The wooden doors of Wittenberg Castle church have long since been replaced by bronze replicas bearing Luther’s 95 theses. Photo by A. Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace)
In 1517, when Martin Luther hung his 95 theses on the wooden doors of Wittenberg Castle church, he did not intend to start the Reformation. That came later. What Luther really began was a communications revolution - and it is still going on.
The Ninety-five Theses (or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences) are a set of propositions setting out Luther’s views on the practice of preachers selling “indulgences”. These were certificates reducing the amount of time spent in purgatory for sins committed by their purchasers. Indulgences were sanctioned by the Pope, so Luther was basically challenging what he saw as an abuse of power.
Luther’s theses were distributed throughout Germany and quickly found their way to Rome. In 1518, he was summoned to Augsburg, a city in southern Germany, to defend his views before an imperial assembly. A debate lasting three days between Luther and Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, a leading theologian of the day, led to stalemate. Cajetan defended the church’s use of indulgences, but Luther refused to accept his arguments.
On 9 November 1518, Pope Leo X condemned Luther’s writings as being in conflict with the teachings of the Church. One year later, a papal commission declared them heretical, but a second merely stated that the writings were “scandalous and offensive to pious ears”. Finally, in July 1520, a papal bull was issued giving Luther120 days to recant. Luther refused and on 3 January 1521 he was excommunicated.
Later that year, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V signed an edict against Luther, ordering his writings to be burned. Luther hid in the town of Eisenach, where he continued work on his lifelong project: the translation of the Bible into contemporary German.
Luther’s translation was eventually published in a six-part edition in 1534. It was not the first version in German, but it was the most influential in that it used the language of the people. To help him in translating it, Luther would visit nearby towns and markets to hear ordinary people speaking. Luther was motivated in part by his concept of the “universal priesthood or the priesthood of all believers”, a Protestant Christian doctrine which states that baptized Christians are “priests” and “spiritual” in the sight of God. They have direct access to God through their prayers without requiring a human mediator.
The translation of the Bible into colloquial German was arguably an early instance of promoting freedom of information – making an arcane text intelligible and available to ordinary people. Later, Luther even had large-print Bibles made for people with failing eyesight (Lindberg, 1996: 92).
In this respect, it is worth recalling that Luther was not alone in contesting the subjugation of the masses. On 16 February 1525, some 25 villages around the town of Memmingen in Swabia demanded that the local council alleviate their poor economic conditions. The peasants complained about servitude, rent, access to land, and the clergy in Twelve Articles that strikingly include a call for recognition “that we are and that we want to be free”. These Twelve Articles are sometimes considered the first draft of human rights and civil liberties in continental Europe.
Taking a rights-based approach to communication
While ideas about rights and liberty have existed in some form for much of human history – one thinks, for example, of the Cyrus Cylinder dating from the 6th century BCE and of England’s Magna Carta dating from 1215 CE – they bear little resemblance to present-day concepts. Today’s rights-based discourse stems from the U.S. Bill of Rights (1789/1791) and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1793).
Called first-generation human rights, they are fundamentally civil and political in nature, serving to protect the individual from the excesses of the state. First-generation rights include, among other things, freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, and voting rights. They were first enshrined at the global level in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) and given status in international law in Articles 3 to 21 of the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1966/1976).
Second-generation human rights are related to notions of equality and began to be recognized by governments after World War I. They are fundamentally social, economic, and cultural in nature and they guarantee citizens equal conditions and treatment. Secondary rights include a right to be employed, rights to housing and health care, as well as social security and unemployment benefits. Like first-generation rights, they were also covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (1966/1976). All three – the UDHR, the ICCPR, and the ICESCR – are collectively known as the International Bill of Human Rights.
Third-generation human rights are those that go beyond the merely civil and social, and are expressed in many progressive documents of international law, including the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1972), the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), and other examples of what are generally known as “soft law” (quasi-legal instruments which do not have any binding force, or whose binding force is weaker than that of traditional law). Because of the principle of sovereignty and the preponderance of dissenting nations, such rights have been hard to enact in legally binding documents.
The term “third-generation human rights” remains largely unofficial and covers a broad spectrum, including group and collective rights; the right to self-determination; the right to economic and social development; the right to a healthy environment; the right to natural resources; the right to participation in cultural heritage; rights to intergenerational equity and sustainability. In particular, as will be seen in the next section, they include communication rights.
