I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
For over a decade, on the international circuit in Nairobi, Havana, Paris and Belgrade, at first in UNESCO corridors, later on the agenda of working subcommittees, a new concept has been gaining ground. Concerned about the strident inequities of the status quo, not only in basic necessities but also in communication resources—she information gap between the haves and the have-nots—the Non-Aligned Movement, a kind of giant collaborative of about two-thirds of the world’s nations, is working to establish a New World Information Order, with increasing momentum in the last two years. This is partly a result of the explosion of new sophisticated electronic technologies, and also a keen realization by Third World leaders that their own economic growth requires access to improved communication systems for both domestic and international traffic. They see the current domination of information gathering and dissemination by the Western news media and computer conglomerates as a hang-over from colonialism and the sacrosanct Western concept of “free flow of information” as essentially a oneway street, in which the rest of the world is viewed through predominantly Western eyes, from a Western cultural perspective and according to the dictates of multinational corporations.
Liliana Garcia, Costa Rica Free flow? What free flow? It means you are free to send and we are free to receive.
Chen Chimutengwende, Zimbabwe Most of the people in Western societies don’t understand much about the Third World problems of communication. For instance, they have a hang-up, I would say, on the question of government involvement in mass communication. And myself as a journalist, as a professional mass media person, l am not very happy with government intervention in mass media in theory, but I find at this stage of our development we haven’t got a choice. The governments have to be involved at one stage or other because we are living in a period where our development is a planned development, and in that case the role of the media has to be properly defined to see where it can promote that national development.
George Wedell, England Do you think that over time government will begin as it were, to take a rather more detached view of the media and will say, well look, in order to get the full value of the freedom that we’ve fought for, we really must allow this freedom, not only to ourselves but also to our fellow citizens, even if they don’t always agree with us. Do you think there’s a chance of that?
CC I think there is a chance as we … our states become consolidated, because at the moment they are young, vulnerable and sometimes not sure which way they are going, and they become sensitive to anything that might easily … that might be considered something which can erode their power. And I think eventually I would like to see more control of the African mass media by African professional media people and with maximum participation by ordinary people. But initially that will be very difficult. And so I think it is the task of Third World communicators to educate their government on the best ways of making mass media effective-and they can be effective if the professional people were given enough freedom to operate them as they understand them.
The text reprinted below is the first chapter of a 45-page manifesto* drafted by a committee of African, European, Asian, and Latin American experts led by the now-legendary Tunisian Information Minister, Mustapha Masmoudi, who, at a Havana Cuba nonaligned conference in 1978, was assigned the task of collecting “comments, suggestions, proposals, and recommendations” for making the new order a reality. Since the publication of the manifesto, the debate between adherents of the status quo and proponents of the new order has reached new dimensions—to the extent that it is finally receiving acknowledgement in certain sectors of the US press-the New York Times (both viewpoints) and Broadcasting Magazine, which staunchly defends the interests of commercial enterprises-not surprisingly, given the latest resolutions adopted at UNESCO gatherings in October and February. These empower a special subcommittee to convene in Guyana in May to discuss some proposals which the Western news agencies see as a potential threat to the profitability of their operations and their monopoly over world news. The agenda includes such topics as the licensing of journalists and the setting up of an internationally recognized professional code of ethics that would make “responsibility” towards the host country a key factor in reporting.
—Liza Béar, April 1981
The New World Information Order requires a universal act of awareness. So far this has been limited, because of the reticence, caused by certain fears. Such fears are aroused by the prospect of change that will adversely affect direct interests. The information media have as their role the awakening of public opinion to the need for changes that profit the whole of humanity. The idea should be accepted everywhere that the present order is nothing but an amalgam of disorders and that, therefore, change is imperative.
The present document aims to set out the principal reasons that militate in favour of change; and to point out the actions needed to make such changes accomplished facts.
In the modern world, information is characterized by certain fundamental imbalances; these are reflections of the general imbalance that affects international society.
A. POLITICAL ASPECTS
In the political field, i.e. from the conception of information to the editorial, production, and operating levels, there are many imbalances. Among these are:
—A flagrant numerical imbalance between North and South.
This is shown by the divergence between the volume of information originating in the developed world and aimed at developing countries, and the volume of news that travels in the opposite direction. Almost 80 percent of news that circulates through the world comes from the big transnational agencies; but these allocate only about 20 or 30 percent of their news to the developing countries although the latter represent almost three quarters of the whole of humanity. This means a veritable monopoly on the part of the developed countries, to their own advantage.
—An inequality of means in the information field.
