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A Transnational Campaign in Media and Communication

Seán Ó Siochrú. CRIS Campaign

European Social Forum, Paris November 13th 2003.

Summary

A transnational social movement, even an effective transnational campaign, emerges in the presence of certain objective circumstances that give rise to it, coupled with the capacity to successfully exploit those circumstances to build a movement around them. The emergence of an objective threat was never enough in itself to spark a counter-movement. The dangers must be undeniable and general in nature, the causes and impacts transcending national level ; and an initial core group must succeed in communicating their concerns well beyond those directly affected by or initially aware of the problem, and in mobilising these. Only then can a transnational movement emerge.

In media and communication, we believe that objective circumstances are already present for a transnational campaign. What is required is to clearly define and circumscribe the dangers and issues ; to interpret and ’frame’ these in a manner that can bring existing constituencies together and extend to new ones ; to design alternative to the current regimes ; and to mobilise at both national and transnational levels.

The CRIS campaign is seeking others to join together in these tasks.

Introduction

A social movement, even an effective campaign, emerges in response to a set of objective circumstances that threaten the livelihood and well being of people. But this is not a sufficient condition, and these people must be able to exploit the circumstances effectively and to build a movement around them.

In the mid 1980s, the environmental movement moved on to the world stage. It was not accidental. A number of prominent disasters - Bhopal, Chernobyl among them ; and scientific discoveries such as the ozone layer and global warming demonstrated beyond denial that a real danger was (and is) present. People soon recognised that it did not just affect others, but that it could and would affect them too. A movement emerged, that combined many different groups and concerns into something that had global sweep and impact.

A similar argument can be made with other transnational movements and campaigns ; the anti-nuclear movement, the indigenous peoples movement and so forth. The emergence of an objective global threat was never enough in itself to spark a movement to counter it. First the threat had to be evident in a manner that could not be denied, and be general in nature ; second its causes and impacts transcended the national level ; and third, though initially perceived by a core group - often those most affected - this group managed to communicate their concerns well beyond those directly affected or initially aware of the problem. Only then could a transnational movement emerge.

My concern is with media and communication. I want to argue that the objective circumstances of a serious threat are already present, and that they are global both in potential impact and in relation to causes and solutions. These threats impinge on the lives of real people, in many different ways. And there are the beginnings of campaigns at national, regional and global levels to counter these threats and build alternatives.

The issue is what has to be done to raise these beginnings to the level of an effective transnational campaign, even a movement, where the various concerned elements can act with common purpose to achieve shared goals.

I believe that the critical tasks for a global media and communication campaign are :

To circumscribe and define the scope and nature of the issues of a campaign, and the threats they pose. Can we sketch its perimeters, demonstrating satisfactorily what is included and what not, and giving the reasons why ?
To interpret and present these issues (’frame’ them) in a manner that resonates with and is understandable to a much wider audience than the original core group(s), potentially building a broad constituency ;
To bring the existing campaign elements together, current disconnected nationally and transnationally ;
To design and develop alternative approaches and solutions to the issues ;
To mobilise national and international level campaigns and actions that can both tackle the causes and begin to implement alternatives.
The first two constitute the focus of this paper.

1. Circumscribing and Defining the Issues

In media and communication, there is no shortage of candidate problems demanding our attention. Most can be grouped under a set of relatively coherent, if somewhat overlapping, headings. Each of these has emerged or become more acute in the last decade or two ; each is at least beginning to impact on people’s lives in ways that can be determined and felt, with potentially grave long-term implications ; and each has strong transnational dimensions and dynamics :

Privatisation and concentration of media ownership nationally and globally, which is leading to ever more commercially driven agendas that in turn undermine the media’s role in the public sphere ;
Commercialisation of media, and its impact through force-feeding a market driven development model, the propagation of consumerism though advertising and content, and the homogenisation of culture ;

The ever-lengthening of duration of copyright, the imposition of uniform copyright and patent regimes and extreme enforcement through the WTO, which is leading to the enclosure of knowledge into profit-generating corrals and the denial of access to much of that knowledge ;
The failure of liberalisation and privatisation to significantly address the ’digital divide’, in terms of achieving universal access and effective use of ICTs for the majority, which threatens to copper fasten a two tier digital world ;
The erosion of civil rights in the emerging digital environment, coupled with its commercialisation, from internet surveillance to corporate censorships through ISPs.

Indeed, which among these should be selected for a campaign sometimes seems to be the question. Already each is the subject of national campaigns, some striving toward transnational activity and even. What kind of sensible line can be draw around these issues ? What criteria can we use to circumscribe the key issues in an arena as broad as media and communication ? Would it indeed be most effective to focus our attention on one specific area ?

The CRIS campaign believes that a prerequisite to campaign in any of these issues is to take them on together, differentiated but nevertheless coherently grouped under a single umbrella.

