William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).
This article appeared in the Christian Century April 14, 1982 p. 442. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Insistence on ‘free flow’ of information is seen by the Third World as the freedom of the fox in the chicken coop. “We don’t have a free press; we have a press imprisoned by commercial interests.”
In October 1980, the 21st General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), meeting in Belgrade, received a report and issued a declaration on communication that has caused a furor in the Western press.
The New York Times featured an editorial titled “UNESCO as Censor.” Time magazine issued a full-page editorial statement on “The Global First Amendment War.” Hundreds of newspapers carried stories similar to Editor and Publisher’s “Press Groups Denounce UNESCO Plan on Media.” During the past year and a half there has flowed a small but steady stream of reports full of anger, fear and righteous indignation. For, in these actions the press sees mortal threats to its freedom — while many Third World leaders see a chance for simple justice.
At stake is a fundamental ingredient that makes democracy possible: the flow of information — without which people cannot possibly govern themselves. But also at stake are power and profits on a grand scale. The rich mixture of principle and self-interest in this debate amply demonstrates the complexity of moral decision-making that the new communications technology is forcing upon us.
UNESCO’s new look at worldwide communications has its roots in the formation of the Third World concept itself. In 1956 the leaders of most of the former colonies met in Bandung and organized a “nonaligned” movement. They understood their group as a third force to act as a buffer between proponents of capitalism (First World) and those of communism (Second World). This Third World group pressed immediately for a new economic independence from both First and Second Worlds. The United Nations was their forum.
In May 1974 the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration of the Establishment of a New International Information Order. At the same time, Third World leaders began pressing for similar action in the areas of news and information. Mustapha Masmoudi, Tunisian secretary of state for in-formation, issued a call for the development of a New International Information Order (NIIO), asserting that the Western concept of a “free flow” of information, like freedom of the seas, free markets and free trade, in fact conceals the real nature of neoimperial control.
In 1976 UNESCO’s Director General Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow was authorized to appoint an International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems. The commission, under the leadership of Sean MacBride (former foreign minister of Ireland and recipient of both the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes), completed its work in time for the General Conference in Belgrade, October 1980. The report, Many Voices, One World (Unipub, 1980), supported the principles of free reporting of news, but it also encouraged state regulation of the media and suggested that UNESCO give priority to “the elaboration of international norms” in its communication program.
The Belgrade Assembly merely referred the MacBride Commission report to its member governments, without endorsing any of its conclusions. However, the assembly went on to produce its own shocks to the West. The Group of 77, a bloc of more than 100 developing countries, had come with a detailed description of a “New World Information Order.” After strenuous negotiations, the sections that were most offensive to the West were removed. These included “the right of peoples . . . to comprehensive and true information,” “the right of each nation” to inform the world about its affairs, and “the right of each nation to protect its cultural and social identity against the false or distorted information which may cause harm.”
In the end, however, all of the participating nations for the first time accepted a document saying that it is possible to define a new information order. Only the United Kingdom stated that it would have opposed the resolution had it come to a vote (instead, it was adopted by consensus). The U.K. objected to the very idea of defining the new order; its position got no votes from other Western nations.
Belgrade affirmed that UNESCO should lay “a major role in the examination and solution of problems in this domain.” The assembly also agreed on a number of guidelines for the new information order:
1. elimination of the imbalances and inequalities which characterize the present solution;
2. elimination of the negative effects of certain monopolies, public or private, and excessive concentrations;
3. removal of the internal and external obstacles to a free flow and wider and better balanced dissemination of information and ideas;
4. plurality of sources and channels of information;
5. freedom of the press and information;
6. the freedom of journalists . . . a freedom inseparable from responsibility;
7. the capacity of developing countries to achieve improvement of their own situations, notably by providing their own equipment, by training their personnel, by improving their infrastructures and by making their information and communication means suitable to their needs and aspirations;
8. the sincere will of developed countries to help them attain these objectives;
9. respect for each people’s cultural identity and the right of each nation to inform the world public about its interests, its aspirations and its social and cultural values.
