15 Nov 2022 MD 2022/4 Editorial
Unfulfilled expectations dating back over fifty years to the evocative call for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) have spiralled into a digital age, in which political, economic, social and cultural life is being transformed by technologies that are challenging long-held notions of communication rights and democratic accountability.
Those unfulfilled expectations relate to the positive role mass communications and media can play in society – government and corporate interests allowing – on the basis of more equitable, democratic, and balanced communication flows and infrastructures.
The documents in this issue of Media Development show that despite a radical transformation of global communications since the 1970s – most recently with the astonishingly rapid deployment of digital platforms – the democratization of communication has remained a persistent yet unattained vision.
The MacBride Report (1980) advocated greater accessibility, equality, plurality, and diversity – social justice principles that apply to both analogue and digital communication and which, post-MacBride, continued to appear in key international documents, some of which are collected here. As the MacBride Report underlined:
“In many countries, both developed and developing, various kinds of imbalance are to be found: between urban and rural communities, between the elite and the masses, between majority and minority groups of all kinds. One of the main purposes in developing communications is to help constantly to reduce inequalities.”1
Twenty years later, nothing much had changed. In 2003, the Civil Society Declaration at the first World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) noted that people not technologies should lie at the heart of genuine development:
“It is people who primarily form and shape societies, and information and communication societies are no exception. Civil society actors have been key innovators and shapers of the technology, culture and content of information and communication societies, and will continue to be in the future.”
The Civil Society Declaration remains one of the most comprehensive overviews of the complexities and challenges facing the communication rights movement.
Revising its own principles in Communication for All (2012), WACC observed that:
“When communication is inclusive and invites participation, it makes worldviews and collective experiences richer and more vivid. More images, thoughts and points-of-view are added to the public sphere.”
In response to continuing gender disparities, the New York Declaration (2017) said:
“It is essential to promote forms of communication that not only challenge the patriarchal nature of media but strive to decentralize and democratize them: to create media that encourage dialogue and debate; media that advance women and creativity; media that reaffirm women’s wisdom and knowledge, and that make people into subjects rather than objects or targets of communication.”
Promoting the notion of information as a public good in democratic societies, the Windhoek Declaration (2021) advised:
“Press freedom, independence and pluralism remain major goals to guarantee information as a public good that serves as a shared resource for the whole of humanity. To these goals we now add those of media viability, transparency of digital platforms, and citizens empowered with media and information literacy.”
And in the context of the digital age, the Copenhagen Pledge (2021) emphasised the need for a communication ecosystem based on human rights:
“A human rights-based approach to digital technologies and responsible handling of data can help foster a democratic culture, broaden civic engagement in democratic processes, and enhance the open and free exchange of ideas so vital to democracies.”
In the documents republished in this issue of Media Development, readers will be able to find most of the ethical, technical, and practical concepts, including key recommendations and actions, that might facilitate and guarantee communicative justice. As always, the obstacles are autocracy, political intransigence, corporate greed, disagreement about the shape of universal social progress, and a seeming unwillingness to act together for the greater good of humanity.
Overcoming such obstacles requires a concerted approach by all elements of society that is not always evident. As historian Yuval Noah Harari notes, “The merger of infotech and biotech threatens the core modern values of liberty and equality. Any solution to the technological challenge has to involve global cooperation” [emphasis added].2
Statements have a long shelf-life, but limited impact. Despite their impeccable rationales, it often proves difficult to translate words into actions in order to bring about necessary change. Here, civil society interventions are desperately needed: to create greater awareness of the issues involved, to lobby at local and national levels, and to bring moral weight to bear on how to tackle the inequalities and injustices that prevent people from designing and achieving a better future.
1. Many Voices, One World. Towards a new more just and more efficient world information and communication order. Paris: UNESCO, 1980, p. 206.
2. Yuval Noah Harari. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Penguin Random House, 2018, p. 83.