IDRC Pan Asia Networking sponsorship

Channels of Communication:  Individual, Nation and the International Community

By: Brij Tankha, Centre for the Development of Instructional Technology, New Delhi, India, presented at Waigani 97 Seminar, PNG

The new technologies which have allowed us to communicate with greater speed and efficiency have also helped to generate two contending forces. Those with access to financial and military resources are now better placed to exercise control through these new resources more widely and more intensively than it has been possible in the past. However, though this control can be pervasive these technologies, because of decreasing costs and miniaturization, have also enabled smaller social groups, as well as individuals, to become not merely consumers of information and knowledge but allowed them the possibility of becoming producers and transmitters of information and knowledge. This has enabled them to gain a degree of control over their lives.

The control over information has been a central tenet of the modern nation-state. The modern school systems were created to cultivate a loyal and patriotic citizenry and in this pursuit other symbols of the nation were pressed into service. This was accompanied by rules and regulations which punished transgression and regulated the nature of public debate and social opinion. Most democratic societies have managed to enshrine free speech and remove most of these burdensome restriction but even today governments exercise a wide degree of control over what can be published and what can be broadcast. This control has worked partly because of a widely accepted social framework but also because the costs involved in printing or in disseminating information has been too high for individuals and small groups to sustain over a period of time. This is why the hand bill and the poster have been the medium favoured by marginal groups. The computer and other audio-visual technologies have created the possibility for individuals to become publishers and producers and the internet has allowed them the possibility of worldwide distribution. The very forces of economic development harnessed to create strong states have gone beyond national boundaries and have circumscribed the earlier powers of the nation state. The internationalization of manufacturing and finances undermines the nation state’s ability to control its affairs without reference to the international community. The reach of global powers through international institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank show how individuals and states are molded by forces, benign as well as malevolent, that they lack effective control over. The experience of the Wilson government in the late 1960’s, Mitterand’s attempt to "go it alone" in the early 1980’s and that of innumerable developing countries forced to follow the market shows that in pursuing the formation of a global community where the free trade of goods has been equated with the free trade in ideas, profit more than social justice has become the sole determinant of policies. The expansion of multi-national corporations, using national strength when necessary, particularly in the field of communications, has ensured that the would has been bound by a Western dominated media network, radio, television, and the press, These developments have implications both for the individuals and their interaction’ within the national framework and for nations in the community of nations. The relationship between the individual and the nation is being redefined just as the sovereignty of the nation state is undermined by transnational forces which have removed their ability to control and regulate.

The prime importance of the United States in shaping the world particularly after WWII has meant that U.S. policies need to be understood. President Harry Truman began a policy of providing technical assistance and financial aid to poor countries after the war. This was done to revive markets and ensure that countries did not join the Communist bloc. These policies helped to define a development paradigm. The strategy envisioned to counter the growth of non-market societies and secure the former colonial world was buttressed by theoretical concepts propounded by scholars like David Lerner and others who argued that in this new globalize communications has "largely replaced the coercive means by which colonial territories were seized and held….The persuasive transmission of enlightenment is the modern paradigm of international communications" . This thinking undergirds subsequent policies.

Yet the surge in economic development after W.E.II was spread unevenly so that there is a wide gap between the haves’ and the have not’s. The GDP of Switzerland is over $36,000 while countries in The Indian sub-continent, Africa and parts of Asia are well below $500. This disparity is also apparent in other social indicators: life expectancy, child mortality, education. Economic development has also seen the increasing power of transnational corporations which unlike their earlier predecessors work in a more tightly integrated global network. The surge in global capital flows has been made possible by the de-regulation of the worlds money markets and by the new communications technologies computers, satellites, fiber-optic cables, etc. This has, according to some, brought about the possibilities of increased prosperity and consumer choice not just in goods but in ideas as well for people around the world and the Internet was used to tell the world about Chiapas, Mexico. But the dangers for those outside the "triad" of North America, Europe and Japan is that many of these are unreal choices for the Western dominated media has helped to shape the way people think and what they desire.