The five biggest transnational agencies themselves monopolise, among themselves, all that exists of material and human potential The five biggest international agencies group among themselves more than 500 bureaus; they maintain 4,319 correspondents or freelance contributors in foreign countries, in an average of 116 countries; and each agency puts out a daily average that ranges from 11.2 million to 17 million words., whereas almost a third of the developing countries do not yet possess a single national agency.
Inequality also exists in the way the frequency spectrum is divided up between developed and developing countries. The former control nearly 90 percent of the source of the spectrum, while the developing countries have no means of protecting themselves against foreign broadcasts. It is also difficult for them to compete against such broadcasts, all the more as some of them are sent out from broadcasting stations located inside the developing countries. Concerning television, 45 percent of developing countries have no television stations of their own; this disproportion is made even worse by the broadcasting within such countries of a great many programmes made inside developed countries.
—Supremacy in fact, and a will to dominate.
The above are illustrated by the marked indifference of the media of the developed countries, particularly those of the West, towards the problems, preoccupations, and aspirations of the developing countries. They are based on financial, industrial, cultural, and technological power and relegate most of the developing countries to simply being consumers of the information sold to them as merchandise. The informational agencies control the circulation of information as if it were their right, and operate without any hindrance in the majority of developing countries; they also entirely dominate the technological field as illustrated by the systems of communication by satellite, which are entirely run by the great international complexes.
—A lack of information on developing countries.
Daily events in the developing countries are reported to the world through the channels of the informational media; these media also “tell” the developing countries what is happening in foreign countries, through the same channels. By only informing the developing countries about news items which they have filtered, cut down, and distorted, the transnational information systems impose their own way of seeing the world onto the developing countries. As a result, communities that are sometimes geographically close to each other only know each other through these transnational information systems. Moreover, the latter often show these communities (when they take notice at all) in the most unfavourable light, stressing crises, strikes, street demonstrations, putsches etc … or even holding them up to ridicule. When the newspapers of the industrialized countries present the problems of the Third World in an objective manner, together with their achievements and aspirations, they do so only by printing supplements of special editions, for which they charge higher prices.
—Survival of the colonial era.
The information system as it is at present operated sanctions a form of political, economic, and cultural colonialism. This shows in the often tendentious style of reporting of news concerning the developing countries. The style consists in highlighting events whose importance, in certain cases, is limited or even non-existent; in collecting unrelated facts and presenting them as a “whole’’; in setting out facts in such a way that the conclusion to be drawn from them is favourable in the interests of the transactional system; in amplifying facts of small dimension so as to arouse unjustified fears; in keeping silent on situations unfavourable to the interests of the medias’ native countries. In this way, world events are covered only according to the interests of certain societies. In the same way, the news is distorted and misrepresented according to the moral, cultural, or political values of certain States, disregarding the values and preoccupations of the other nations. The criteria of selection are consciously or unconsciously based on the political and economic interests of the transnational system and of the countries in which this system is implanted. One must also note the use of labels, adjectives, and persuasive definitions, chosen with the intention of denigrating.
—An alienating influence in the economic, social, and cultural spheres.
Apart from the domination and manipulation of the international traffic in news, the developed countries practice other forms of hegemony on the mass communications institutions of the Third World. First, they possess the media through direct investment. Then there is another method of control which is even more decisive at present, namely the near monopoly of world publicity. This is wielded by the great publicity agencies which operate like communications transnationals, and which earn their incomes by serving the interests of the transnational industrial and commercial corporations which dominate the world of business. Another form of domination is the influence used to oppose the social evolution of Third World countries. This is practiced openly by the propaganda institutions. In addition, in our day, publicity advertising, magazines, and television programmes are themselves instruments of cultural domination. They transmit towards developing countries messages which are harmful to their cultures, contrary to their own system of values, and detrimental to their aims and their development efforts.
—Messages illsuited to the areas where they are broadcast.
Even important news is sometimes deliberately neglected by the big information media, in favour of other items of news that only interest the public in the country where the news system originates. Such news is broadcast to client countries, and is practically imposed on them, although the readers and listeners in the client countries have no interest in it. The great mass communications media and the people who work for them pay no heed to the real scope of their messages. They cover events only according to the needs of their home countries. And they also disregard the impact of their news beyond their own frontiers. They even ignore the important minorities and foreign communities on their own national territory, whose needs in the matter of information are different from their own.
The fact therefore needs to be stated that the present order of information, based as it is on a quasimonopolistic concentration of power in the hands of a few developed nations, cannot meet the aspirations of the international community with its enormous need for better dialogue, carried out in respect and dignity. All these deficiencies of a political and conceptual character are worsened—if they do not claim to find their justification—by the present inadequate international juridical structures.
