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7. Journalists and indignados: the importance of being there

October 8, 2014

07_juanlu-sanchezIn 2011, the young Spanish journalist Juanlu Sánchez (@juanlusanchez) covered the indignados (15M) movement from its very inception, spending many long hours at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square getting to know the occupiers. In this adaptation of an interview with the documentary filmmaker Stephane Grueso (@fanetin) that took place in late 2011, Juanlu reflects on how he and other journalists (independent and mainstream, Spanish and foreign) covered the unfolding events on the ground. His story provides us with some tantalising glimpses into the complex relations that developed between indignados, journalists and media organisations. This is the seventh post in my freedom technologists series. The full interview is available on YouTube via the website (in Spanish, see also the interview transcript here). In the next two posts I will share some anthropological reflections on this and other personal narratives of the 15M movement.

My name is Juanlu Sánchez. I am a Spanish journalist specialising in digital contents and new media [1]. I am a co-founder of the online news outlet Periodismo Humano (Human Journalism). We were at Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, from the very beginning till the end of the indignados (15M) occupations of May and June 2011. In fact, we had been covering the movement before it was even called 15M.

I am part of a team of journalists who started to realise, some years ago, that the mainstream media were not satisfying our calling as journalists. We set up Periodismo Humano to inform about issues that people are not supposed to care about, such as human rights, civil rights or social justice. We soon began to come into contact with reality, and we let it soak us to the bone. So we started to report on issues like the evictions of people unable to pay their mortgages, the Icelandic and Arab revolts as they unfolded both online and offline, the release of US State Deparment cables by WikiLeaks, and so on. WikiLeaks was a great inspiration because we saw it as changing the existing media landscape, particularly the relationship between journalists and non-journalists.

In other words, we found ourselves caught in a whirlwind of change that led to the 15M movement. When we heard that there were marches planned across Spain for 15 May 2011 to demand ‘real democracy now’ we were convinced something big was coming, so we prepared accordingly. Of course, we couldn’t have known about the subsequent Tahrir-style occupation of Puerta del Sol, but we did know that on 15 May we had to deploy to cities throughout Spain, which is exactly what we did.

We are not the indignados

It is one thing to report about the 15M protests. Quite another is to be part of 15M. I agree with a lot of the things that were said at Puerta del Sol during the occupation. However, being part of 15M is not that easy because 15M is not a tangible thing but rather a diagnosis. You can agree about this diagnosis, but each person will have their own solution to the problem.

We journalists who covered the Puerta del Sol encampment would often warn people that we were just doing our jobs, that we were not protesters. To suggest otherwise insults our professional integrity. In fact, 15M participants had a similar reply to hand when asked whether they were leftists. They would say: “Look, you don’t understand. That’s not what this is about”.

How the Spanish media covered 15M

There have been several phases to the media coverage of 15M. The first phase was a time of bafflement, denial and obstruction. Because the mainstream media couldn’t quite make sense of it, they decided they would explain it through the same old frames. So they would ask: “Who of our mainstream politicians benefits most from 15M? Is it Rubalcaba, Rajoy, Chacón, or perhaps Esperanza Aguirre?”. Eventually they began to take it seriously. The social media pressure was so intense that they feared the chants of “You don’t represent us!” – until then reserved for politicians – would soon be aimed at them. They were simply not doing their jobs.

I should add that there were right-wing media that knew exactly what they were doing. These media set out to discredit 15M from the very beginning. They didn’t exactly mince their words. But there were also certain journalists who could have empathised with 15M but got scared and didn’t. Most of these media say that at first they didn’t really understand what was going on, so they didn’t prioritise the protests like they should have done. Here we shouldn’t confuse the media organisations with the reporters. These were at Sol from the outset, from the early hours of 16 May. In fact, at that particular moment there were more journalists than protesters, as many people who had spent the night at Sol had jobs to go to, or had gone home to take a shower and grab something to eat. The journalists did their live reporting and recorded some interviews, and this helped to attract more people to the square in the afternoon. Still, there was far more happening on social media than on the mainstream media.

The second phase began when social media users started setting the news agenda. Some mainstream media had neglected 15M in the early days and weeks but when they realised that there was a great deal of public interest (measured in terms of audience ratings, web traffic, and so on), they went to the other extreme of over-reporting it. As a result, smaller media with limited resources such as Periodismo Humano had to rethink their contribution to the overall coverage. There was no longer any need for us to do live streaming or tweeting from assemblies because other media were now doing it at all hours, come rain or shine.

