May 1 2002

Report from Porto Alegre

Is another media world possible?

Attending the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre, in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, was like seeing the world upside down—or perhaps right-side up.

From portrayals in U.S. mainstream media, it’s easy to see those who protest corporate globalization and “free trade” dogma as a small minority, as uninformed, as elitists. These notions were challenged by a forum that brought together some 50,000 participants from 150 countries, including people who represent millions of workers, peasants and the poor across the globe—united in criticism of global economic and environmental rules imposed by agencies such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund.

This second gathering of the WSF (in Portuguese, FSM) was energized by the twin collapses of Argentina’s economy, which had followed IMF austerity directives, and Enron (known and despised by activists from India to South America). Speakers included Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activists Rigoberta Menchú and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Canadian author Naomi Klein, Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, Brazilian presidential candidate Lula da Silva, Noam Chomsky and leading politicians from Europe, including French cabinet ministers.

There was a big story at the Social Forum, whose motto is “Another World Is Possible”—but few of the hundreds of foreign journalists to cover it were from mainstream U.S. outlets, and what was reported here in major media was replete with condescension.

The real global movement

Journalists from the U.S. must have been stunned at the treatment of Chomsky, virtually banned from mainstream media in his own country. As t London Independent reported (2/8/02): “The scholar was treated like a Hollywood celebrity by the mostly European and Brazilian press corps there, and his entry greeted with a fusillade of camera flashes.” On statewide public television, which covered the forum live from beginning to end for six days, people filing out of Chomsky’s lecture were asked to comment of him and his presentation like U.S. television seeks comment from fans coming out of a Madonna concert.

From Chomsky to Menchú, speaker after speaker rejected the “anti-globalization” label that corporate media applied to the WSF and the truly globalized movement for social justice. Such objections had little impact on U.S. coverage, which referred to he event as an “anti-globalization summit” (L.A. Times, 1/29/02) or “the anti-globalization alternative to the World Economic Forum in New York” (New York Times, 2/7/02). “In my view,” Chomsky told an audience of thousands, “Porto Alegre is the only globalization forum. There’s an anti-globalization forum taking place in New York”—the elite-oriented World Economic Forum, which opposes what Chomsky calls “globalization in the interests of the world population.”

After quoting Chomsky as saying that the WSF should be “scrupulously careful not to describe itself as an anti-globalization forum, Associated Press referred to the event day after day as “anti-globalization,” including in the headline of the article containing Chomsky’s quote (1/31/02).

One major event of the WSF was “Women’s Voices Against Fundamentalism,” a panel featuring testimonials of women from five continents, including one from Afghanistan. Despite the fact that the Social Forum took a clear stand against political violence (guerrilla groups were barred) and against religious fundamentalism (many workshops focused on women’s rights and gay rights), some U.S. news accounts seemed bent on linking the Social Forum to terrorism. A condescending NPR report from Porto Alegre (2/1/02) contained the unsupported and unsupportable claim that on the issue of the September 11 attacks, “the general consensus is that the U.S. had it coming.”

A similarly dubious claim appeared in the New York Times (2/7/02): “One popular T-shirt among fringe groups compared Osama bin Laden to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Jesus.” I questioned dozens of WSF participants, several of whom are political T-shirt aficionados, but not one had seen the shirt. As if reporting on a different Social Forum that the one described in the Times, the mainstream Canadian weekly Maclean’s published an account of Porto Alegre by activist journalist Judy Rebick (2/25/02): “Make no mistake—there were no fans of Osama bin Laden at this gathering. Every day saw demonstrations and theatrical presentations against fundamentalism.”

The Brazilian takeover

Intent on belittling the WSF, a wrap-up article in the New York Times (2/7/02) declared that Brazilian leftist organizations seized control of the event, which closed today, making it more than anything a campaign stop for the country’s coming presidential election.” The comment is breathtaking in its lack of understanding of how the Forum was experienced by thousands of participants, many of whom came to Porto Alegre precisely because this city of 1.2 million has been governed by the leftist Workers Party for 12 years.

