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The People’s Communication Charter: An Introduction

Disempowerment and Empowerment
Today we observe, across the world, that people face pervasive worldwide governmental and commercial censorship; distorted and misleading information; stereotyped and damaging images of the human condition including gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, physical and mental illness and disability; restricted access to knowledge, and insufficient channels to communicate diverse ideas and opinions. The reality of our cultural environment reduces the capacity of ordinary men and women to control the decisions that others take about their lives. This "disempowerment" violates the human entitlement to dignity, equality and liberty. To defend human integrity against this, the provision of information should contribute to the empowerment of people. This implies the need to create a pluralist, and sustainable cultural environment.

This is a tall order. The provision of information is an arena largely controlled by very powerful interests. The media moguls and their political friends will not voluntarily put their stakes at risk. The information industries, the telecommunication operators and their large clients, the intellectual property industries and the supporting governments are not likely to act against the disempowering impact of current forms of information provision.

If people refuse to be silenced, if they do not want to live with a massive choreography of televised violence, or if they do not want to be surrounded by electronic surveillance and political propaganda, they cannot trust states and markets to accommodate their information needs. They will have to take responsibility themselves. In the end the quality of our cultural environment is not determined by the media moguls or the regulators but by the community of media users. If we aspire to pluralism in media contents, then the current threats to people's right to communicate can only be effectively dealt with if media users can be mobilized to demand diversity in information provision. The cultural environment is as vital to our common future as the natural ecology. The reality of this environment reduces the capacity of ordinary women and men to control decisions about their lives and about the socialization of their children.

There is today an increasing number of individuals and groups around the world that begin to express deep concern about the quality of media performance. An obvious problem for the mobilization of these people is that information consumers are not normally organized in representative associations. They form a diverse community, geographically dispersed and ideologically fragmented. In order to create a constituency for concerns about the quality of our cultural environment, the People's Communication Charter was initiated as a source of inspiration and a guide for social action.

The Charter
The People's Communication Charter is an initiative of the Third World Network (Penang, Malaysia), the Centre for Communication & Human Rights (Amsterdam, the Netherlands), the Cultural Environment Movement (USA), and the AMARC World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (Peru/Canada). In the early 1990s academics and activists associated with the Third World Network in Penang and its affiliated Consumers Association of Penang initiated a debate on the need and the feasibility of a global people's movement in the field of communication and culture. One of the first steps in this process was the drafting of a basic charter that expresses the various dimensions of the human right to communicate.

Core principles
From the first draft text in 1993 the text was seen by the initiators as an open and dynamic document. Numerous people and institutions around the world became involved in commenting upon and editing the text. The present text does reflect the input from a great variety of supporters in many different national and cultural situations. The following core principles emerged in the debates around the charter.

  1. All forms of information handling--collecting, processing, storing, distributing, etc.--should be guided by respect for basic human rights.
  2. Communication resources (such as frequencies) should be considered "commons," should be accessible to all in fair and equitable ways, and cannot be regulated by market forces alone.
  3. Communication in society cannot be monopolized by governmental or commercial forces.
  4. People have a right to the protection of their cultural space.
  5. Information and communication providers should accept accountability for their products and services.

The realization of the people's right to communicate cannot be a homogeneous project. This will take different forms in different socio-cultural and political contexts. There may be the establishment of an ombudsman office for the quality of the cultural environment, or a civil society campaign to rescue public broadcasting. The focus may be on the protection of children against advertising or on actions against media stereotyping of people with a handicap. This is really the business of ordinary people. It is also the ultimate test case for the significance of the charter. The whole initiative in the end only makes sense if people themselves begin to be concerned about its implementation.

In order to put the charter on the public agenda, a series of international public hearings is being prepared that will address violations of the provisions of the charter. The first of these hearings focuses on "Language Rights and Linguicide." The pertinent article 9 from the People's Communication Charter (on Diversity of Languages) reads: "All people have the right to a diversity of languages. This includes the right to express themselves and have access to information in their own language, the right to use their languages in educational institutions funded by the state, and the right to have adequate provision created for the use of minority languages where needed." The venue for the event is the Institute of Social Studies, Kortenaerkade 12, The Hague, The Netherlands. The dates are May 1-3, 1999.

Another recent development is the call and proposal for a global civil campaign by which sectors of civil society and non-governmental organizations form an international alliance to address concerns and to work jointly on matters around media and communications. The campaign has been called Voices 21. Voices 21 is inspired by:

  • the awareness of the growing importance of the mass media and communication networks for the goals they try to achieve;
  • the concerns about current trends in the field of information and communication toward concentration, commercialization, privatization and liberalization;
  • the lack of public influence on these trends in both developed and developing countries, in democracies and under dictatorships.

The central focus of the campaign is to address problems and show solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our time: that the voices and concerns of ordinary people around the world are no longer excluded! In spite of all the solemn declarations about information societies and communication revolutions, most of the world's voices are not heard. In today's reality most people neither have the tools and skills to participate in social communication nor a say in communication politics. The preamble of the People's Communication Charter states, "All people are entitled to participate in communication and in making decisions about communication within and between societies." In spite of all the developments and innovations in the field of information and communication, this standard has not yet been realized.

The People's Communication Charter articulates essential rights and responsibilities that ordinary people have in relation to their cultural environment. It aspires to a democratic and sustainable organization of the world's communication structures and information flows. It is abundantly clear that these great ideas cannot be simply implemented by drafting, revising and adopting a text. The text constitutes merely a point of reference for a much needed civil activism that targets what arguably is the most central social domain of our age. The charter may provide the inspiration for the real work that still needs to be done: the awareness-building, the lobbying, the mobilizing, the failures, and the retrials.

About Cees J. Hamelink

Professor of International Communication at the University of Amsterdam and initiator of the People's Communication Charter.

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