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Voices 21: A Global Movement for People’s Media and Communications in the 21st Century

Submitted to TBS by Sean O'Siochru, Secretary General and Treasurer of the MacBride Roundtable on Communication

This is a call to build a Global Movement on Media and Communication for the 21st century. At its core is the demand that the voices of ordinary people around the world are no longer excluded from media and communications. It is drafted, and continues to be refined, by a group of concerned media and communication practitioners, academics and NGOs, coming together under the banner of Voices 21. It is associated with the People's Communication Charter, a civil society initiative that promotes the rights of people in media and communications and which in the last few years has been endorsed by many thousands of organizations and individuals, and has close links with a number of other current initiatives.

A Common Concern 
NGOs all over the world have long worked in the field of media and communications, creating and supporting community radio and access TV networks, bringing the internet to civil society, using video for local development, attempting to influence media and communication policy, and through a variety of other means. Others have grown expert in the use of media and communications to pursue their development and empowerment strategies, whether through electronic networking, effective media influencing or media-based educational campaigns.

Increasingly, however, concerns are being expressed regarding the major trends in global media. While technological progress, and political and regulatory changes, can potentially benefit those most in need, the scales seem increasingly tipped in favor of the already powerful. There is genuine and growing concern that global trends in media and communication are leading us into uncharted territory, and that those at the helm have no particular interest in the needs of the majority of the world's people.

Civil society organizations, in general, share the following:

  • awareness of the growing importance of the mass media and communication networks for the aims they are trying to achieve
  • concern about current trends in the field of information and communication toward concentration of ownership and control into fewer hands
  • concern that state censorship is giving way only to more subtle censorship, through subjection to commercial exigencies and maximizing shareholder gain
  • lack of means for the public to exert influence on these trends, in both developed and developing countries, in democracies and under dictatorships.
  • Fears are expressed not only by NGOs, but by some UN agencies, by many academics, and by governments in different regions of the world.

An Emerging Movement 
For some years now, NGOs such as AMARC, Vidazimut, APC and WACC have been building international organizations to promote the interests of their members and more generally to focus on the media needs of civil society. Others, such as the People's Communication Charter, the MacBride Roundtable and the Cultural Environment Movement, are concerned from the outset with democratization of the media domain, spreading the message sometimes to thousands of people and their organizations. [Editor's note: Please see this issue's report on a recent MacBride Roundtable event in Amman, Jordan.]

More recently, these have embarked on what is in effect a process of global mobilization, seeking common ground, joining forces around specific issues, and developing proposals for cooperation. Alongside and supporting this have been numerous international events, in every region of the world and organized by a great variety and organizations and coalitions, where civil society voices are calling for a fundamental review of the media and communications domain, including global governance structures.

The Perceived Dangers 
The potential impact of current trends, especially given the absence of significant public influence upon them, are enormous, with ramifications spreading into the ordinary lives of people everywhere. Fears can be summarized as follows:

A Threat to Media Diversity in Form and Content:

  • "Dumbing-down" of news and educational programming forms, with "infotainment" and "edutainment"
  • Reduction of real content diversity, displaced by multiplication of homogenized programming

A Threat to Public Understanding and the Democratic Process:

  • Undue influence of commercial imperatives on news, current affairs and educational content
  • "Media moguls" controlling the political slant of their publications, and directly biasing the information available
  • Growing global electronic surveillance by government and private interests

A Threat to Global Equity of Access and Economic Development:

  • Growing disparity of access to information and communication technologies and applications globally, between urban and rural, and between groups in society
  • A proliferation of advertising globally, perpetually delivering distorted messages of lifestyle expectations
  • The imposition of a single dominant set of cultural values, promoting values that implicitly and explicitly advocate commercial over human relationships

A Threat to Cultural and Social Forms:

  • The subjection of sport and all forms of entertainment to purely commercially driven criteria
  • Domination of a single language in the new media content, and consequent loss of linguistic diversity
  • Ubiquity of advertising, interrupting and deforming other social and cultural information, visually and aurally

A considerable body of academic research, and the real experience of numerous NGOs, confirm that these threats are real, and merit the urgent attention of international organizations, governments, and by organizations everywhere that claim concern for our future. It is imperative that people, and civil society, everywhere begin to understand the nature and dynamics of these changes, and mobilize the means by which democratic accountability can be introduced.

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." This standard is far from being realized. continued

What to Do
We believe that a two-pronged approach is needed, one at the level of strategy development, the other at the level of cooperative action. These two are complementary, and can only proceed any distance by joining together hand in hand.

On the one hand, building a movement will require planning, strategic thinking, resources and the space to explore common ground and build strategies. On the other, organizations committed to the democratization can, under a common banner, begin to plan and implement cooperation on practical activities that will help build the movement and tackle the issues.

Building A Strategy Together
Building a movement in which all can feel a part and play a role, but yet which is coherent and focused, takes time and effort. Voices 21 seeks only to build bridges, not to displace existing initiatives and organizations which have carried the issue to the brink of a movement. To this end, we are inviting participation, under the umbrella of Voices 21, in:

  • Debate and discussion on a list soon to be launched
  • Joint proposals for funding, to foundations, agencies and others, to further both strategy development and concrete activities (a number have already been submitted)
  • Contributing to a Virtual Center for Media and Communication Democracy, a website under development.

Voices 21 began as a proposal to initiative a world congress or summit on media and communication. This intention remains as a future milestone in cooperating towards building a movement.

Activities within the movement
Networking and cooperation could, for example, begin around five campaigns, described below by theme, concerns, targets and actions.