The Workers Party (called the PT for its Portuguese initials) is headed by Lula da Silva, a metalworker who led strikes in the 1980s that helped end the military dictatorship that had seized power in a U.S.-supported coup. Making his fourth run for president, Lula (as he’s universally known) is the frontrunner in polls—a position, it should be noted, he’s held in past losing campaigns.

The PT is one of the most internally democratic parties anywhere. It is allied with Brazil’s MST, the landless peasant movement initiated by church-based activists during the dictatorship. MST has grown into perhaps the world’s largest and most successful land reform movement, and has settled hundreds of thousands of families on acreage it has occupied, often creating pesticide-free farming co-ops on formerly unused land (Mark Weisbrot,, 2/5/02).

The PT now governs 200 municipalities in Brazil, with a reputation for transparency and reducing corruption, and in Porto Alegre has reduced crime and graft, while increasing spending on the poor and instituting participatory budgets, in which neighborhood residents decide how public moneys are allocated. Seeking policy alternatives to the IMF development regime, many Social Forum delegates came to Porto Alegre from abroad in large part to meet and learn from PT and MST activists, to tour the cit and nearby MST co-ops in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which is also governed by the PT.

Proposals for reform

Portraying the Social Forum as an insignificant event exploited by Brazilian politicians, the New York Times concluded in its wrap-up article: “In the end, however, little of substance was accomplished.” Probably the main accomplishment of the WSF—barely alluded to in the Times—was that it helped fortify a multi-country opposition tot the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which like NAFTA, allows multinational corporations to sue governments over environmental or health laws that impair their profits. In Brazil, opposition to the FTAA is led by the Workers Party (Lula calls it “a policy of annexation of Latin America by the United States”), but may be expanding. By unanimous vote, a foreign relations committee of Brazil’s congress recently called on Brazil to withdraw from FTAA talks if the U.S. approved a “fast track” trade bill preserving U.S. hegemony on trade.

According to Judy Rebick, writing in Maclean’s (2/25/02), “Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, a free trader from way back, was so impressed by what he found out there [at the WSF] that he has called on the Liberal government to oppose the Free Trade Area of the Americas.”

While some panels were long on theoretical gab, many of the 1,000 panels and workshops were aimed at spreading the word on specific tactics, success stories and reform proposals from activists in one country to activists elsewhere. Appearing on a panel on “Democratizing Media,” I briefly commented (simultaneously translated into Portuguese, French and Spanish) on media historian Robert McChesney’s proposal to fund noncommercial media in the U.S. by allowing taxpayers to take $200 out of their taxes and direct it to the nonprofit media outlet of their choice. In the next 30 hours, journalists and activists from six different countries approached me asking for more details on the proposal.

In remarks to a gathering of about 700, I saluted the Social Forum for linking media activists and reformers from country to country: “We are resisting a common enemy that respects no borders—a global media system that uses the rhetoric of choice and openness as it extinguishes real diversity. It tells u s that we ‘consumers’ are the kings and queens as it amasses more power and wealth, and takes away from us our own public resource: the airwaves.”

One of the many calls that came out of the Social Forum—a statement urging the formation of an international consortium of media watch groups—paid indirect homage to FAIR’s work. The statement declared: “At a time of unprecedented global restructuring of the media, with media ownership concentrating in fewer hands, media accountability has emerged as a central element of democracy. The network of organizations we envision will be global in nature, but may vary from country to country, whether citizen NGOs, academic centers or journalist associations…These groups will be sympathetic to the plight of conscientious journalists who sometimes toil at news organizations that are not friendly to independent journalism, and who sometimes confront pressure to shape or censor the news unethically on behalf of media management or advertisers.”

The call for a Media Watch International was endorsed by Brazilian journalist unions, journalists from across the globe such as Inter Press Service president emeritus Roberto Savio and Le Monde Diplomatique editor Ignacio Ramonet, and media critics such as Brazil’s Bernardo Kucinski and myself. The call can e found in several languages at