The U.S. delegation response was ambivalent. According to “The U.S. View on Belgrade,” a report of the State Department prepared under the supervision of Sarah G. Power, “The resolution on the MacBride Report is largely what we had sought. . . . It calls for widespread dissemination of the Report, for study and reflection, but little concrete action as far as implementation is concerned.” The U.S. also realized a major objective, the establishment of an International Program for Development of Communication (IPDC), a UNESCO-based information clearinghouse aimed at assisting the Third World in the development of communication.
But the U.S. delegation said that the 1981-83 UNESCO communication program and budget ranged “from unhelpful to totally unacceptable.” Some of the programs most objectionable to the U.S. were “studies and conferences on protection of journalists, journalistic standards, freedom and responsibility in communication, international right of reply and rectification, advertising content and management of media.”
And while the State Department reacted with caution, the U.S. press reacted with rage, panic and considerable bias. Joseph A. Mehan of UNESCO charges that “with amazing uniformity, U S. newspapers have accused UNESCO of encouraging censorship, state control of the press, licensing of journalists by the state, and, in general, of being the archenemy of freedom of the press.”
A. H. Raskin, former assistant editor of the editorial page of the New York Times and currently associate director of the National News Council in New York, conducted a study of some 448 news clippings and 206 editorials dealing with Belgrade, from newspapers in all parts of the United States. He discovered that by far the most news stories, 39 per cent, dealt with the debate over communications policy, and that 88 per cent of the editorials were on this topic. Of these editorials, 87 per cent were strongly hostile — so much so that 27 newspapers suggested U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO if it persisted in moves seen as threatening press freedom.
Comments Raskin: “Not one story emanating from the six-week conference dealt with any of the reports, speeches, or resolutions on UNESCO’s basic activities in combating illiteracy, developing alternate energy sources, protecting historic monuments, broadening educational programs for scientists and engineers, or sponsoring basic research in food production, ocean sciences and scores of other fields.” One might well ask whether the press’s shoddy treatment of the Belgrade conference exemplifies the very problems that prompted the New Information Order debate.
And the heat is still on. In May 1981, some 100 representatives of print and broadcast organizations from the U.S. and 20 other nations met in the French Alps, where they adopted the “Declaration of Talloires,” calling on UNESCO to “abandon attempts to regulate news content and formulate rules for the press.” In June, Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, charged that UNESCO had “lent itself to a massive assault on the free flow of information” and challenged General Secretary M’Bow that if he did not remain “neutral” and avoid confrontation on the issue, he faced a battle with the U.S. “This is a war UNESCO cannot win,” Abrams declared.
What are the issues involved that would cause such a strong reaction from the communication industry? They are freedom, justice and money — as viewed from the different perspectives of the First and Third Worlds.
First Amendment guarantees of free press and speech are among the most cherished U.S. rights, and for good reason. One has only to live a few months in a country whose press is dominated by government edict to recognize how stultifying it can be and how indispensable the Western tradition of press freedom is to individual well-being and to the democratic political process.
In recent years, however, there has arisen a kind of mystical attraction to the principle of free speech, an awe and obeisance which society reserves for its objects of worship. It is as though free speech were a kind of first principle — self-evident, self-validating, deserving unquestioning loyalty. But surely it is dangerous to deify any ethical principle, even one so important as the idea that an individual has a right to be heard.
There are at least three reasons why it is dangerous to absolutize the idea of free speech. One is that free speech is in reality instrumental to a higher political good. Even James Madison insisted that the right of people to speak and to listen is not an end in itself, but a means of achieving “popular government”; that is, a democratic process in which people have the opportunity to take part in the decisions which affect their lives. In some cases, the absolute right to speak could actually subvert that process, as illustrated by the “right” to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, or the “right” of advertisers to misinform the public. We have laws that proscribe these “rights.”
Second, the right of free speech should not be absolutized because it thus becomes sell-contradictory. Constitutional lawyer Ronald Dworkin recently pointed out in the New York Review of Books (“Is the Press Losing the First ‘Amendment?,” December 4, 1980) that
every extension of the First Amendment is, from the standpoint of democracy, a double-edged sword. It enhances democracy because public information increases the general power of the public. But it also contracts democracy because any constitutional right disables the popularly elected legislature from enacting some legislation it might otherwise wish to enact, and this decreases the general power of the public.
