that has convened three conferences for progressive groups on how best to use radio, video, and Internet media for political, social, and cultural campaigns.
FIRE actively participates in regional and international alternative media networks, including the Latin American Network of Women Communicators and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters. These groups lobby for more support for community media and the right to free expression, both of which they see as vitally important for women’s and other social movements in an environment where control of the major media is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few transnational media corporations.
These alternative media networks allow groups to exchange information, training, and funding ideas, and plan policy initiatives and campaign strategies. At the national level, the groups support each other’s demands for greater access and accountability from the commercial media and more support for alternative and community-based media. At the international level, they oppose global media conglomeration and corporate control, arguing that all people have the right to both receive and produce information, to participate in media institutions, and to participate meaningfully in public decision-making. In addition, “urgent action” networks have supported stations or projects in trouble, including B92 in Serbia, community radio stations in El Salvador and Brazil, and U.S. microradio stations fighting harassment by the Federal Communications Commission.
Maria Suarez describes the logic behind these multilayered strategies: “If you only struggle at the local level, you might do great things, but you’ll stay at the local level. If you only struggle at the national level, you might do great things, but you’ll stay at the national level. When you do all these levels, and you go back and forth and you influence one with the other and you bring it back and bring it forth, then you have mundialización . I don’t have a word for it in English. . . . It’s about having a vision of the world, not to globalize in the sense of one identity, one language, one vision, but to understand the connectedness. This is what globalization does not do, which is what we have to do.
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Dorothy Kidd is active in the Pacific Center for Alternative Journalists and Bay Area Alternative Media Network. She teaches media studies at the University of San Francisco.