The world over people are beginning to watch the same programmes and listen to the same news bulletins. This has happened because control over the media is concentrated in a few hands. After W.W.II Reuters and other European news agencies were displaced by AP and UPI, Hollywood films flooded the world supported by the Motion Picture Export Association, as did TV serials and programmes, as well as magazines and books. This domination helped also to spread the teaching of English which became the language of choice for many around the world. The free flow of information was helping to shape and mould the world in the Western image, a fact recognized by the leaders of the non-aligned countries when they met in Algiers in 1973 where they pointed to imperialism "imposing an alien ideological domination over the peoples of the developing world" through cultural and social policies. To counter the one way flow of information they sought to reduce the domination of Western media and introduce greater South-South exchange.

The 19th General Conference of UNESCO in Nairobi, Kenya 1976 marked the high point of this reformist attempt to address the "information imbalance" The appointment of the MacBride Commission chaired by Sean MacBride brought out its report Many Voices, One World in 1980. This was accompanied by a series of studies as well. The U.S. supported this effort but also began to offer technological assistance to expand communications facilities so that the emphasis was placed on the technical solutions which replaced the debate over content and control. Technical competence has much wider effect than often allowed for it affects the design, manufacture and operation of communication systems as well as software production. The debate in shaping not only technical but social standards created a rift and the U.S. withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 because as a State Department official stated effects "to develop normative standards that would impose restraints on Western media and restrict activities of transnational corporations".

Transnational corporations have become increasingly powerful as the smaller players have been merged or amalgamated to form giant holdings that exercise a strong control over much of these new technological developments reducing the power of the nation and state and its ability to take independent decisions. Ben Bagdikian writes "In 1982, when I completed research for my book, The Media Monopoly, 50 corporations controlled half or more of the media business. By December 1986, when I finished a revision for the second edition, the 50 had shrunk to 29. The last time I counted, it was down to 26." In newspapers the national or regional monopoly is crucial so in the U.S. of the 1700 daily papers 98 per cent are local monopolies and fewer than 15 corporations account for most of the daily circulation. Costs of establishing a national paper are more than a billion dollars. Publishing has also been hit by mergers. Gulf and Western own Paramount Studios, Simon and Shuster and Prentice Hall. The Newhouse chain bought The New Yorker and hold Random House, Alfred A.Knopf, Pantheon, Vilard, Times Books, and Vantage books as well. In cable TV the top four operators control one-third of cable subscribers. Tele-Communications controls 18.5 per cent of total subscribers in the U.S. and is owned by Time Inc.

Telcom networks have both economic and strategic value. In the United States the Clinton administration created the Information Infrastructure Task Force in 1994 and in March of that year the Vice-President A1 Gore proposed the Global Information Infrastructure at the first World Telecommunication Development Conference (Buenos Aires) to foster economic growth, development as well as political stability, social improvement and the spread of democracy. The effect of these policies was global and in Asia in 1994 at Bogor an APII for the APEC countries, which have a combined GNP of K13.2 trillion, 65 per cent of the worlds annual output, was suggested to ensure greater economic development.

The global networks have helped to transform the way industry is organised and allowed it a greater degree of flexibility in choosing locations to minimise costs and union influence as well as reduce government control and regulation. Communication technologies have made possible the emergence of web enterprises where "intra-corporate networks run alongside an intricate web of inter-corporate networks, linking manufactures, traders, financial companies and distributors. Networks of this kind are evolving as a parallel track to the traditional trade in physical goods. Telecommunications is the core of this organisational structure so that countries that lack access to modern telecommunications systems cannot participate in the global economy.

