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Roundtable on Culture and Communication in the Global Information Society

Organized by the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy in cooperation with the MacBride Roundtable on Communication and the Med Media Jemstone Network

By TBS Senior Editor Hussein Amin and Editorial Assistant Dana Zureikat

The 10th MacBride Roundtable on Communication, organized by the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy in cooperation with the MacBride Roundtable on Communication and the Med Media Jemstone Network, was held in Amman, Jordan, November 23 - 25, 1998. Over 150 participants, among them prominent researchers, scholars and journalists, convened during those three days to evaluate and discuss the role of developing countries and the obstacles they may face in the future's global information society.

The conference covered four main topics: an evaluation of and future perspective on the right to communicate; information technology in a context of democracy and development; the right to communicate in the context of national identity and culture; and the laws and ethics of communications. Each session included several presentations, with plenty of time devoted to roundtable discussions of the issues raised. This report will focus on only a few of the presentations that are representative of the main issues discussed in both the formal presentations and the open discussion.

Dr. Cees Hamelink, director of the Center for Communication and Human Rights in Holland, talked about what he said is among the least-addressed human rights: the right to culture. He focused on today's dual trends of globalization and tribalization—the world's current cultural environment, Hamelink said, is "a disorderly arrangement of homogenizing and fragmenting forces"—and the threats these two processes impose on cultural rights. Globalization, he said, is the proliferation of cultural values and practices that stem from advanced capitalism; he called globalization an act of "Disneyfication" that is contributing to the world's homogenization. Among the biggest drivers toward a global society, Hamelink argued, has been advertising. "In spite of all political declarations on the imminence of a global information society," he said, "we may be rather on route to a global billboard society." With this on one hand, a revitalization of cultural nationalisms is born on the other. Tribalization is also dangerous, Hamelink argued, since "most ethnic identities are often redefined in very aggressive ways" which can lead to conflict--indeed, he anticipates that ethnic conflicts will break out as technological communication improves. While media, advertisers, and governments have a large role in creating this global-tribal cultural environment, Hamelink does not believe they will be the forces for change. Instead, he calls for the people around the world to intervene in an organized and systematic fashion through public coalitions, presentation of alternative policy proposals and well-thought-out publicity concerning such actions. One such initiative is the People's Communication Charter, established in 1995 by civil, cultural, and media groups around the world who want to work toward the right to communicate. [Full text of the charter, plus an introduction by Dr. Hamelink, are available in this issue.]

Dr. Richard Vincent from the department of mass communication in Hawaii discussed globalism and communication equity, arguing that disparities in distribution of global communication technologies may be among the biggest social problems in the world today. Twenty-four countries account for seventy percent of the world's telephone lines and ninety percent of mobile phones, but have only sixteen percent of the population, Vincent said, and only four percent of the global supply of computers are owned by people in the South. He emphasized that the whole idea of proper distribution is more than just a philosophical approach, but "an effort to expand the traditional notion of human rights to include access and availability of communication channels for all," and he examined seven areas in which this can be done. First is the development of national telephone, satellite, and internet infrastructures in the developing world. Information resources should also be developed in ways that will aid the development of health and social service infrastructures, such as use of the media for education, to disseminate basic health information, or to encourage public participation in civic processes. Global technologies can also provide a powerful voice for marginalized groups, help preserve the diversity of cultures that still somewhat remain in an increasingly homogeneous and Westernized world, and enhance the ability of traditional media to function more effectively and help enhance a nation's media in the international realm. Finally, information technologies can be used be more developed nations to help the less developed ones.

Dr. Abdullah Hasanat, executive director of the Jordan Times, presented the specific example of Jordan with regard to communication rights. With the backdrop of Jordan's steady steps towards democracy and the contradictory press law issued in 1997, Dr. Hasanat discussed the structure of the Jordanian society and why a privatized media seems to be, in the eyes of many Jordanians, a threat to the security and value system of the country. The hierarchical and patriarchal system in Jordan has, he argued, stifled the creative process, weakened the regime, and created cliques based on clan and provincial affiliation. Despite the obstacles facing Jordanian press and media—in particular governmental restrictions—Hasanat believes that Jordanians should welcome this new age of information that knows no boundaries.

Dr. Ali Attiga, secretary general of the Arab Thought Forum, discussed the role of information technology in democracy and development. He stressed the importance of public participation and adequate, up-to-date information for the success of any democratic movement and developmental process, and believes that the more objective and wide the scope of information conveyed is, the more likely it is that democracy and development will be sustainable. For the development of democracy, information regarding political, social and economic issues is needed; development requires information regarding different markets, resources and institutions. Both require an active public contribution for their growth and success. Certain types of development, he believes, can take place without democracy, and pointed to high levels of development in authoritarian regimes such as Japan and the Soviet Union. In this model, "all sources of information are centrally controlled and public participation is formally mobilized through official ideology and repressive authority." The most difficult task any country can undertake is the "transformation from dictatorship to democracy," he said, but added that the change is nonetheless essential.

Bart Cammaerts, Leo van Audenhove, Jean-Claude Burgelman and Gert Nulens discussed in their joint paper convergence and information society policy in an international perspective. Convergence, they argue, is not simply a change on the technological level, but also "touches upon and instigates changes at the level of the general economy and society, and brings about change at the level of international and national governance and regulatory systems." They dealt with policies of the global information society on an international level, and looked at the changes communication technologies have brought in areas such as the global economy and the creation of transnational corporations. Finally, they examine some of the effects on the national level of attempts to manage communications technologies, including privatization, regulation, a desire for universal access to these technologies, and their uses in arenas such as education and development. Convergence in the sphere of information technologies will, they conclude, make necessary some fundamental shifts on both national and international levels. States with separate ministries for technology, industry, telecommunications, and the media may find themselves in "turf wars," for example, because these areas are no longer as clearly defined and separated as they once were. New strategies, they say, are particularly important for developing nations who will otherwise be left behind in the global information society.

The final session put focus on a theme that had been underlying much of the previous discussion: media laws and ethics. To complement the in-depth studies presented by many participants, Dr. Barbara Thomas of the University of Hamburg gave some concrete and practical suggestions on steps that can be taken toward media accountability. Media accountability, she said, exists on a dual level, that of regulation and that of self-regulation. She postulated that legal restrictions will lead to negative reactions and self-regulation to positive action; that the media's credibility depends on the degree to which it allows its workings to be transparent; that media which make themselves accountable to customers will ultimately fare better on the market; and that media accountability requires systematic monitoring, feedback, evaluation and education. Her suggestions for steps media organizations can take included use of visible correction boxes and letters to the editor, using online resources as forums for debate and criticism, and more reviews and studies of the media.

About Hussein Amin

Hussein Amin is the director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television and Digital Journalism and Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo.

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