Theme 1: Access and Accessibility
Concern: Participation in social communication presupposes access: to big media, to community media, to computer networks, to information sources and to other tools. However, physical access is for many neither sufficient nor affordable right now. Most people in the world are denied access to such basic tools as a telephone. As a result, a social gap grows between those who can afford access to information and those who will be excluded. This must be changed.

Targets for Action: 
-International donor institutions that demonstrate in their policy and practice an enormous gap between words and actions: there is much rhetoric about the right to communicate, but totally inadequate supportive funding and support.
The international trade negotiators, particularly at the WTO forum, that enact policies that are not conducive to universal access and accessibility of communication infrastructures and information networks.

-Collaborate on building media and communication access where needed; for example, telecenters and low-cost radiowires
-Use modern techniques where local infrastructure doesn't exist, like solar energy, satellite and radio communications, etc.
-Find joint ways to finance access building work
-Lobby WTO meetings (an example of this is the MAI campaign and the anti-WTO demonstrations of May 1998)

Theme 2: Right to communicate
Concern: Around the world, old and new forms of state and commercial censorship are rampant; they threaten not only the independence of conventional mass media, but also the right to communicate through new channels like the internet. Universal access to media and networks does means little in the absence of adequate public space where information, opinions and ideas can be freely exchanged and debated.

State censorship and providers' self-censoring of social debate, copyright rules, and laws on business defamation are all complex matters where rules need to be defined not to hinder, but to support, political debate and exchange on socially important matters.

Targets for Action:
-Governments and cultural industries, broadcasters, and internet providers
-The emerging international regime for the protection of intellectual property rights at fora such as the WIPO and the WTO
-The European Union and internet providers worldwide

-Support and facilitate distribution of censored voices and material
-Build security systems for civil society organizations
-Provide cross-media services for international and simultaneous radio, TV and internet broadcasting
-Provide support to various anti-censorship campaigns around the world
-Widely publicize examples of commercial censorship
Lobby forthcoming meetings of WTO, WIPO, and the EU Commission

Theme 3: Diversity of expressions
Concern: The commercialization of media and concentration of media ownership erode the public sphere and fail to provide for cultural and information needs, including the plurality of opinions and the diversity of cultural expressions and languages necessary for democracy. This occurs not only in the conventional media business, but is beginning also to affect the internet.

Targets for Action:
WTO, European Commission, Mergers & Acquisitions Commissions in different countries

Build independent media and communication channels for civil society
Create a civil society media economy to make non-profit media channels sustainable
Develop concrete proposals for anti-cartel regulation
Mobilize local consumer actions against media mergers
Joint promotions of alternatives where they exist

Theme 4: Security and Privacy
Concern: Electronic communications through such media as the internet have become targets for the surveillance by governments without public debate on the consequences for communications on social matters.

Across the world, 24-hour ubiquitous electronic surveillance is expanding (for example through the Echelon program of the US National Security Agency), including employee monitoring and widespread commercial data-mining. Internet service providers are made liable for contents they carry, and the bigger ones have begun collaborating with the security police. This forces forms of self-censorship upon the ISPs, making the internet an unsafe place for those living under dictatorships or political oppression. This must be changed.

ILO, OECD, European Commission/Parliament, governments
Internet service providers and their networks

-Build secure systems for social movements and defend them together when threatened
-Develop legislative proposals
-Design protective measures against privacy intrusion
-Mirror and broadcast material unfairly threatened

Theme 5: Cultural Environment
The global media foster a culture of violence, discrimination, exclusion, and consumerism.
Most public interest NGOs strive toward the creation of a culture of peace, solidarity, and environmental awareness.

The global media industry; CEOs of TNCs like Time/Warner/CNN; Bertelsmann; Disney/ABC; News Corporation (Murdoch), governments and parliaments, and media consumers

Educational campaigns to foster critical media awareness
Children's editions of documents like the People's Communication Charter
-Create media and communications channels which offer positive alternatives
-Encourage mainstream media to purchase positive alternatives
-Consumer media boycott/advertiser boycott
-Arrange and participate in tribunals and hearings
-Media monitoring

Interim Organizing Group
The following comprise the Interim Organizing Group for this evolving proposal. The associated proposal for a Congress on Media and Communication has been endorsed widely, including at International Forum on Communication and Citizenship in October 1998 in San Salvador, the MacBride Roundtable in Amman in November 1998, and at the Vidazimut Congress in Cape Town in October 1998. It has also been endorsed by numerous civil society organizations. The Organizing Group is in the process of expanding to ensure better regional and gender representation, and broader civil society participation.

Alain Ambrosi, Vidazimut, Canada ambrosia@web.net
Michael Eisenmenger, Deep Dish TV, USA eisenmen@rci.rutgers.edu
George Gerbner, Cultural Environment Movement USA. ggerbner@nimbus.temple.edu
Cees Hamelink, People's Communication Charter, The Netherlands hamelink@mail.antenna.nl
Cilla Lundstroem, Association for Progressive Communication, Sweden cilla@apc.org
Robert McChesney, University of Wisconsin, USA rwmcches@facstaff.wisc.edu
Kaarle Nordenstreng, University of Tampere Finland. tikano@uta.fi
Sean O'Siochru, MacBride Roundtable on Communication. Ireland sean@nexus.ie
Marc Raboy, University of Montreal, Canada raboym@ERE.UMontreal.CA
Pradip Thomas, World Association for Christian Communication, UK pradip@wacc.gn.apc.org
Karen Thorne, Vidazimut, South Africa ownnat@wn.apc.org
Lynne Muthoni Wanyeki, EcoNews Africa, Kenya wanyeki@iconnect.co.ke

About Sean O'Siochru

Secretary General and Treasurer of the MacBride Roundtable on Communication

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