Why ?

First, the root causes, the driving forces, of many of these are linked. Behind the first four and partly the last is the global neo-liberal agenda of unregulated capitalism with its tendency to monopoly, rampant mercantilism and private ownership. Wielding enormous political and economic power, its logic is forcefully impressed upon every barrier it meets, whether resistance to the destruction of the public sphere, efforts to protect cultural diversity, or a desire to deploy the fruits of human creativity for the greater social good. The need to maximise profits, and to create the ideal conditions for this, endeavours to sweep aside such obstacles and transform the world in its own image.

Second, there exist many linkages and interdependencies between the sectors of capital that are driving the process, and their dynamics are intertwined. Global media corporations are central actors almost everywhere, often incestuously entwined, and the line between them and telecoms and ISPs have long been blurred. These in turn are closely associated with a small number of powerful governments. Such interconnectedness means that, on the one hand, it is almost impossible to deal with each domain in isolation ; but, on the other, a campaign can gain leverage in one domain by working on another.

Third, many of theses issues fall under the sphere of influence of the WTO. This is no coincidence since the corporate and government interests involved long ago identified the WTO as the most amenable, controllable and powerful of the global governance organisations, that suitably armed could ride roughshod over the UN agencies and human rights and development instruments.

All of these suggest that it would be extremely difficult to isolate any one of these areas and achieve a successful conclusion. The main actors, interests and strategies are too interdependent for them to permit any one area to submit to change. Indeed so much of their success has been through acting collectively and through shared, often arms-length, agendas that is it inevitable that opposition in any one area would be dealt with accordingly. The evidence already suggests this. It has never taken a conspiracy for interrelated sectors of capital to recognise and act on their mutual interests.

Yet a more compelling argument is needed, for so far it is just the internal dynamics and organisation of capital that has driven the argument. It is merely reactive to found a campaign on that basis.

The most important aspect of all of these is the most obvious. Together, these five areas cover virtually the entire set of social mechanisms through which people communicate as social beings. All impact on a single, critical, dimension of human existence - that of social communication. Social communication, as distinct from private, is always mediated in some manner, and the mediation determines the extent to which and in whose interests vital functions in society are implemented - in terms of the political and the public sphere, in terms of identify formation (individual and collective) and cultural diversity, in terms of the creation, transmission and use of social knowledge. The above five areas between them can fundamentally shape and control the outcomes of social communication and who benefits from it. They do this through controlling the creation and ownership of knowledge, the processes and media of dissemination and communication, and its use to solve political, economic and social goals.

Social communication may be seen as a cycle of interactivity through which all the elements of society can relate to each other, completing a process of mutual exchange and learning and potentially enhancing the social benefits of all. That process does not begin at the point of the creation of knowledge (since this anyhow is based on previous communication cycles), but rather constitutes a series of moments in a cycle that runs through creativity, communication, access, interaction, mutual understanding and to further creativity. The higher the mutual understanding developed in the cycles, the more likely the outcome will be socially beneficial. This is crudely illustrated below.

Process of Social Communication

The imminent danger is that each of these moments in the cycle is harnessed to the needs of capital - from the creative process through the imposition of IPRs ; to the dissemination/distribution process through corporate media, censorship and contamination through advertising ; to the moment of accessing and usage through the huge gaps in accessibility, resources and capacities ; the flow becomes interrupted and the fruits of social creativity diverted to the interests of the already powerful private sectoral goals. Equally important, the cycle of society’s interaction is not completed ; true social communication has not taken place ; mutual social learning and enrichment has not been achieved.

The argument for taking all these issues together can thus be animated by the idea that they all in the end are integrally linked to essential components of social communication. Addressing just one link in the chain would in itself fail to create conditions under which a full cycle of communication could take place, and therefore would yield only a small part of the potential benefits.

The CRIS campaign argues that success is possible only be taking all these areas together, and groups them under the concept of ’communication rights’.

Challenges of a Holistic Approach to Communication Rights.
Taking such a holistic views does present special challenges.

First, perhaps the most pressing challenge is to interpret and present such a broad range of issues (to ’frame’ them) in a manner that resonates with and is understandable to a much wider constituency than those directly concerned with one or a few.

Just as the environmental movement - after some considerable effort - developed and popularised the notion of ’sustainable development’ to encapsulate a myriad disparate concerns, so the movement in media and communication needs to be able to frame its issues in a meaningful manner. This is a prerequisite to pulling the existing disparate strands of a campaign together, and to extending it to a wide constituency.

Yet it faces particular challenges as compared to some other areas, arising from the nature of the issues and the sector.

First, developing a campaign on media and communication is especially susceptible to cultural and environmental variations deriving from different historical starting points and development trajectories. For instance the privatisation and liberalisation of media affects us all, but the impact can vary greatly depending on whether media were previous state-controlled, public service oriented, or private but regulated in the public interest ; on whether the population is relatively homogenous or hugely diverse, the traditions of political opposition, and so forth.. The language of resistance may have to be different in different places (e.g. the idea of the ’public sphere’ may be replaced with ’freedom of expression’), but based on deeper concepts that can transcend the differences (the role of the media in democracy).

Second, many campaigns focus on a direct connection between the source of a problem and an identifiable victim, posing the problem and the solution in one move. The campaign against land-mines is a good example, which also casts the issue also in a highly emotive context adding further power. No-one has ever died of media malnutrition. Establishing the link between a war mongering US press and continuing death toll in the invasion of Iraq is certainly possible but it requires several logical steps and a strong willingness to learn. Similarly, the argument that the current regime in copyright and patents is actually stifling human creativity, not rewarding it, is not easy to demonstrate directly or empirically, though with some effort a compelling case can be made.

But there are several useful approaches to inform the process of framing media and communication issues.

One is to link the issue to one of human rights, for instance as was successfully done in the indigenous peoples’ rights movement. The latter was effective because it led easily to a demand that indigenous people were entitled to no more nor less than the same human rights according to everyone else, and the nature of their oppression could easily be translated into the denial of basic human rights.

With media and communication it is not as easy, but still worthwhile. Many aspects of human rights, enshrined in many Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elsewhere, that pertain directly to media and communications issues. They go well beyond freedom of expression in Article 19, to include issues of access to the public domain, to cultural diversity, and to other key communication related issues. Thus the CRIS campaign has chosen the goal of achieving ’Communication Rights’ as its overall frame. (The title ’Communication Rights in the Information Society’ also reveals that one of the venues for pursuing this is the World Summit on the Information Society - mainly indirectly through mobilisation and collaboration with civil society generally.)

Yet this is not enough. The idea of ’communication rights’ or ’the right to communicate’ has neither the depth nor resonance needed to link the various domains together. Nor is any other term likely to succeed in compressing the breadth of issues involved into a short formula. In media and communication it seems that only by identifying a set of interlinked subsidiary goals, clearly framed both to make sense in themselves as well as expose their interconnectedness, will it be possible to deal with this complex domain and begin to build bridges with others. (Of course, if this is achieved, then a single term can emerge as a shorthand for these issues - ’sustainable development’ only emerged after some time as a summation of a set of ideas each of which had to be established.)

’Framing’ an issue in this way, though essential, is in itself a matter of window dressing, a way of catching attention and interest. Nor can it be done in the abstract, or solely as an intellectual endeavour. It is part and parcel of the process that a campaign must go through in building from the ground up, building on people’s realities.

The reason it is important right now in a campaign for media and communication justice is that it is part of the process of linking national campaigns together, which is a prerequisite to tackling the globally organised targets of such a campaign. It is one of the factors that will lift national concerns onto another level, that will build the necessary transnational coalition that can tackle such organisations as the WTO. We need a common understanding of the issues, but one that will enable them to be framed in diverse ways, using different language and focusing on different priorities.

Other pressing requirements exists.

One is to formulate alternatives to the current dominant model in media and communication, a task that must encompass both the individual components as well as the need to build a liberating overall social communication framework. Beyond policy and strategy levels, issues such as the governance structure and the role of civil society must be considered.

Another is the need to build alliances with other movements with adjacent and overlapping concerns. The alliance between the indigenous people’s movement and the environment movement scored considerable successes (though there are also lessons). Challenging the WTO driven intellectual property framework, for example, will require a much larger coalition than those concerned with media and communication, even broadly defined, and embrace those campaigning on the patenting of life-forms, on the availability of essential medicines and on the plunder of traditional knowledge.

But these are the subject of future considerations.

The CRIS Campaign

The CRIS Campaign is a coalition formed by NGOs working at transnational level. It is already active with national campaigns in a number of countries in Latin America, Europe, and is soon to launch a campaign in the US ; and is has an active and growing membership in several Asian and African countries.

A priority right is precisely to explore the idea of communications rights, through a number of measures, including the following :

It is conducting a vigorous internal discussion between all regions on what ’communication rights’ mean’ and how to frame them, including the issues and priorities in different regions and countries ;’
Alongside the WSIS and in collaboration with other NGOs, it is running a World Forum on Communication Rights which will present a range of issues and solutions in a manner that is accessible and relevant to a wide constituency, and may be repeated elsewhere (www.communicationrights.org) ;
It is launching a project in six countries in January 2004, that will build an internationally comparable ’index on communication rights’ and devise and build local capacity in a set of advocacy tools to help achieve these.

CRIS is active in the Social Forum process and is seeking to collaborate with others with the same general goals.

 

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