B. JURIDICAL ASPECTS
The traditional concept of rights in the field of communications is founded on individualistic considerations, to the detriment of collective needs. The present international juridical framework is incomplete, and even inexistent in certain fields. Also, the application of present legislation is arbitrary. It favours a few countries at the expense of the majority, because of a view of freedom limited to those who own or control the communications media who are often the same people who own or control the means of production. In this field, many questions need to be raised.
—Rights of the individual and rights of the community.
The philosophy which predominates to the present day has favoured the rights of professionals in the information field; that is, the rights of a small number of persons or entities who are specialists in this activity. In consequence, the rights and preoccupations of the collectivities have been more or less ignored. Yet, if it is true that the right to information is inherent in human nature, it is none the less—perhaps even to a greater degree—the natural right of every human collectivity, in the sense that each people feels a pressing need to communicate with ’’the other,” not only to realize and protect his own personality but also to know and understand other peoples better; and through communications established to this end, the peoples wish to create conditions that will favour a climate of mutual comprehension and respect, and cooperative links that will be profitable to all.
—Freedom of information or of the informer?
Freedom of information, presented as the corollary of freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, was actually conceived as “freedom of the informing agent.” Thereby it has become an instrument of domination in the hands of the owners of the information media. Juridically it upholds the rights of the “informer” and is silent on his duties and responsibilities toward the “informed.”
—Rights of access to sources of information.
This is seen unilaterally, and essentially to the profit of those who have the financial resources to obtain and spread information. This fact has allowed certain big transnational firms to exalt this right into their own privilege, and has permitted wealthy powers to establish their domination over the information circuits.
—The ineffectiveness of rectification rights.
Contrary to the domestic laws of certain countries, the right to rectification is regulated in a very inefficient way in international law. Apart from the 1952 Convention, no valid ways exist to assure to States the possibility of getting false or inexact statements concerning themselves rectified. Moreover, the 1952 Convention itself is not very efficient (articles three and four). It is in fact restrictive and unfavourable to developing countries.
—The absence of an international code of ethics and the defective character of the regulations governing the profession.
Inequalities concerning the above are favoured by the absence of an international code of ethics. Attempts made up to the present by UNESCO and the United Nations to institute an international code of ethics suitable to the needs of the individual and the collective have not succeeded.
—Imbalance in copyright.
The above has been regulated for a long time by the Berne Convention of 1886, which is protectionist in its field of application, in the length of time that rights are valid, and by the rarity of the waivers that can be applied to the existing regulations. The Universal Convention of 1971, which revised the 1952 Convention and was administered by UNESCO, applies a less rigorous degree of protection. The Florence Convention has not profited developing countries because of the protectionist effects that have developed out of it, although it has favoured the circulation of intellectual products of industrialized countries toward developing countries. Altogether, the international publishing and distributing system now operating, though it pretends to safeguard copyright has led to the cultural and political domination of the industrialized countries over the whole of international society.
—Imbalance in the allocation of the source of the spectrum.
The unsatisfactory character of the provisions of article nine of the radio communications settlement must be exposed. These confirm the rights already established in respect of the allocation of the source of the spectrum, and so deprive recently independent countries of the means of making their voices heard in a satisfactory manner.
—Disorder and lack of coordination in telecommunications and in utilization of satellites, together with blatant inequalities between States regarding possession of these means.
In the absence of effective regulation, the present inequalities in this field are likely to increase, at the risk of consolidating irrevocably the rights of the stronger. It hardly needs be emphasized that such great progress has been made in this field that, without appropriate regulation, a veritable invasion of radio broadcasts and television programmes can be expected, violating national territories, private homes, and private consciences. This threat cannot be too strongly denounced.
C. TECHNICO-FINANCIAL ASPECTS
Because of the structures inherited from colonialism, the limited extent of trade and the slackness of economic relations, telecommunications between the developing countries have by no means met the countries’ hopes of closer links and of greater circulation of information. The developed countries benefit from possessing the most efficient and the least expensive communications circuits and resources. The developing countries experience the inconveniences of a faulty and costly organisation in the communications system now in force. The developed countries’ technological advance and the tariff system they have imposed have enabled them to benefit from monopolies and privileges. This includes both the pricing system for transport of publications and telecommunications, and also the use of technical methods of communication and information.