Organising our coverage

At Periodismo Humano we are not in the breaking-news business. Our Sol coverage was an exception. This idea of being constantly out on the streets, tweeting and creating social media contents was something out of the ordinary. We only did it to fill a gap in the early days of the protests. Normally we take our time with our reporting so that we can go into greater depths, but during the encampments we went into two-speed mode. On the one hand, we were on the streets reporting on events as they unfolded and using Twitter as our public notebook. When we finally got home at, say, 4 a.m., we would look at our own tweets and at the day’s videos, reread what we had written, how it had felt at each moment, and on that basis we would write our stories. We used 3G smartphones to upload video directly onto our accounts. Holding onto a video clip till the next day made no sense. It was far better to use it twice: first live, as it happened, then at night embedded in a larger story.

Dozens of people have contributed to Periodismo Humano’s coverage of 15M from Vietnam, the United States, Britain, Belgium, as well as from right across Spain. For instance, in Madrid there were people like Jessica Romero, Lidia Molina, Leila Nachawati, Olga Rodríguez, all coordinated by Javier Bauluz and Patricia Simón. On a typical working day during the first few weeks I would get up late (having been up working on a story till late). I would then go down to Puerta del Sol, start chatting to people, ask them who they were, what they were doing there, whether they were ‘crusties’ (perroflautas), or radicals, or violent, whether it was true they were not going to vote in the coming elections, whether they had nits…That’s when interesting things would crop up, because you spent the whole day talking to people, listening in on assemblies to understand what was going on.

We would avoid focussing on the exceptional. We didn’t go chasing after the weirdest-looking bloke in the square, the guy with the big mohican or with a bottle of beer in his hand. I’ve got nothing against mohicans, but they didn’t really capture the spirit of the encampment. So you would talk to people for 12 hours on end. Then, at around 4 or 5 a.m. you would sit in front of your computer at home trying to be creative, providing the context, telling the stories that other media weren’t telling. The devil was in the details. It was all about writing stories that would show people what was going on beyond the hyped-up ‘polemics’. Then you would get three hours’ sleep and start all over again.

Encampment politics

I could give numerous examples of how rewarding our experience was at the Sol encampments. But I also had a bad experience on the second big day of the occupation, on 17 or 18 May. During an evening assembly I witnessed how everybody there – some 1,500 people – unanimously agreed to demonstrate on Saturday 21 May, the day before the elections. This is known in Spain as the Day of Reflection, a day in which political gatherings and campaigning are strictly forbidden. The assembly facilitator asked everybody if they knew what they were doing. They said they did. Of course, I immediately reported this decision via Twitter. Alas, the legal and communication committees then stepped in and decided that the demonstration had to be called off because of the legal implications. So they went into denial, saying that the assembly had never reached an agreement. They were playing this game of saying that they personally would be there but were not calling on anyone to join them. They also accused everyone who didn’t toe the line of spreading misinformation.

It then dawned on me. The keys to the fledgling movement were its commissions: there was a legal commission, an infrastructure commission, an audiovisual commission, an assembly dynamisation commission, even a commission for the coordination of commissions. That was were 15M was being made. So I did my job and worked the sources. I talked to a lot of people, rang people up, had coffee with them. Many began to realise that not all journalists are dangerous or ill-intentioned. From that moment on, I was able to do stories which in a few years’ time I may wish to revisit, share, critique, while reflecting on the risks I took. Stories like the one about the first forty people who spent the night at Puerta del Sol. Or the one about the intense debates over whether or not to break camp. This required talking to a lot of people to ensure that no feelings were hurt.

International media

On 17 May I climbed up to a roof terrace and uploaded a video straight from my mobile onto YouTube. The idea was to get 3G coverage. After a few hours the video had been shared hundreds of thousands of times. It became the most viewed current affairs video of the month in Spain. And then I found out that it was in the New York Times and in the Washington Post and on BoingBoing, which is one of the top English-language blogs in the world. From there it spread to many other media. In fact, the first Washington Post story about the protests featured a photo I took of a woman holding a non-violence banner.

From that moment on we were approached by radio stations in France, Chile, Argentina, Florida… There were articles in Al Jazeera and numerous other international media. They would often call us to ‘interview’ us but in actual fact they wanted us to do the story for them, free of charge. That happened a lot.

Our impression was that the foreign media understood the protests. On the whole, they explained the 15M protests with reference to the economic crisis. For instance, a New York Times journalist came to Madrid just after the 22 May elections, seven days into the square occupations. She phoned me up and I gave her some background information over breakfast. She then wrote a very sociological piece without resorting to stereotypes. Nothing jarred in her story.

The media will whack you

I fully understand why 15M participants were angry with the mainstream media. Mixing collective enthusiasm with corporate news-making is always going to be complicated. Yet I don’t think it’s very intelligent to fall for the insults and distortions lobbed at you by the media. I know it’s a cliché, but it is much better to be insulted than to be ignored. You have to open up to the media and assume that some of them will hit you hard.

The important thing is that at least some mainstream media do understand you. Not because you look after them, or because they are ‘yours’, but because variety is the spice of life. I was once at an assembly where they very nearly decided that the only camera allowed to record the session would be that of Sol’s audiovisual commission. The implications of this move – had they taken it – were frightening. Fortunately, they didn’t and these have been isolated instances. In the end everybody realised it didn’t make any sense. Not allowing the media to do their job is very un-15M. If someone came up with a list of friendly vs. enemy media I for one wouldn’t want to be on it.

Highs and lows

Three great moments spring to mind. First, when I was live streaming from Sol on a simple phone and realised that thousands of people were watching. Especially when I stopped the streaming, put my mobile down and took a moment to take in the scene. I though to myself: “Something big is happening here”. In fact, that was my first headline that night, for that is how I felt. We later changed it, but you can still find it in the original URL.

Another special moment, now forever etched in my mind, was when people started laying cardboard across Puerta del Sol square to spend the night there. Then came the blue tarpaulins, the formation of commissions, the fire brigade lending a hand – in a word, the building of the Medina! But it was the cardboards lain across the floor that truly defined that moment for me. The cardboards meant that people, a lot of people, were staying put.

There have been beautiful moments that I haven’t lived personally but other people have told me about, such as the first morning of the encampment, when some local neighbours turned up with arroz con carabineros, a traditional rice dish. Others brought food from further afield. If they couldn’t stay they would simply leave a pot there full of food. I was there, though, on the first or second night when nine pizzas arrived. Someone from Galicia, a region in the north of Spain, had phoned the nearest pizzeria and ordered the pizzas for ‘the kids at Sol’. On the second or third day, staff from a nearby Asturian restaurant showed up with beans, cider and rice pudding. Even the owner joined in, merrily washing down copious amounts of his own cider.

Happy days.

A third moving episode was the 19 June meeting of the Northeast and Northwest marches. They came from different barrios and cities. The encounter took place at a roundabout in Madrid. Perhaps it was Gregorio Marañón or Castelar – I don’t recall the exact location. People were hugging each other and crying. Over a month had gone by since the square occupations, yet people still got emotional over small things such as meeting at a square having arrived from different places.

The worst moment was Barcelona on 27 May 2011, when regional politicians were harassed as they tried to enter the parliament building. The violent tension undermined the movement’s non-violent message. It was a moment fraught with danger. At the same time, it bolstered 15M because people quickly took to the streets once again to show that this was an isolated event, not something that defined us [2].

Journalism refugees

At Periodismo Humano we had the luxury of spending countless hours reporting from a square. This is not how the news media are supposed to work. We were born to do this, the products of a deep crisis in journalism. We realised that sometimes you need to apply the handbreak to tell things with a modicum of sanity. That was the idea behind the creation of Periodismo Humano.

That said, we shouldn’t forget the achievements of some of the legacy media. We may be very critical of them, but we have to admit that some of their journalists also spent many long hours at Puerta del Sol in their spare time. They did this of their own volition, because they wanted to do this kind of journalism, not because their bosses asked them to. The rest of the year they are incredibly bored, so when something like this happens they wouldn’t want to miss it.

Internet participation

15M participants have made incredible use of social media. For instance, @acampadasol manage their Twitter community brilliantly. They haven’t yet spread a single rumour. Because it all works through soft leadership, you can do whatever you like as long as it is for the common good. So you get really interesting initiatives such as the global protests of 15 October 2011, or the Stop Evictions platform. The movement’s communication strategy reached levels of sophistication that other social movements and even political organisations can only dream of.

Thanks to 15M we have seen a shift in people’s mentality and attitude. The door to our future political life has been opened, not so much because of the demonstrations and assemblies, but because of all the online activity. It is now becoming clear that large numbers of people organised in a spontaneous, ephemeral way (“We’ll do this together today but tomorrow we’ll go our separate ways”) can set a country’s political agenda. For a lot of young, and not so young, people, this was their first political experience. With 15M they learned to work in teams, they learned about the world they live in, they learned about media and politics. Some lessons have been good, others bad, but all are extremely valuable.

As I said earlier, 15M is a diagnosis, a state of mind, an inspiration. People are still not fully aware of the huge number of projects that were born in May 2011. Neurons have been activated within groups of friends as well as with strangers. A whole new field of audiovisual and other projects has emerged inspired by 15M. It is these projects that will lead the future evolution of the movement – more so than the assemblies or the street protests.

We should be wary, though, of falling into the nostalgia trap. The Sol encampment with its assemblies and its commissions will never come back. It his highly improbable that the exact same conditions that made 15M possible will be repeated in the future. We need to find ways to manage this nostalgia.

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[1] This sentence is taken from

[2] On 15M’s commitment to nonviolence, see Postill, J. 2014. Spain’s indignados and the mediated aesthetics of nonviolence. In P. Werbner, K. Spellman-Poots and M. Webb (eds) The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest: Beyond the Arab Spring. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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