Origins of communication rights
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed an urgent call for a New International Information Order (NIIO), later to be known as the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). The term NIIO was coined at a seminar held in Tunis in 1976, which urged the Non-Aligned Movement to fight for “liberation from all kinds of neo-colonialism and imperialist oppression”, citing the peoples of developing countries as “the victims of domination in information and this domination is a blow to their most authentic cultural values, and in the final analysis subjugates their interests to those of imperialism” (Information in the Non-Aligned Countries, 1976: 25-26).
In 1978, UNESCO’s General Conference instructed its Director-General, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, to undertake a review of the main problems of communication in contemporary society seen against the background of technological progress and contemporary developments in international relations. The main issues raised in the subsequent NWICO debate were:
Advocates of the NWICO pointed to the unfair advantages enjoyed by rich countries via international institutions created to manage frequency allocations for the electromagnetic spectrum; the threat to the survival of sovereign nations as a result of developments in satellite broadcasting technology; and gross inequalities in the intellectual property rights regime. They also emphasised the almost irreversible concentration of power in the hands of computer databanks and global computer networks owned and managed by multinational corporations primarily to their own commercial advantage.
Having comprehensively reviewed the situation, UNESCO’s International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, chaired by Seán MacBride, published its report Many Voices, One World: Communication and Society Today and Tomorrow. Identifying the democratization of communication, diversity of media, and accessibility and affordability as key issues, the MacBride Report pointed out that democratization could not simply be reduced to its quantitative aspects:
“[Democratization] means broader access to existing media by the general public; but access is only a part of the democratization process. It also means broader possibilities for nations, political forces, cultural communities, economic entities, and social groups to interchange information on a more equal footing, without dominance over the weaker partners and without discrimination against any one. In other words, it implies a change of outlook. There is surely a necessity for more abundant information from a plurality of sources, but if the opportunity to reciprocate is not available, the communication process is not adequately democratic” (Many Voices, One World, 1980: 173).
The MacBride Report was not well received in the USA, the United Kingdom, or Singapore, all of which withdrew financial support from UNESCO. As a result, civil society organizations slowly began to take matters into their own hands and in late 1996 a number of NGOs gathered in London to discuss issues related to communication and democratization. A Platform for Cooperation on Communication and Democratization was established, whose members set out to pursue advocacy of specific communication issues, to assess the feasibility of setting up a media research database and, in particular, to lobby the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to include representatives of civil society in its decision-making processes.
Members of the Platform, under the guidance of Cees J. Hamelink, also articulated a People’s Communication Charter aimed at mobilizing “individual citizens and their organizations to take an active role in the shaping of the cultural environment into which all children are born and in which all people live and learn”. When UN General Secretary Kofi Annan announced a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to take place in Geneva in 2003, the group was renamed the Platform for Communication Rights with the following aims:
In November 2001 the Platform initiated the campaign for Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS), arguing that the forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society was not an end in itself, but a means to an end. For CRIS, the “Information Society” should use the right to communicate to enhance other human rights and to strengthen the social, economic and cultural lives of people and communities. In this respect, the Information Society should be based on principles of transparency, diversity, participation, social and economic justice, inspired by equitable gender, cultural and regional perspectives. The CRIS Campaign focused on areas that directly affected people’s lives, such as:
WSIS 2003 (Geneva) was followed by WSIS 2005 (Tunis). Overall, civil society organizations were disappointed by the lack of sustained achievements and many felt that, if there had been an opportunity for more inclusive participation, greater impact could have been made. Minor achievements in the outcomes were offset by major shortcomings: insufficient attention was given to people-centred issues such as human rights and freedom of expression, the financial mechanisms for promoting sustainable development, and support for capacity building.
Today, even with a preponderance of digital media platforms and social media, government institutions and corporate entities still dominate information and knowledge infrastructures and technologies. While we may be much closer to genuinely interactive communication, there are still many issues to resolve around security, privacy, surveillance, censorship, and ownership and control of data.
