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Guerrilla Media: Women take over the TV in Oaxaca

John Gibler
Date Published: 
August 13, 2006

Oaxaca TV OccupationIn many parts of the world being a reporter allows one a respected and even an envied position in society. Not here. Protestors with the Oaxaca People’s Assembly (APPO by its Spanish initials) aggressively confront reporters with icy looks of distrust. They demand to see press credentials and chase off correspondents from the national television networks before they can even turn on their cameras. During marches, they shout by the thousands: press, if you have any dignity, tell the truth.

This hostility towards the press is years in the making in a society where hated governors purchase news articles in cash and elite media owners denigrate rural and working class social movements. But the rage exploded after television networks skewed the facts of a violent police raid on the encampment of striking teachers in downtown Oaxaca during the early dawn hours of June 14. Not only did the teachers suffer violence that was not shown on television, they filmed it.

The media have been at the heart of the past three months of conflict in Oaxaca, not only as tools of the discredited state government to scramble for legitimacy in the living rooms of the middle class, but as vital instruments of political discussion and emergency organizing amongst Oaxaca’s unarmed rebels, and as such, as military targets for state repression. The teachers’ radio station has been attacked by police swinging batons, gunmen firing machine guns from the backs of pick-up trucks, and spies dumping sulfuric acid on the transmitter. But the APPO protestors have not remained passive against the violence aimed at destroying their means of communication. They went on the offensive. Led by a group of eight women who had been joking and tossing about ideas while brewing coffee for weary protestors, hundreds of women took over the state television and radio corporation on August 1, and have been broadcasting live ever since.

Roots of the conflict

The Oaxaca local Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) was created in 1980. Section 22 drew from the resistance struggles of its rural and indigenous membership to become one of the most militant and effective political organizations in the state, simultaneously taking on union corruption and inequalities in the federal and state education budgets.

In April, the sectional executive committee met to review to the demands for the up-coming school year. On April 29, Section 22 released its list of 14 demands, including school uniforms and shoes for all students and a higher budget for classroom supplies. The state government did not respond, so the teachers organized a series of marches before deciding to go on strike and set up an encampment on May 22 in the historic—and quite touristy—town square. (The year before, Governor Ulises Ruiz, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party spent tens of millions of dollars remodeling the town square to the outrage of pretty much everyone but a few hotel and restaurant owners).

On June 14, the Governor sent over a thousand state police to lift the encampment by force. The police arrived before dawn firing tear gas grenades from a helicopter and storming into the small city of tents beating sleeping teachers with clubs. Police also raided the teachers’ radio station, Radio Planton (“encampment radio”), destroying all their equipment and beating and arresting the three radio workers who were at the station.

“All the years before, the government arrived and announced over a megaphone: ‘We are going to lift the encampment.’ And on the third announcement, everyone would grab their stuff and run,” one teacher said after the raid. “This time there was none of that; they even attacked us from the air, as if we were criminals when what we were doing was struggling; that is our right: to protest with strikes, marches and encampments.”

The police briefly occupied the town square, but soon reinforcements arrived from the teachers union and from outraged residents and within hours they retook the smoldering town square. After the raid Section 22 suspended their 14 demands and joined with political and social organizations from across the state to demand the removal of Ulises Ruiz from office. They formed the APPO and began civil disobedience actions engineered to generate “ungovernability” (ingobernabilidad) and paralyze state government. Their core strategy has been to blockade state government buildings.

Women take over

At the blockade outside of the state treasury, a group of eight women from different neighborhoods on the outskirts of town who had met at the blockade started discussing the role of women in the movement. (The women asked to remain anonymous for fear of repression against them and their families. The names given in this article are pseudonyms.)

“At the state treasurer’s office we cooked up the idea for a march,” said Marcela. “We would gather in the evening to bring coffee and tamales and we started to joke amongst ourselves, is this all the women can do? Are we always going to simply make coffee and tamales?”

“Are we always going to be stuck in this historic role of women, looking after coffee, food and cleaning?” Graciela added. “We can do better and bigger things.”

The women decided to organize an all-women march through downtown Oaxaca, modeled after the stew-pot banging marches during the 2001 economic collapse in Argentina. Known as cacerolazos these marches convoke thousands into the streets with pots, pans, spoons and meat tenderizers to elevate an epic level of racket through the city. On Tuesday, August 1, the organizers filled the streets in Oaxaca with several thousand women banging their cacerolas and shouting for the destitution of Ulises Ruiz. At the march’s end in the occupied town square, women—filled with the energy of their mobilization—began to shout out: “Let’s take over Channel 9” the state-owned television and radio station known as CORTV.

Apron-clad women in their fifties and sixties, with stew-pots in hand, stopped traffic, commandeered cars and headed out en masse to the CORTV office building.

“We were outraged with the coverage at CORTV, they never told the truth,” said Maria, one of the organizers.

“The director of the station [Mercedes Rojas SaldaÒa] came out, we asked for a time slot on the air. She said, ‘that’s not possible’. And we answered: ‘what do you mean that’s not possible?’ We marched in,” Marcela told me. “They had blocked everything, shut everything down. But we called some friends over who know a bit about this stuff, and by 7PM we were broadcasting live. This is a way of saying that, as women, we are capable of many things.”

The women held some 60 employees hostage until the satellite connections were reestablished, when they then released them to the Red Cross. The station director, Mercedes SaldaÒa, accused the women of kidnapping and psychologically wounding the employees, leading to arrest warrants against many of the organizers. The station’s website has been revamped to house only a one-page jeremiad against the take over, calling it “inadmissible from any point of view.” Well, obviously, not from any point of view, for the women and thousands of APPO supporters across the state are quite supportive.

The women have used the station to broadcast live messages to the movement, take calls from across the state, hold live political debates, and show documentaries about the June 14 police raid, documentaries filmed and edited by the teachers.

Flavio Sosa, one of the APPO’s provisional coordinators, called the women’s initiative unprecedented. “No guerrilla army in Latin America has ever had their own television station,” he said, “and ours is an unarmed popular up-rising, nothing more.”

Since taking over the station, the women have taken immaculate care of the office. After passing through three security checkpoints, I walked through the station, and saw women mopping, wiping down counters, cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash.

“There are no leaders here, no one has all the responsibility,” one woman told me inside the station. “Here all the women are leaders, we are all responsible for taking care of this place and keeping it clean. If one of these machines breaks, well it will be us who will have to deal with it, that is why we are a bit strict with the rules.”

The women have heard nightly rumors that the police are coming to break them up. The state government has lobbied the President and the Senate to intervene. And yet the women have not budged. “This is the people’s television now,” they said. And their message to the other media is clear: “The rest of them need to tell the truth. If not, now they know what awaits them.”