Digital native media inform and empower rural and indigenous communities in Latin America

By Yenibel Ruiz

Theaters in the streets to relay information, chronicles in indigenous languages and unknown stories from rural communities that don’t appear on the traditional news agenda. This is what some digital native media outlets in Latin America are producing and promoting.

Digital sites like La Pública in Bolivia, El Pitazo in Venezuela and global site Rising Voices are establishing relationships with low-income, rural and indigenous communities.

The idea is to produce their own news agendas different from those of traditional media. The sites give voice to community problems and support the creation of media that come from the communities – led by citizens, not journalists – that will have the reach of digital news sites.​

“[La Pública] was born with the idea of creating an alliance, building bridges between journalism, activism and citizens,” said Javier Badani, journalist and project manager of La Pública, in conversation with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “We distance ourselves from traditional media and seek our own agenda.”

The journalist explained that La Pública has three areas of action: the site where it publishes journalistic work, social networks that encourage public debate and the sharing of knowledge through workshops in communities. ​

Through this last area of action, Badani said, communities can write about themes that interest them during the workshops and later send the stories to La Pública for publication.

An example of this is the project “Crónicas Aymaras” (Aymara Chronicles) that is part of the Cuyahuani 2.0 project with the Jaqi Aru community located in El Alto in the department of La Paz. Badani explained it was created with the help of the Indigenous University of Bolivia with whom La Pública had established an alliance.

“We went to the Indigenous University and have given workshops to young people,” he said.

He added that the young Aymara from Jaqi Aru write about topics that interest them. Since many of the stories refer to remote places that are not on maps, they created an interactive map to give geographical context to the stories.

Ruben Hilare of the Jaqi Aru collective explained to the Knight Center that the La Pública project is another experience in digital media in which the collective Jaqi Aru has participated.

“We organized ourselves as partners and started writing bilingual stories in Aymara and Spanish, just to bridge the gap of the Aymara language on the internet,” Hilare said.

The group began exploring the web in 2007, and in 2009 started their own blog with the help of Global Voices.

“More than 10 young people met in the city of El Alto, and we said, as a group: what is the situation of our language in relation to the internet and cyberspace?” Hilare explained.

The Jaqi Aru community is also active on social networks and uses available digital tools like Soundcloud to keep their language alive.

Hilare explained that the work has not been in vain, that the networks help to connect young people who are embarrassed to use the Aymara language to find spaces where it is used, and not only for daily activities, but also to talk about the economy and technology. It’s also to discuss issues like the possibility of a new multilingual identification card prototype from the government.

“Jaqi Aru means human language in Aymara. We are all young Aymara who migrated from different rural areas, provinces to big cities,” Hilare explained.

The stories of the young Aymara are published in the Aymara language and in Spanish in the community’s blog and in the project they have with La Pública.

The projects of La Pública with other communities will continue this year. The site announced a new project called “Yatiyawayama, indigenous digital stories,” which will repeat the experience of the workshops with Jaqi Aru. But, this time, the project will be with 60 young people in indigenous areas known as Pilón de Lajas to the north of La Paz, and in Totora Marca, an indigenous population in the area of Oruro.

Because internet access is limited, the Pilón Lajas community will have to move to the nearest town to use the internet and send their stories.

By continuing these projects, La Pública is giving “the possibility, as these communities have never had before, to be protagonists of the information that comes from them, that which they want to tell, their reality,” according to Badani.

Meanwhile, in Venezuela, El Pitazo (translated as The Whistle) seeks to provide and receive information from low-income communities through partnerships with non-governmental organizations working in those communities.

Cesar Bátiz, director and coordinator of this digital media site, told the Knight Center about the new project “El Pitazo in the Street,” which aims to reach the country’s low-income population.

He explained that although news from El Pitazo reaches economically disadvantaged communities through cellphone text messaging, the team now is establishing relationships with community leaders and nonprofits in order to bring information directly to these audiences through mobile cinemas.

Javier Melera, co-founder of El Pitazo, said that the idea of the project “is to have street cinema showings with content from El Pitazo. We are the ones that go directly to the community.”

“El Pitazo in the Street” not only aims to bring information to the community, but also to train people that live in the community on issues of citizen journalism, mobile journalism, video recording and how to send information to social networks, explained Yelitza Linares, editorial adviser to El Pitazo.

“The idea is that they are citizen reporters, and they give us the whistle (information),” she said.

Currently, “El Pitazo en la Calle” is happening in five states across the country. The challenge, Linares said, is to expand the project to eight states during the next quarter.

“We are trying to go further. We want to create a transmedia process in which people of truth are incorporated and take ownership of the generation of content,” Bátiz said. “We also want the people to help us to create this content and we believe that the best way of doing this is to build confidence, to achieve this relationship of growth, of aid between the community and the media.”

In the same spirit of growing relationships between digital media and communities often left out of the agendas of traditional media, digital platform Rising Voices opens a contest every year for proposals that come from communities to create citizen media.

“Every year, we have a contest where communities can present their ideas so that they can empower themselves. Each year, we receive between 600 and 1,200 proposals from around the world and we finance between five and eight projects each year,” said Eddie Avila, director of Rising Voices, in conversation with the Knight Center.

Avila explained that in 2007, Rising Voices began to support communities that were starting to use digital media like blogs because they noticed that bloggers only covered news from the middle class.

Rising Voices helps by providing small funds to the proposals that win the competition.

"They are microfunds, between two and five thousand dollars that can be used for workshops, to buy equipment. It’s not to finance a large project, but it is meant to help committed people to not spend money from their own pockets,” Avila said.

For example, in 2014, Rising Voices awarded microgrants to seven citizen media outreach projects from communities of the Amazon. One of the winners, the Jatta Wöötanö project, started a blog for Yekuana indigenous youth in Venezuela.

The project will enable the youth from the community to create a team of ‘ethnocommunicators’, a term used to describe people who use social communication and have a deep understanding of their culture with a desire to share that knowledge,” the first post read.

Rising Voices’ microgrant program has supported at least twenty projects from Latin America alone over the past nine years.

Avila added that the idea of the microfund contest is to support the communities, which are not yet represented, to use the web.

“The ideas are very diverse and it is interesting to see. There are a variety of projects, many with blogs, video, audio, online radio, even mapping projects,” Avila explained. “It is quite varied and we like that because they themselves present their ideas and it is not us who say what we’re looking for.”

Rising Voices is working on a new challenge regarding language. It is looking to create a multilingual platform that goes beyond major languages.

“We are now working hard with indigenous communities in Latin America so that they can use the internet in their language. We have been quite successful and we have many projects,” Avila said. "They have created a network of digital activists of indigenous languages. That's also something new for us. We learned the contexts in each community. There are different challenges for each community and we continue to learn how to help them support themselves.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.