This means that large parts of the globe are isolated from the benefits of these communication links and cannot exploit the possibilities that these systems have to offer to develop and enrich their economies and enable their citizens to exercise a chose. The Maitland Commission report The Missing Link (Nairobi 1982) had pointed out these imbalances noting that two thirds of the world population have no access to telephones and more than half the worlds population lives in countries with fewer than 10 million phones. This is still true and the figures are largely unchanged. The first APEC Ministerial Meeting on Telecommunications and Information Industry in Seoul 1995 laid down the principles and objectives to correct this imbalance through the integration and extension of a tele-communication network. The negotiating Group on Basic Telecommunications does not have binding power hence members can withdraw if they do not approve of the measures. The objective is to first provide a telcom structure within the country and this will no doubt benefit the transnational corporations which control the manufacture of telcom equipment and software – out of the 850 largest companies 30 are U.S and 29 are Japan based. Of the top 15 telcom companies, 9 are from the U.S. In the telcom equipment market 3 of the ten are from North America (AT&T, Northern Telcom and GTC), five from Europe (Alcatel, Siemens, Ericsson, Bosch, Philips) and two are Japanese (NEC and Fujitsu). In computers the story is much the same: 15 of the top 25 are U.S. (IBM, HP, DEC, Compaq, Apple, Unisys, AT&T, EDS, Sun, Microsoft, Xerox, Seagate, Dell, Computer Sciences, Qantum) . Seven are from Japan (Fujitsu, NECA, Hitachi, Canon, Toshiba, Matsushita, NTT Data) and three from Europe (Siemens, Olivetti, Bull).

The manufacture of equipment and hardware is controlled by these trans-nationals but the control over software has equally serious implications for the long-term impact on regional and local cultures and styles of living. The influx of programmes which conflict with local values has caused concern not just among "fundamentalists" but among a wide range of people who seek to preserve openness while retaining their cultural and intellectual heritage as a vital and living entity. In the Asia Pacific region 36% of transmission time is for imported programmes with the share of imported programming to indigenous ranging from 75-3% (Doordarshan Calcutta has the lowest percentage). On an average imported programes are broadcast for 10 hours a day (3 in Vietnam and 20 in New Zealand) and a majority of the children’s programmes are imported (55%) while for entertainment it is 49% imported while informational, educational, cultural and religious programmes are domestically produced The bulk of the imported programmes are from the US, Hong Kong and Japan.

Democratic media must address the following issues: formulate a global strategy and vision to contend with private transnational corporations: technical policies can affect room for maneuver e.g., new standards for Digital Audio Broadcasting or Intelsat’s role will affect availability of low cost transponders. Cross fertilization and linkage of media e.g. e-mail for news exchange for later broadcast, resource centres sharing facilities, information; addressing real needs and developing a secure economic base. For this it is is necessary to create a democratic alliance, build and experiment with democratic structures which will depend on ability to mobilise people, intervene in policy formation e.g. WTO, UNESCO. As suggested by Sean O Siochru community and development NGO’s should be seen not as an alternative but as a means to supplement global, national, regional governments in areas where they are constrained or compromised. These groups must use the opportunities offered by liberalisation to increase their role and area for maneuver. This is important for development is not just in providing goods but also information and with that knowledge as well. The poor are also becoming information poor because they cannot afford to create the huge data bases and resource networks that have been created in the developed world. Even for information about their own regions, whether social or scientific they are dependent on the developed world or, increasingly, transnational corporations.

It is necessary to break away from questions of technology when discussing the question of information and communication. The technical questions are important as they help to define standards and thus can serve to exclude people from the benefits of the system. The need to ensure that people have a right to information will help in empowering them and ensuring that they have a degree of control over the shape of their individual and social lives. In the United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, chaired the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. The report, titled Secrecy, found that the government spent $5.6 billion in 1995 in classifying documents. This authority was exercised by some twenty-nine departments and agencies. Some three million people were involved in these exercises. Yet "open sources" (books newspapers, public broadcasts) can account for up to 95 per cent of this information! Classification, even in democratic societies, is far from neutral, for they found that most of the documents were classified "to hide negative political information, not secrets." Moreover, declassification is proceeding so slowly that what should be a available can take years to get and what is supplied is often heavily excised. Rules and regulations have to be drafted keeping this mind so that they actually serve the purposes that they were intended to.

