MAZI Articles

CFSC Retrospective: Looking at the MacBride Report 25 Years Later, Part II

In excerpts from his February 2005 presentation to the V Congreso International de Radios y Televisiones Locales Publicas y Alternativas, Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron, the Consortium's managing director- programmes, explains why, in his view, there's nothing much to celebrate 25 years after publication of the MacBride Report.

On the 25th anniversary of the MacBride Commission Report, there is not much to celebrate.

Twenty-five years ago, this United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report spearheaded a highly visible assault against the hegemonic control of information flows by industrialised countries, the United States in particular. In the 1980s, the U.N. agency established regional news agencies aimed at counteracting, in a small way, the flow of news distributed through the Associated Press (AP), still one of the most powerful Western news agencies, and the United Press International (UPI).

In the report, UNESCO recommended the creation of Agencia Latinoamericana de Servicios Especiales de Informacin (ALASEI) as well as other, similar, news agencies for Africa and Asia. In its growth years, ALASEI produced thousands of special features that were distributed to mass media, thus offering a different and more appropriate perspective on regional politics, economy, society and culture. UNESCO also supported the development of national communication policies, that did not exist in most Third World countries.

Calling for a New World Information and Communication Order

The withdrawal of the United States and United Kingdom from UNESCO, in disagreement with the measures favouring the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), left the U.N. organisation deprived of significant funding and had impact on programmes, such as ALASEI, which eventually disappeared. The only independent worldwide agency that has survived and has managed to maintain both its quality and the principles that motivated its creation is InterPress Service (IPS). Otherwise, only a few national agencies, such as Notimex (Mxico) and Prensa Latina (Cuba), survived.

After 25 years, civil societies are still championing the right to information and communication. The control of information by multinational companies has become even more absolute than it was three decades ago, thanks in large measure to advances in technology, which enables the concentration of mass media in the hands of fewer and fewer organizations. Today, the Associated Press remains dominant. In addition, CNN "covers the globe," with an almost hegemonic power over the planet. In countries such as my own, Bolivia, where information structures are weak, television channels download material from CNN to cover international news, often without even adding any local analysis whatsoever.

We are certainly worse off now in many ways: the concentration of the information sector in fewer hands is greater; and through the privatisation of the frequency spectrum many national-state and public radio and television stations have virtually disappeared. Under the influence of large multinational conglomerates, information is no longer considered a cultural factor in development but merely a market commodity.

Two Encouraging Elements Emerge

There are, however, two new encouraging elements that have emerged since the 1980s: 1) the emergence of new information and communication technologies (ICTs); and 2) the renewed participation of the civil society, which keeps alive the discourse on the role of media.

Today's debate is not only about the right to be informed but also the right to communicate. The difference in content is substantial: the right to information refers to "access," while the right to communicate demands "participation." Access can be a gracious concession from above. Participation, on the other hand, re-aligns the axis of decision-making from the power of a few to the consensus of many.

Twenty-five years ago, UNESCO's MacBride Report, produced by a commission chaired by 1974 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Sean MacBride, aimed to re-establish the balance in information exchanges. However, that international discussion developed mainly at the highest circles of political power. Thus, when the United States objected to its recommendations, few would publicly defend it. The problems signalled by the MacBride report intensified.

Nevertheless, it didn't take long for civil society once again to raise the issue of the right to communicate.

Opposing Globalisation

Early in the 1990s, this movement"which is internationalist and global but opposed to economic and cultural globalisation imposed by force"was characterised as lacking strategy and direction. Its strength was initially undervalued and critics said that that it wouldn't last very long.

However the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brasil, shows how much the movement has grown, and initiatives across borders such as Association for the Taxation Of Financial Transactions for the Benefit of the People (ATTAC), reveal that there are concrete actions suggested. One example is Tobin Tax, an excise tax on cross-border currency transactions, with the revenue used for environmental and human needs. As for communication rights, the Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) campaign has contributed to the debate; ideas and proposals are discussed in each country and region, and eventually presented within a common platform during international conferences such as the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS).

Since 2003, Ignacio Ramonet, director of the prestigious monthly journal Le Monde Diplomatique, has argued for the need to constitute a "fifth power" since the "fourth power [also commonly referred to by journalists as the fourth estate]," the media, has been compromised due to its political and economic interests and does not represent the majority of the population.

Assaulting the Fortress

Civil society organizations knew this 30 years ago, when they were fostering the spread of community radio, small journals, street theatre, testimonial video and many other forms of alternative communication. Yet, they were accused of isolating themselves in ghettos and of developing alternative experiences that had little impact.

Meanwhile, many of their colleagues working within commercial media houses were still confident that they could change mass media from inside. That didn't work, as Ramonet acknowledges today. As French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said in reference to the film industry: "We tried to take the fortress by assault, but we were trapped inside."