Communication and its relevance to human development
Communication is recognized as an essential human need and, therefore, as a basic human right (Traber, 1992). Without it, no individual or community can exist or prosper. Communication enables meanings to be exchanged, makes people who and what they are, and motivates them to act. Communication strengthens human dignity and validates human equality. Recognizing, implementing and protecting communication rights helps underpin all other human rights (Girard & Ó Siochrú, 2003; Lee, 2004).
One of the pillars of communication rights is the imparting and exchange of information and knowledge, which are essential to tackling issues related to poverty, health, education, politics, governance, gender equality, the environment and the use of new technologies. Policies in these sectors are complex but, from the perspective of today’s Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals, recognizing and implementing communication rights is crucial.
However, access to information and knowledge is only part of the picture. The United Nations Development Programme’s Oslo Governance Centre has stated categorically that recognizing the link between human rights and social development matters, and that the human rights framework is an important tool in ensuring that goals are pursued in an equitable, just and sustainable manner (Human Rights and the Millennium Development Goals). Human rights also provide a normative framework that grounds development work in a set of universal values.
Equally vital is effective implementation of the principles of inclusion and participation when it comes to drawing up policies aimed at overcoming social exclusion. The principles underlying communication rights determine who participates and whose voices are listened to when decisions are made. This is a sine qua non, since the core of all human rights standards is that their normative implications belong to everyone. Thus the very concept of communication rights implicitly requires concrete measures for the inclusion of all people everywhere.
Ten theses knocking on the door of public communication
The World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) has consistently advocated the right to communicate in the belief that:
Yet one persistent problem with the concept of “communication rights” has been how to translate them into practices that people understand and recognize as crucial to lives and livelihoods. The wooden doors of Wittenberg Castle’s All Saints’ Church have long since been replaced by bronze, although they still carry Luther’s 95 theses in the original Latin. But if we were to hang ten theses on the electronic portal of today’s mass and social media, they would still reflect Martin Luther’s essential claim for communication freedoms.
In this respect, the following ten theses are formulated as propositions illustrative of communication rights that everyone might reasonably claim as essential to good governance, good citizenship, and democratic accountability:
Everyone is entitled to communicate, to inform, and to share knowledge. This reflects the freedom of individuals and communities to express their opinions and aspirations.
Everyone is entitled to dignity and respect. This reflects the equality of individuals “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.
Everyone is entitled to just representation. This reflects the need for balanced and fair representation in public communication and the need to counter misrepresentation.
Everyone is entitled to their own cultural and linguistic identity. This reflects the need for public communication to open up spaces for alternative worldviews.
Everyone is entitled to communication skills and media literacy. This reflects the need for adequate training and capacity-building.
Everyone is entitled to accessible communication, information and knowledge at affordable levels. This reflects the need for genuine accessibility to the communication infrastructure together with a minimum of economic obstacles.
Everyone is entitled to take part in the information and communication society. This reflects the need to dismantle political, economic, social, and cultural barriers.
Everyone is entitled to independent mass and social media. This reflects the need for media accountability, transparency and the symbiotic relationship between good governance and good citizenship.
Everyone is entitled to a diversity of opinions and points of view. This reflects the need for a range of information sources as well as balanced and contextualised news.
Everyone is entitled to fair and unbiased public communication. This reflects the need for ethical norms and accountability at all levels.
These ten propositions underlie the theory and practice of communication rights 500 years after Martin Luther first challenged the selling of indulgences and then set about demystifying religion itself by making its basic texts available in the common tongue of his native land. Speaking truth to power and urging the democratization of communication are Martin Luther’s legacy. ν
Girard, B. & Ó Siochrú, S. (eds.) (2003). Communicating in the Information Society. Geneva: UNRISD.
“Human Rights and the Millennium Development Goals: Making the Link” (2007). Oslo: UNDP.
Information in the Non-Aligned Countries (1976). International Symposium on the Ways to Develop Information Between Non-Aligned Countries, Tunis, 26-30 March.
Lee, P. (ed.) (2004). Many Voices, One Vision. The Right to Communicate in Practice. Penang: Southbound.
Lindberg, Carter (1996). The European Reformations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Many Voices, One World. Towards a new more just and more efficient world information and communication order. Paris: UNESCO, 1980.
Traber, M. (1992). “Communication as a Human Need and Human Right.” In Religion and Society, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1. Bangalore: Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society. Reprinted in Lee P. (ed.), Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (2008). Penang: Southbound.