Dworkin argues that the support of free speech as a requirement for democracy demands, by its own logic, “some threshold line to be drawn between interpretations of the First Amendment that would protect and those that would invade democracy.”
This, he believes, is what the Supreme Court does when it describes, in general terms, “what manner of invasion of the powers of the press would so constrict the flow of information to the public as to leave the public unable intelligently to decide whether to overturn (any particular) limitation of the press by further legislation.”
And finally, free speech ought not be absolutized because the First Amendment basically protects not the right of the press to speak, but the right of every citizen to listen. The courts have made this distinction clear. For example, Warren E. Burger, in his opinion in the landmark Red Lion case, stated that “it is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount?’
Thus it can be argued that if a “free” press were to become so economically or politically powerful that it could actually withhold news and information to such an extent that citizens no longer could participate as equals in the process of governing themselves, then we should expect government, through the courts or the legislature, to take steps to create new sources of news and information and to curb the monopoly power of that “free” press. Clearly, even journalists and political liberals must be careful not to invoke free speech as a sacrosanct and inviolable principle in the creation of an international information order.
This issue has been analyzed by Howard C. Anawalt, a constitutional law professor, at the University of Santa Clara, in an article titled “Is the Macbride Commission’s Approach Compatible with the United States Constitution?” (Journal of Communication, Autumn 1981). He concludes that it is.
The Commission approach offers both a physical foundation and a set of protective principles for development of a worldwide communication freedom. It passes the basic test of compatibility with United States constitutional norms. Informed United States criticism should therefore take the tack of seeking to improve the proposed new order, rather than rejecting it altogether.
A second issue has to do with justice for Third World nations: how is it possible to get genuine communication flowing where there is very little of it to start with? If there is no press in a nation, who is responsible to create one? This is the dilemma facing Third World countries, many of which have no indigenous press of their own, but only a remnant of colonial sources — perhaps a small news and information outlet for the urban elite, and shortwave broadcasts beamed in from the superpowers.
Frank Campbell, information minister of Guyana, has responded to Western charges that the new information order would give UNESCO jurisdiction over news media:
The issue is not UNESCO controlling the media. The question is [how] to have a basis of communication other than a purely commercial one and communication ethics based on something other than ethnocentricity and historical arrogance. We are not saying UNESCO should issue a license saying you must have so many stories coming out of Guyana, Tanzania or India, and what these stories must say.
American First Amendment advocates must face the fact that imposition of our highly industrialized model of big press as a check against the excesses of big government has limited relevance to many places in the Third World where there is little literacy and practically no economic market for news.
The insistence on absolute freedom or a “free flow” of information is seen by the developing nations as the freedom of the fox in the chicken coop. Campbell speaks eloquently for the Third World:
By a free press, in the West, you mean a press owned by a few people who have a commercial monopoly, really a monopoly of the conscience of mankind. They are “the good people” and they “know what is right.” A free press means, for you, that the owner of the press is free to prevent whom he wants from being heard. You don’t have a free press at all. You have a press imprisoned by commercial interests.
Our own late A. J. Liebling also said it: “Freedom of the press is reserved for those who own one.”
It is difficult for people in the U.S. to understand that government can have a legitimate role in communication. In Europe, however, almost every nation has a long tradition of government-related news and information agencies, some of which are, highly respected. The BBC is established by Parliament and depends on its levy of a set tax. Severiges Radio in Sweden has a similar government tie. Broadcasting in Germany is the creature of the individual Länder (states). And Japan has a mix of commercial and noncommercial broadcasting: NHK, one of the most respected news organizations in the world, was created and is sustained by government edict.
