MD 2024/2 Editorial
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MD 2024/2 Editorial

Ever since a right to communicate was imagined by Jean D’Arcy in 1969, the concept has been controversial. Like the right to memory, without which individuals and communities would be deprived of their identity and dignity, neither figures in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In its place, the fall-back position has been UDHR’s Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The right to communicate (being able to speak up in public or in private) is distinguished from the right to communication (having equitable access to communication infrastructures and technologies). Both fall under the umbrella term communication rights, which expands freedom of opinion and expression to claim spaces and resources in the public sphere that enable everyone to engage in transparent, informed, and democratic debate. In short, this becomes a matter of communicative justice, understood as:

“An environment that enables individuals and collectivities to fully participate in social communication. This means that infrastructures (such as networks, frequencies and channels) should be affordable and accessible on a non-discriminatory basis. It also implies the accessibility to and control over the resources needed for communication, such as financial resources. Also, communicative capabilities, such as linguistic, dialogical skills and the know-how to retrieve and order information, should be accessible and affordable.”1

This Handbook was published in 2005 as part of the CRAFT project (Communication Rights Assessment Framework and Toolkit) of the CRIS Campaign.

All this may seem straightforward and obvious. Yet many people remain confused, arguing that the terms are vague, that they cannot be encoded in law, and that freedom of opinion and expression covers all eventualities.

For this issue of Media Development, we invited contributors to describe their understanding of these terms but without – if possible – using the words right to communicate, right to communication, or communication rights. This proved easier said than done, underlining that, while the terms might not be readily understood, a rights-based approach has been correct all along.

For Nico Carpentier, “Communication is part of the democratic-participatory struggle itself. We communicate about power relations, democracy and the political. In doing so, we again engage in struggles over how power should and should not be distributed in society. We communicate about how societal problems need to be resolved, what problem-resolving procedures we should use, how our political cultures should function (and how not), and –importantly – we communicate about which democratic ideology we should translate into political practice and what level of participation – minimalist or maximalist – we should have.”

In her deeply personal account, Maria Elena Hermosilla reminds us that, “Without communication, there are no relationships. It is the symbolic dimension of social relations. Learning to communicate goes beyond the mere apprenticeship of learning how to construct messages. It is not enough to master media languages. It is necessary to investigate in order to understand many dimensions if we want to comprehend and, above all, to have an impact.”

And reconsidering the question in the context of the digital era, Pradip N. Thomas argues that an “emphasis on autonomy and self-determination requires us to investigate the worth and validity of a much more decentralised and local understanding of communication rights where people determine communication rights challenges along with the required solutions. This inability to translate communication rights at a local level has arguably been one of the key bugbears of communication rights activists.”

It is immeasurably sad that the past decade has once again seen horrific and sustained assaults on the integrity and aspirations of many people worldwide, including in that so-called bastion of democracy the USA, where juries are literally still out on matters of corruption, misuse of power, and impunity. Over the same period, freedom of expression and opinion has been gravely undermined by a concentration of media ownership and control that now extends to digital platforms, state censorship, silencing, and hate speech/images as both democratically and undemocratically elected leaders seek to subvert the rule of law and to mask their own and their cronies’ contempt for human rights.

As articles in this issue of Media Development show, we must resist by every means possible the steady erosion of democratic values, press freedom, and people’s capacity to see, hear, and express their needs and concerns in public without obstruction. Only in this way can we retain a peaceful and sustainable future as a shared vision for all.

Note

1. Hamelink, Cees J. (2023). Communication and Human Rights. Towards Communicative Justice, pp. 126-7. Polity Books.

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