The control over information and access gives the authorities, even in democratic societies, far greater power than required for administrative purposes. As one attempt to break this stranglehold groups in India have been working for the right to information. They have found that the development strategies pursued by the government have served to paralyze the access of the poor to power so that right to information is not just the freedom of expression but a necessary condition for their livelihood. In the first stage of this movement in the state of Rajasthan, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan identified jan sunwaii or "public hearings" as one way to wrest control over this right. They organised public hearings in five blocks of four districts starting from June 1994. Gram sewaks or village level workers, opposed these hearings because they were the main beneficiaries of corruption which was exposed in these hearings. The public hearings allowed the people of the village to pool their information and check the government records to see where and how public money was spent. It served both to reinforce community ties and to instill a sense of participation as well as a means to check malpractice by officials.

In the first hearing at Kot Kirana (Pali District) false names on muster rolls as false bills were found. In Bhim,Rajsamand District a public hearing held on December 7 1994 exposed a fraud of 37 lakh rupees. In Vijayapura, Devgarh, block there were similar stories – Rs 14 lakhs defrauded over a period of four years from a programme which provides 56 grams of dalia and 8 grams of oil per day. The politicians, as much as many of the government officials, were opposed to transparency as then would not be able to recover election expenses. In the second stage the villagers began a forty day agitation in Beawar in April 1996. Pressure brought on the government led the Chief Minister, despite a strike by Gram Sewaks so that they would not provide development information to the public, to announce that he was giving the Right to Information in April 1995. This was the first grass roots struggle for the right to information. The significance of the campaign is that it is a peoples' struggle and the issue or corruption though important is incidental. In gaining access to information they can check the power of the local bureaucrats and politicians and ensure that they work as representatives rather than as rulers over them. This movement led the Press Council to draft a proposal for a Right to Information Act. This proposal was part of the central coalition government’s Common Minimum Programme though it has not seen any strong move to enact the proposal.

The draft of the bill looks at information not merely in terms of records, because much of what affects the public is often not committed to the record and officials may, in future, not record, if the records are open to the public. The right was seen as a fundamental right with the permissible restrictions but what was significant is the proviso that the agency could only withhold information that it would also withhold from Parliament or State assemblies. Other provisions fixed responsibility for supplying information, prescribed a time limit and made it necessary for public agencies to inform the general public of "matters within its knowledge and control as are vital to life, health, and livelihood but not commonly known". Custodial establishments are required, in the proposal, to appoint visitors committees to oversee the functioning of these bodies. In involving a national information policy it is necessary that it must promote development in the full sense of the word – increasing the capacity of individuals, families, local communities, local authorities, private organisations, central governments to plan and manage their own affairs. One important aspect of this process is to recognise the unequal media environment and the control exercised by developed countries and transnational corporations - but merely a demonology of the West will not suffice. It is also necessary to see how developing countries (or the South) have created their own barriers which must be dismantled. In developing a critique of the right to information it is necessary to break out of the commercial parameters that it has been debated in and to include the entire process of communications from, the technological means for the production of information to the participation. To achieve these ends individuals need to work together to evolve receptive groups and associations, cooperatives so that communications is an aspect of social and political transformation.

Channels of Communication: 

In developing countries given the low access to new technologies older media must be integrated in community based and national information infrastructures. The story teller or the street performer cannot be replaced by a multi-media CD ROM but rather they can be integrated so that the most appropriate mix is used to help people to gain control over their lives. At the local level such communication environments must use the cultural resources of the area. The right to communicate will empower but that means the local and global networks must be linked to provide multi-access delivery of information and knowledge.

- by Brij Tankha, Centre for the Development of Instructional Technology, New Delhi, India presented at Waigani 97 seminar

e-mail author:  c/o John Evans evansjoh3@email.com
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