Today, these pioneering organizations are preparing for the next round of World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005. The 2003 round raised expectations, since organisations like the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) and Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) had a voice at the summit. Yet these organizations were physically separated from the multilateral and bilateral delegates, who met on the upper floor while civil society organisations were relegated to the lower floor. Those who were there were struck by the medieval symbolism of the image: the powerful on top in their towers while the people buzzed downstairs in a labyrinth of corridors, where a huge communication fair was encamped.

Separating Means Unequal

As the meeting progressed, the wall between civil society and governments became ever higher. Access to the convention centre was barred to alternative media; copies of TerraViva, a journal produced and distributed free of charge by IPS, magically disappeared when it ran an article denouncing the repression of journalists in Tunisia, where the November phase of WSIS will take place. Only a handful of civil society representatives made it to the plenary on the second, or "upper floor," where, one after the other, presidents from Asia, Africa or Latin America took turns telling their colleagues how much their countries had done already for a more democratic information society, and asking the wealthier nations to show their "digital solidarity."

Those on the upper floor of the summit avoided any confrontation with the civil society delegates working below. Likewise those on the lower floor, with an endless willingness to continue the dialogue, did not wish to sever the channels of communication and wanted to continue working towards the next summit in Tunisia. Yet dialogue seems increasingly difficult. The pre-conferences so far have not yet indicated any better mindset from governments or multilateral organisations.

We should not forget that the gridlock is in part the result of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) being in charge of the organisation of the summit, and not UNESCO as it should have been. Thus the strong love affair with technology at the summit.

Understanding Who the "Pirates' Are

To avoid confrontation, the governments' strategy has been to ignore the issues and change subjects, attaching more weight and importance to the new technologies and the digital divide, instead of discussing communication rights. The discourse about the power of new technologies, like the road to hell, is paved with good intentions. The word "access" to information and knowledge is repeated endlessly. Even so, many countries that preach their commitment to facilitating greater "access" are, in reality, privatising radio broadcast frequencies, shutting-down indigenous radio stations and prosecuting those reluctant to close down, treating them as "pirate" stations. Those deemed to be pirates are poor Maya Indians in Guatemala and popular educators in Brazil, both countries where community radio stations have been repressed recently.

The digital divide and the access to new technologies of information and communication issues, presented as the main thrusts of the information society, cannot be discussed outside of the democratisation of society. An argument that only values the expansion and generalisation of new technologies outside of communication rights and freedom of expression is not an acceptable one.

By focusing the discussion on the new technologies and inventing catchy wordings such as "digital solidarity," governments avoid referring to other gaps in society that are the real causes for the digital divide: the economic and social divides and many other, increasingly widening inequality gaps. Those on the "upper floor" would like people to believe that new technologies will allow leapfrogging to a just society. However, as pointed out above, the fact is there is an increasing concentration of information and scientific knowledge in the hands of a few large corporations and the distribution networks of those few corporations view the world as one big marketplace.

Those large companies that "generously donate" computers and software also sell the Third World an illusion of a better world through information and communication technologies (ICTs). In places where not even electricity, safe water or telephones are available, telecentres are put up with solar energy and satellite connectivity. The triumphal language of certain reports and program evaluations contrasts with a much gloomier reality: the poorest who are thought to benefit do not go to the telecentres; only those that are in better social condition will do so, and they do not represent the majority of the community. Among those who do visit the telecentres, not all of them do so to access the Internet, email and the Web. Many use only the telephone, photocopier or fax" basic communication technologies"when available.

I've written extensively on the Promethean myth that sees ICTs as the magic wand of development. Ninety percent of the current content of the Web is irrelevant to 90 percent of the world's population. The Web, which for many is a wonderful tool, is not even an object of curiosity for most of the poor of the world. It contributes nothing to the solution of their daily problems, unless it is "localised"; that is, local content is developed on the basis of specific questions and demands from the community, as happens with a project conducted in Chennai, India, by the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation.

There are essential conditions, seldom fulfilled, for new information and communication technologies effectively to become a driving force in development and a guarantee of the right to communicate. These fundamental requirements are:

  • Community participation and appropriation;
  • Development of local content;
  • Language and cultural pertinence;
  • Use of appropriate technology;
  • Convergence of technologies between audio-visual means and the Internet; and
  • Networking with other similar projects, on the basis of common objectives and principles.

In its current construction the information society obscures the communication society. The information society suggested above is based on "access", not on participation, let alone on appropriation of processes and content. Civil society is now a grown-up movement and will not be again deceived by smoke and mirrors. There cannot be an information society when there is no room for the civil society to participate in its design, or when governments and international organisations perceive civil societies to be marginal minorities.

If the summits in Geneva and Tunisia were not on the global agenda, perhaps the campaign for Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) would not have grown with the force we've seen.

The discussion has moved from the summit to the people. While on the" upper floor" speeches are made, on the "lower floor" serious reflection and debate is taking place. Those on the "upper floor" are considering ways to benefit from technological advances without endangering foundations of power. Down on the "lower floor," civil society organisations are busy preparing, not for an assault on the upper floor, but to gain recognition for their arguments that communication rights are essential to development, for the right to identity and cultural diversity, and against poverty and hunger.

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