The most recent attempts to rectify this situation, such as the Geneva administrative regional conference for the planning of long wave and medium wave broadcasting, organised by the ITU in 1975, have not succeeded in reforming the system in a satisfactory way. In fact, the above-mentioned conference only served to confirm the existence of a situation unfavourable to the interests of small countries.
Satellites will risk intensifying this imbalance if vigorous international action is not undertaken, and if technical aid is not brought to developing countries. This imbalance manifests itself particularly in the following fields:
The present structures and configurations of the telecommunications networks between developing countries are based only on rates of profitability and of volume of traffic, and so are a serious handicap in the development of information and communication. The handicap is felt both at the levels of the medium and of the tariff:
Concerning the medium—besides the absence of direct links—a concentration of communication networks exists in the developed countries. The equipment imposed by the former colonial powers excludes, for certain developing countries, the possibility of sending information beyond their frontiers (ground base stations allowing only the reception of television programmes produced in the industrialized countries, without any possibility of broadcasting towards them).
Concerning tariffs the situation is even more striking, and even more excessive in certain aspects. The present pricing system was set up in a way that disadvantages small output, and so it perpetuates the stranglehold of the rich countries over the circulation of information. To say the least, it is strange that for the same distance, communication should be more expensive between two points inside developing countries than between two others situated in developed countries.
Similarly, nothing can justify the fact that the same communication can cost less when it travels from a developed to a developing country than in the opposite way. The survival of anachronistic methods is the reason why, for example, a telegraphic press circuit sometimes costs as much or even more than a telephone circuit. How can the big press agencies justify the privilege that gives them, because of the density of their traffic, fulltime use of circuits at a cost that in certain cases does not amount to any more than the cost of a daily average of one hour? The situation is made even worse in certain countries, where the telecommunications network has been contracted over to foreign companies whose aim is to make a profit, and to canalise international traffic towards their home country.
Although the 1977 Geneva Conference tried to establish main heads of procedure to prevent abuses in the use of satellites, the developing countries are still threatened by anarchic utilisation of outer space, which worsens the imbalance of the present telecommunications system.
Allocation of radio frequencies
The problem of the dividing up of the spectrum of frequencies, a limited universal natural resource, now presents itself with particular urgency. The developing countries are more determined than ever to contest vigorously the right that the developed countries have arrogated to themselves in the use of the frequency spectrum. They are also determined to secure for themselves a fair share of this spectrum.
It is a secret for nobody that almost 90 percent of the source of the spectrum is held by a few countries and that the developing countries, with far greater stretches of territory, possess fewer channels than the developed countries. The power density to the square kilometre is four times less in the developing countries than in the developed.
Transport of publications
The imbalance already noted in the telecommunications field can also be seen in the field of the circulation of newspapers and publications.
—Tariff rates and the exchange of newspapers are fixed, like the rates for all other correspondence, by the Universal Postal Convention and all members of the Universal Postal Union are obliged to respect these rates.
—With regard to newspapers, and bearing in mind their role as purveyors of information, culture, and education, the Universal Postal Convention leaves its member countries free to concede a 50 percent reduction of tariff to all printed matter, including newspapers, periodicals, books, and brochures.
—As well as the optional nature of this reduction, air transport imposes a bottom rate which does not favour publications with a small circulation, that is those from the developing countries.
The developing countries are aware of these dangers and these various imbalances. Meetings between the Heads of State of the Non-Aligned Countries, the frequent meetings of international organisations and the contacts between organisations directly or indirectly linked with information, have helped to clarify what actions need to be taken to establish a new world information order. With this aim in view, certain structures have been set up at the regional level (African, Asian, Latino American, and Arab radio and agency unions) and also at the level of the non-aligned nations (such as the intergovernmental council for the coordination of information, the coordination committee for the news agencies’ pool, the cooperation committee for radio services, the telecommunications experts committee …).
But these are limited achievements. Their merit is that they have expressed a wish for progress and change. The essential remains to be done and there is still a long road to travel. Success depends above all on the developing countries, but also on cooperation from their partners, i.e. the developed countries and the international organisations. How then should one create this new world information order, and what would it consist of?
World total 24,980
Developed countries 23,840
Developing countries 1,140
Television receivers (per thousand people)
World total (in millions) 384
Developed countries 301
Developing countries 22
World total 25,510
Developed countries 18,840
Developing countries (excluding China, Korea, Vietnam) 6,670
Radio receivers (per thousand people)
World total 305
Developed countries 696
Developing countries 83
World total receivers (in millions) 953
Developed countries 788
Developing countries 165
*A copy of the New World Information Order manifesto was xeroxed (with some resistance from the personnel) at the AID Agency for International Development, office in Washington.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee