Interview with Eric French, 28 Feb 2012

How long have you been based in Providence, and what have you been doing?

I have been in providence since late 2008. I have been been working since March 2009 in the Childhood Action Project. I work with immigrant populations and mostly Spanish-speaking populations to give knowledge of lead poisoning in Providence and Tenant rights. I give presentations on tenant rights, and that's what I do.

I noticed articles and interviews about tenant rights. What's the situation now. Paint a picture of the kinds of people you work with or the situations they face.

I give presentations to the general public and in homes. A lot of people give me information regarding their situation, but in a general sense. Never their personal information. It's always in a larger audience. The situation with lead poisoning is still quite bad. It's getting better, but it's still bad. It relates to housing issues and housing rights issues, which relates to landlords fixing their homes or not.

A lot of articles that I write are about things based in Costa Rica, political situations in Costa rica or general things.

The Childhood Lead Action Project is a nonprofit that doesn't necessarily take political stances, and yet you also are very politically engaged and write from a political stance.

Childhood Lead Action Project is a small nonprofit, with 7 or 8 employees. They do take stances regarding housing issues, tenant rights issues, and homeless issues. You are correct that I have another side which is more political.

How are your political interests played out in Providence?

I have been involved in the Occupy Providence movement since the beginning. After a while, I stopped going. I try to be involved in things I believe in deeply.

What are your political interests in the United States, particularly Providence?

Anything that has to do with social justice issues. Before I worked in the childhood action project, I went door-knocking to help people whose homes were being foreclosed stand up to the banks.

You also care deeply about politics and news in Costa Rica and Latin America in general. You're one of the editors of Revista Amauta. Tell me about what you do there.

It's bilingual, mostly in Spanish. It's basically a leftist opinion magazine. I wouldn't call it news. It's mostly analysis. All of the editors have different views of what they want to do with the magazine, but at the beginning, my vision was to make a space for people's voices to be heard who couldn't be heard. In the magazine, we're trying to get as much participation from those sectors that don't participate as often.

Of course, digital inequalities affect the outcome. We can end up in a filter bubble of leftists reading leftists, and no one challenging themselves. One of the editors is planning to engage edgier, non-leftist opinions so people can challenge themselves.

Who are you trying to reach? Amauta is an online publication, you're writing in English, and in Costa Rica, the predominant form of media production is radio.

That's an excellent question, because we mostly reach the same people who read leftist articles and access the Internet. We started on the Internet because we don't get paid for what we do, and the Internet is a free platform. Radio would be a great opportunity to expand into other areas. We tried to incorporate audio conversations. All of our editorials are recorded in audio. We record a weekly conversation about news. That's still online, but one day perhaps we can set up a small AM station.

Because we have limited resources, we cannot do the things we want to do.

Can you share examples of stories you're proud of, which created a lot of interest and debate?

I interviewed Noam Chomsky in Boston. That got a lot of feedback. The interview was translated into several languages. One of our last conversations between our editors was about Palestine. Since that's a controversial, it got a lot of comments. People either said we were crazy or that we were doing a great job.

I'm intrigued by this. It sounds like the two pieces that attracted a lot of interest were international pieces. Isn't the Chomsky piece an example of the problem of media? You're trying to give voice, but the piece which receives the most attention is a video with a famous international figure on the left.

We knew we would get a lot of exposure because people want to hear Chomsky. I wish it didn't have to be that way. It would be better if people would care to hear what anyone says, but no-- people want to hear what famous people have to say.

Is your audience primarily based in Costa Rica? Who's reading your online magazine?

We track this with Google Analytics. We have more Costa Ricans than any other country, but we have a larger international audience, mostly within Latin America.

Help me understand how the Palestine debate played out. I'm more familiar with debates within the US and UK. In the US, there's a long-term interest in supporting the nation of Israel. How did people in your audience respond to your opinion piece?

In some sectors of Costa Rica, there is support for Israel. I don't have exact numbers, but the feeling I get is that a lot of Costa Ricans support Palestine. They see it as an unfair treatment of a people without a sovereign nation. We published this piece about Palestine before the United Nations were voting on recognition of Palestine, sometime in September.

Online, we were mostly in agreement. We sometimes fought about what should have happened, and the political implications, but we all support a Palestinian state. It's still such a controversial issue that some people are against that too.

How do you see yourselves in the overall Costa Rican media landscape. Costa Rican media is mostly privately owned, with some exceptions, and it's very consolidated. I know you're part of RedMica, a growing network of independent media producers in Costa Rica.

We are a part of this two year old network of alternative media in Costa Rica. Some of the organisations within this network have been around for a longer period, especially those involved in radio. Many online news organisations have started as well, since online publishing is nearly free.

There is a lot of media consolidation in Costa Rica. We're trying to counteract them. Unfortunately, this network has only existed for a few years and is still disorganised. We haven't applied the most basic coordination tools. That's partly our fault for not having time or effort to put into the network. It's also partly the fault of the mainstream media.

Can you give me an example where alternative media wanted to tell a different story from mainstream media?

Recently, the Terawas, an indigenous group, were resisting by occupying a high school on their land. They were protesting the bad conditions in the high school and the lack of representation on the staff. There weren't enough teachers from that community, even though they should have been hired.

The mainstream media in Costa Rica pushed that aside, reported it very little, and gave the governments' explanation instead of the perspectives of the indigenous people. That might partly be due to limited access to protesters, which sometimes happens for biger media companies.

Smaller media did try to give on-the-ground interviews with indigenous people, passing on their testimonies. It might have been very raw statements, not very well reported. But it was still the indigenous people.

How would Amauta play in this? Are you putting context together into opinion pieces? Where do you sit in a story like this?

Because I'm not there, and I don't feel I have the account of it, it's more important to give that analysis the people who are being affected by it, so they can tell their own story. So I try to contact the people involved, or someone from the community who has written about these issues, and ask them to write an opinion piece. I prefer to publish those stories than trying to piece the parts together. In Providence, I don't have all the information. There's a need for context and analysis, but there's also a need for people who do not get represented to write their own pieces.

What is it like to be writing about Costa Rican politics to a Costa Rican audience from the United States?

The things I write from the US are more philosophical: analysis, ideas, and things that I can actually write from here. I sometimes interview people through email. It's not very effective, but I try to write a regular column. In one article, I asked why the Wikileaks release of diplomatic cables hasn't led to more anti-war protests. If we have the truth, is it really going to set us free?

That's very encouraging.

We have information, but what do we do with it? What happens if we don't have the time or inspiration to do anything about it.

If there's one big story happening in Costa Rica and Latin America that we should know about, what should that story be?

The first is inequalities increasing because of the free trade agreements. There is a lot of inequality happening which is connected to drug trafficking-- there are holes and insecurities which are filled by trafficking.

Secondly, companies come in to Costa Rica for mining, dams, and other energy projects. There's a trend in Latin America right now of protests against mining, oil, and dam projects by huge energy corporations. Protests are coming from indigenous people. Eva Morales is having problems with this in Bolivia. Other places: Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Chile. All of them have mining and natural resources, part of a trend in other countries.

I suppose this is precisely the kind of issue where you would want voices from the people most affected by those projects, but it's hard to know how to share that with in a world where multinational partnerships shape local issues.

Once we give voice to people, what happens with this information? Are people going to protest in solidarty, demand that congress do something? We should hear people's voices, but we also should do something about it, not just stand watching while everything goes wrong.