Of course, governmental dominance of news and information too often has been the handmaiden of dictatorships, oligopolies and generally repressive regimes. There is a great deal of hypocrisy among many leaders of the Third World and the U.S.S.R. in calling for a free and balanced flow of information at a time when there is a nonexistent flow of news and information between the power elite and the masses in their own nations. Certainly UNESCO must be as critical of political constraints as it is of economic and cultural constraints on news flow, and the MacBride Report makes these dangers abundantly clear. But to insist on rigidly applying our own historically derived concept of press freedom to the Third World, and to reject out of hand any possible role of government in ensuring the free flow of news and information, is in fact unfaithful to the principle of democracy underlying our own First Amendment.
Third, profit is a major issue in the debate. The role of commercial enterprise in news and information is being seriously questioned.
Many Third World leaders have a strong bias against free enterprise as the basis for maintaining the communication process that undergirds their national destiny. This anticommercialism causes the U.S. media to see red: they are certain that behind the bias lurks the long arm of Soviet control or, at the very least, a tilt toward communism. And it is true that for many years the U.S.S.R. has been using the communication issue to alienate the Third World from the First.
The nonaligned nations have seen what commercial media have done to the flow of news and information both within the United States and, to some degree, in their own nations. In the U.S. the broadcast and print media have increasingly turned viewers and readers into a product to be delivered to the real audience — the sponsors. As a result, the mass media’s primary objective has changed: its goal no longer is to inform or enlighten or even to entertain, but rather to reach and hold the largest possible audience, regardless of the damage done to other journalistic objectives.
In America the use of the sensational, the shocking, the titillating, the celebrity cult and the stereotype have become routine because news has become merely one more audience attention-getter rather than a function justifiable on its own merits. And since attention-getting is paramount, there is little information about marginal people — the poor, the elderly, the Third World.
All of this comes naturally to a system which deals with news and information as a means to a commercial end. But this is also the reason that Third World nations have pressed hard for a document stating a preference for “noncommercial forms of mass communication.” And although the Belgrade statement makes no mention of anticommercialism, the MacBride Report proposes in recommendation number 58 that “effective legal measures should be designed to: limit the process of concentration and monopolization; [and] . . . reduce the influence of advertising upon editorial policy and broadcast programming.” The strong reaction of the U.S. delegation to such proposals makes it abundantly clear what the real priorities of our government are — with regard to scope, balance, depth and fairness in news and information on the one hand and profits for business on the other.
In dealing with a subject so complex, and played for such large stakes, what guiding principles might help us move toward just and equitable worldwide communication?
First, the basic objective of public communication should be to enable people to participate fully in their own development and that of their nation. A structure or process which hinders that objective — whether it be political, economic, ideological or social — should be reformed or rejected. Every individual has the right to know; that is, every just society must create and maintain those conditions in which each citizen is able to take part in politics intelligently and as the equal of any other. People must have the technical means both to speak and to listen if they are to participate in the process of governing themselves.
Second, government has a role in maintaining the rights of citizenship. The question of private versus state ownership and control must be secondary to the creation and maintenance of communication structures that facilitate genuine democratization. All forms of authoritarianism should be rejected, including domination of the media by economic power groups and elites.
Third, the Third World nations should be allowed to develop their own collective self-reliance in news, information and entertainment, progressing at a rate and in a manner appropriate to their needs rather than in conformity to the marketplace needs of the industrialized nations.
In achieving these objectives we ought consciously to reject the temptation to take communication models of the developed nations and try to make them “fit” the Third World. Rather, whole new forms of communication, appropriate for developing nations, need to be devised. We must ask: What are the existing communication processes in the nation, and how can they be improved and developed? Simple, inexpensive media, such as radio, local telephones and newspapers, may suit the needs of a developing nation far better than television, satellites and big-city newspapers. The objective should be maximum participation and maximum sources and diversity of information, not maximum profits for large communication conglomerates or maximum political control for a tiny power elite.
Just as there must come a new world economic order, there must come a new world communication order. Its goal must be to enable people everywhere to guide their own future. It will take time, but it must come. We are living in a world in which, each moment, we become increasingly interdependent, and in which exploitation becomes increasingly self-destructive.
Today there is no place we can run from the consequences of our actions. If this new communication order is truly coming, then we in the United States should be in the forefront, making it happen. And even if it is not imminent, we should work toward making the goal a reality.