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

Jemimah Mwakisha, Ph. D. candidate at Binghamton University (State University of New York) and an editor of Kenya's The Nation, examines what's happened since 1980, when UNESCO issued its MacBride Report: Many Voices, One World. She refers to its promise as "the order that was never to be." Ms. Mwakisha served as the Consortium's first communication intern while completing a Hubert Humphreys fellowship at Boston University in the United States.

It has been 25 years since the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released the MacBride Commission Report, a document that sparked political rage and became a historically dividing reference point in communication, information and development circles. But what else has happened since?

Lots of academic and political discussion has gone on, back and forth. Strong undercurrents still seem to run deep whenever communication/information and economic development issues come up, but the debate that started in 1980, and contributed to the United States and Britain's withdrawal from UNESCO, is hardly over.

Initiating the Debate

Proponents argued the commission's three-year effort (1977-80) was an excellent opportunity to level the unfair and imbalanced flow of information from North to South. They further argued that a just distribution of information would have allowed people in the South to voice their perspective to the world and to help the North understand the uniqueness of identity and culture. Another benefit: productive economic initiatives for the countries in the South, which would benefit from technological exploits that flourish in the North.

Opponents of this view believed it was a landmark mistake, one that would have compromised freedom of expression and news coverage in the South.

The report was based on three years of hard work (1977-80), during which a commission led by Sean MacBride conducted investigations and discussions under what was also called the International Commission for the Study of Communications Problems.

Erasing Information-Flow Inequities

The report called for a New World Communication and Information Order, which would turn around the practice and perception of news flow and make it a more just process. It detailed the inequalities existing in the flow of information between the North and the South, with the latter only on the receiving end and the former determining what information was best for the rest of the world.

The report linked information flow with economic development, arguing that media organisations in the South were at a disadvantage since they did not have the technology that their northern counterparts wielded.

It also argued that the unfair flow of information was amounting to cultural domination/imperialism, with information/communication flowing one way, from North to South"”an arrangement that failed to recognize the existence of the realities on the ground. It emphasized information as a right, both in receiving and communicating.

The report also argued that Western cultural and financial dominance over the poorer nations through the media denied those countries any growth and development. In essence, the poorer nations could not develop their own programmes to preserve their culture and identities without appropriate finance and technology.

In 1978, MacBride said:

"We can sum up by saying that in the communication industry there are a relatively small number of predominant corporations which integrate all aspects of production and distribution, which are based in the leading developed countries and which have become transnational in their operations. In the decades since, growth and consolidation of these conglomerates has only accelerated; they are larger and their reach is greater than ever."

Communicating for Development

The report also advocated for comprehensive national communication policies linked to the overall cultural, social and economic development, stating that: "Communication should not be left to chance but fostered to grow for the development of an inter-dependent world." It also argued for strong national news agencies and viable regional networks to increase news flow.

The report became an instant threat to many in the West, with opponents arguing the agenda of the report was political. In the mid-1980s, the United States and Britain withdrew from UNESCO, saying the agency had become politicised.

Today, many communication/development enthusiasts believe the document was one of the most thorough to have been done by UNESCO.

While the implementation of the proposals never took off, the spirit still seems to linger, and any discussion that links communication with economic development issues is viewed in many quarters as an attempt to control the media, at least from the Western perspective.

"There was a strong feeling that UNESCO was helping legalize media control and justify corruption in the developing world," explains James Deane, CFSC's managing director, strategy.

Deane says every effort to discuss poverty, marginalisation and communication is often perceived to extend the MacBride Report. "The more we go back to that debate the more we disagree. In any case, the debate is not useful because the realities are different. We need an intelligent, realistic and dynamic strategy that embraces the opportunities that exist today."

Deane says the challenge at the moment lies in making free media real. "The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is the last place to have discussions on these issues because it is a government meeting. Unfortunately, right now, there is no intelligent debate on these issues that is going on outside the World Summit."

He adds: "The media and civil society should discuss these issues themselves. We need an independent global forum outside the Summit, with participants being active media people in mainstream media.

Gaining a Foothold in the Information Economy

"We are certainly worse now in many ways," says Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron, CFSC's managing director, programmes. "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."

There is still an outcry for the right to information and communication, he says: "The control of information by multinational companies has become even more absolute than it was three decades ago." Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are perhaps the most outstanding development and the biggest leap in information/communication sector since the MacBride report.

Through the WSIS, governments have discussed a variety of issues, including communication rights in the information society. But developing countries are still at a disadvantage.

And as Steve Buckley, president of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), puts it, they [developing countries] need "to gain a foothold in the global information economy or remain in poverty and economic marginalisation."

Promoting Democratisation of Access

The issue of communication rights remains. For example, the Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) campaign aims to broaden and deepen the debate on the information society by promoting democratisation of access to communication and strengthening commitments to communication in the service of sustainable development.

While the CRIS campaign agrees with the vision of WSIS as "a people- centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society, where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential," issues of how to implement arise.

Says Buckley: "The plan of action retains a technocratic approach," a focus that relies too heavily on technical products and services." He says we must recognise that the majority of people all over the world do not have access to the Internet at home.

He adds: "Practical initiatives such as community media centres combining access to the Internet with community radio and television provide, in many circumstances, more realistic solutions to ensuring access by all to networks and to information."

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