Where independent media made a difference

Subtitled 'Citizen producers in Eastern Europe, 1989-1991', is an article by Chris Hill from 1994.

Video news magazines produced with consumer camcorders by citizens' groups in Hungary (Black Box) and former Czechoslovakia (Original Video Journal) were part of vital underground news networks prior to government reforms in 1989-90. Black Box documented 60,000 people demonstrating in front of the Magyar TV building in Budapest in 1992 because the Media Law, a national telecommunications act establishing that TV and radio be free from government interference, was (and remains) threatened by conservative leadership. Citizens' camcorders documented citizens and soldiers battling for the control of television studios and radio transmitters in Romania in 1989 and in Lithuania in 1991. And government-controlled TV crews decided in 1989-91 to broadcast reports on strikes and mass demonstrations against censoring authorities in former Czechoslovakia, Romania and the former U.S.S.R., signaling to their fellow citizens that a democratic media would be an essential public stage for setting new political and cultural agendas in Eastern Europe.

In examining tapes produced during this period of dramatic reform in Eastern Europe, it is clear that camcorder documentation of public dialogue and active resistance, the timely copying and wide distribution of videotaped evidence of activism, and the control of TV and radio broadcast studios and transmitters were strategic challenges to centralized communications systems which controlled access to the means of production and distribution of information.

Independent work from 1989-91 not only testified to a public's passionate desire for free speech and creation of open channels, it additionally challenged the often decades-long inability of most of the citizenry in Eastern Europe to simply access duplication technologies-printing presses, xerox machines, tape dubbing, making prints of films. When speaking to people about media and information exchange before the reforms of 1989-90, most describe gossip and samizdat-illegal printed materials and most recently illegal video-as the primary channels of opposition.

Many Americans would find life without copiers virtually inconceivable and would voice solidarity with media activists in Eastern Europe, understanding that challenging their monolithic media apparata would be fundamental to establishing new and democratic societies. Of course, our own self-congratulating democratic society reflects the deadly injustices of keeping certain communities virtually invisible within mainstream media, of reducing the articulation of important issues to sound bites, and of limiting the access of a diverse spectrum of speakers to a public stage.

During the past year, I collaborated with Keiko Sei, a journalist working since 1987 with independent media makers in Budapest, Prague, and Bucharest, to organize for U.S. audiences a program of videotapes made by citizens' video collectives, independent TV producers and artists in Eastern Europe, most of them using camcorders and simple off-line editing such as is commonly available through public access centers.

Like public access producers here, citizens' groups in these countries were producing video documentation of unreported political and cultural events. Underground video news magazines by the Czech Original Video Journal (OVJ), for example, show East Germans in August, 1989 (three months before the Berlin Wall fell and the Velvet Revolution resulted in major reforms in former Czechoslovakia), demanding temporary asylum in Prague and finally emigration to West Germany. These desperate asylum-seekers who occupied the city center for days provoked what was later described as the beginning of the dissolution of existing governments. The OVJ tapes are fascinating because, as with a good public access show, the producers demonstrate a commitment to participate actively in a public dialogue enriched by independent points of view.

Without access to any legal public exhibitions or channels, however, these tapes-important evidence of active opposition to existing policies and governments-were screened in private apartments or storefronts and bicycled to other towns, often at great personal risk., The Hungarian Black Box collective began in 1987 to create an indepdendent underground video archive and circulate news reports. Through the reform period of 1988-90 they documented landmark political meetings, late night shredding and dumping of official records, rallies of emerging nationalist groups, interviews with disenfranchised ethnic minority communities. Their illegal tapes became widely distributed public evidence that official authorities were being challenged by citizens in different parts of the country. Hungarian writer Marianna Padi remarks: "The force and potential danger the Black Boxes represent against power abusers in Hungary lie in the mere existence of their compilated material. The obese Black Box archives (the result of their indefatigable, constant presence virtually everywhere where the 'flow' is likely to become an 'event') form not just a collection of news items. They constitute a fragment of the hidden conscience of the country" (from "Black Box" in Next 5 Minutes Zapbook, 1992).

After the 1989-91 reforms, the reconstruction of national media resources became highly contested territory. Decisions around (de)centralization of resources and access to production and distribution directly impacted political, social, and cultural agendas in nation-building. Furthermore, media channels and viewer/consumers constituted an economic asset which could function as part of some government's construction of the public good or be exchanged for much needed cash in times of extreme economic hardship.

In Lithuania in 1992, one year after declaring independence from the former U.S.S.R., evening television offered hours of national debate on restructuring housing policies, modestly produced by local crews, as well as imported entertainment and the world news from satellite-music videos from Moscow, films from Poland, international news form Great Britian. In a recent interview, independent Hungarian TV producer Judit Kopper and Andras Solyom estimated that 40% of Hungarian television is imported, much of it from the U.S. While Americans become xenophobic over foreign investors buying up U.S. urban real estate, farms and businesses, there is little information presented to the public here about how the second largest net U.S. export, entertainment media, functions as part of the cultural diet and national economy in developing countries.

Produced for television from 1988-93, Kopper's encyclopedic series "Video-world" addressed the enterprises of mass and personal media making in both Eastern and Western Europe. In "Mihaly Kornis Videouniverse" she reported on the personal video archive of a well-known Hungarian writer who claimed, "You can't trust television. Regimes come and go; who knows what part of Hungarian and world history Hungarian TV puts away for the future. Maybe they save everything, but I can imagine they might not show it to me."

Their program "TV Boris and Video Misha" studied the struggle on Soviet television between what was described as Eastern word-dominated and Western image-based media cultures. Kopper remarked, "We involved with 'Videoworld' still ask ourselves the question over and over again: what really is video?...an art which works like narcotics and is a drug to both young and old?...a weapon of politics?...a misused means of communication in international and national television?" Kopper and Solyom's incisive media analysis and sincere questioning of both media consumption and media making by amateurs, artists and television professionals is unlike any U.S. commerical television I am aware of. In its attention to heartfelt local cultural concerns and the development of public dialogue it is much more akin to public access programming. In December, 1993, "Videoworld" was cancelled by the newly empowered conservative national leadership.

Other remarkable documents from this period include Gusztav Hamos' tape "1989-The Real Power of TV" featuring his grandmother in Budapest watching the international events of 1989 on her TV and Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica's 1992 film "Videogrammes - A Revolution" which reconstructs the events of December, 1989 in Bucharest from collected video footage produced by many citizens' camcorders as well as the cameras in the besieged television studio that broadcast continuously for five days. Unlike most of the U.S. which saw edited "highlights" from this period as part of their daily predigested news diet, some Western European media services and notably neighboring Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which were in the midst of radical government reforms themselves, carried live coverage around the clock.

Farocki and Ujica's title suggests that the video footage of events, the "video-grammes" themselves, equate to a kind of revolution, a radical revisioning of the public established through fellow citizens' seeing, recording, and transmitting of events, through people temporarily taking control of the means of media production and the dissemination of information.

In recent years as political and economic instability continues throughout the region, much of what was originally claimed by demonstrative citizens as public space has been contested or taken back by ruling elites. We, too, have seen an erosion fo public space in the U.S. in recent years, and democratic access to the expanding information superhighway will surely be an ongoing struggle. But an oppositional voice did emerge in Eastern Europe as Hungarians, Czechoslovaks and Romanians in 1989-1990 were able to focus available media, the modest camcorder productions bicycled through the city as well as the cameras and microphones tethered to the broadcast towers, to disseminate information and establish new electronic forums, however fragile, where public agendas could be debated.


Chris Hill (chill@ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu)


Published in: "Community Media Review", March / April, 1994
[Community Media Review is a magazine published by the Alliance for Community Media, an organization which focuses on public access / open channel cable television]

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