Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO)


The New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) is a term that was coined in a debate over media representations of the developing world in UNESCO in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The term was widely used by the MacBride Commission, a UNESCO panel chaired by Nobel Prize winner Seán MacBride, which was charged with creation of a set of recommendations to make global media representation more equitable. The MacBride Commission produced a report titled "Many Voices, One World", which outlined the main philosophical points of the New World Information Communication Order.

Rights relating to communication have been central to the concept of universal human rights emerging in the mid-20th century, and its consolidation in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The idea of a “right to communicate”was at the centre of an international diplomatic row that lasted several years the debate over what became known as a New World Information and Communication Order - NWICO.

As the only UN body equipped to debate in a coherent manner the range of issues raised, the battle would primarily be staged at UNESCO, where it would stay for a decade. From 1973, the NAM was developing a much more sophisticated plan for a New World Information Order. At the 1976 UNESCO General Assembly, the wide gulf between NAM and western countries (USA, UK and others) became apparent. A showdown was avoided only by the creation of the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems or the MacBride Commission. It was set up in 1977 by then director of UNESCO Ahmadou-Mahtar M’Bow, under suggestion by the USA delegation. It was agreed that the commission would be chaired by Seán MacBride from Ireland and representatives from 15 other countries, invited due to their roles in national and international communication activities and picked among media activists, journalists, scholars, and media executives.

The commission presented a preliminary report in October 1978 at the 20th General Conference of UNESCO in Paris. The final report was delivered to M’Bow in April 1980 and was approved by consensus in the 21st General Conference of UNESCO in Belgrade. The commission dissolved after presenting the report.

Many Voices One World, also known as the MacBride report, was a 1980 UNESCO publication written by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems. Its aim was to analyze communication problems in modern societies, particularly relating to mass media and news, and to suggest a new communication order to solve these problems to further peace and human development.

Among the problems the report identified were concentration of the media, commercialization of the media, and unequal access to information and communication. The commission called for democratization of communication and strengthening of national media to avoid dependence on external sources, among others. While the report had strong international support, it was condemned by the United States and the United Kingdom as an attack on the freedom of the press.

The MacBride Commission’s report bore the hallmarks of a fractious political process, fudging many issues and containing numerous caveats. But it was comprehensive (with a notable weakness in relation to gender) and wide-ranging, and came with concrete recommendations, including:

“Communication needs in a democratic society should be met by the extension of specific rights such as the right to be informed, the right to inform, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public communication - all elements of a new concept, the right to communicate. In developing what might be called a new era of social rights, we suggest all the implications of the right to communicate be further explored.”

For the first time, the NWICO had a general framework, a detailed justification, a set of proposals, and a unifying concept - the “right to communicate”.
Eventually the Commission’s findings were endorsed-a defining moment for NWICO, but one which was short-lived. The veneer of agreement was thin; instead of bringing the sides together, the process merely exposed the gulf between them and entrenched the positions, especially of West governments mired within Cold War geo-politics.

NWICO, spearheaded by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of UN countries focused on:
The “free flow” doctrine of information flow, which was reinforcing the dominance of western media and news content;

The growing concentration of the media and communication industry translating into more foreign ownership of media in smaller and poorer countries;
How the growing importance of western-controlled technologies to media production and dissemination was making it difficult for others to keep up.

The USA led a “counter-offensive” on UNESCO, supported strongly by the private media industry and lobbies. The main charge was that less developed countries were attempting to impose government control of media, and to suppress freedom of the press - despite the fact that press freedom was strongly endorsed at every turn by NWICO. The US (in 1984) and UK (in 1985) eventually withdrew from UNESCO, partly due to NWICO.

While the newly politicised “information society” was becoming ascendant, NWICO in its original form had declined. It did manage to stay on the UNESCO agenda, though with little action, until 1987. With the “New Communication Strategy” under new UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor in 1989, it basically died out. Yet the arguments that animated the NWICO movement continued, and even in some respects became sharper. The arguments continued to surface in new calls-outside of governments this time - for “communication rights”.

For many, the main lesson from NWICO was that the way forward would have to be through the democratization of media and communication, rather than through state - or industry - led efforts to create new global orders. In practice, a major shift was needed towards civil society, which had so far been largely excluded. Those that had been involved - mainly journalists’ organizations and some academics -continued debating in the form of the MacBride Round Table, which met annually from 1989 to 1999, and brought new civil society actors into the discussion.

By the 1990s, various coalitions were formed and initiatives taken to address the larger picture underlying many of these concerns, among them the People’s Communication Charter and the Platform for Democratization of Communication. Many broad-based conferences and meetings were held to pull the threads together and exchange understanding internationally.

CLICK for full text of MacBride report