The new world information and communication order: History and politics
The Information Age has dawned- with a bang.
People around the world today are interlinked through various technologies; changing communication among societies and hence, ‘challenging our conventional notions of national identity.’ This is epitomized in the fact that we can watch television programs from remote areas of the world, listen to foreign radio stations, read overseas newspapers, publications and books; and in the present day, access as many websites as we wish from all over the world.
However, one question recedes in the darkness and sparks a lot of debate. It is about the media coverage of the developing world and the unbalanced flow of media influence; mainly from the West to the East. It tries to interrogate and inquire why much interest is given to developed countries and why the important developmental events in the less-developed countries are ignored and the reality mostly distorted?
Simply put, as one Khadija Sharife probed in the New African magazine (June, 2008), ‘what is the reality of the media’s language today? Or rather whose reality are we living in?’
The NWICO debate: Concerns and demands
In the quest of trying to understand this debate and help get an answer for the questions above, ‘resolutions, meetings, and manifestos calling for a new order in international structures and policies became a feature of the world scene in the early 1970s and often generalized intense dispute.’
The debate was generated by the developing ‘non-aligned’ nations in an attempt to shed off some light on the negative image crystallized by the Western, media-stronghold nations. This they argued, according to Professor Daya Thussu’s enlightening book, International communication: Continuity and change, “had created a model of dependence, with negative effects on the polity, economy and society of developing countries.”
Topping their list was the lopsided stream of mass media content from the media-powerful developed countries, to the less-developed media-weak countries. From watching the American television series, movies and talk shows, to rock and roll music and the advertising pop-outs that encouraged consumerism and commercialism, Western media had its hefty impact in the living rooms back in the developing countries.
Another problem put on the table was that some Western media transmissions were broadcasting into other countries without appropriate permission. This according to some critics, violated the spirit, if not the word of the 1982 International Telecommunications Convention that determined “that a country’s air space, like its land, was part of its domestic property and hence, these boundaries must not be violated.”
This distress was well captured in Tunisia’s Minister of Information Mustapha Masmoudi’s pre-text plan, in which he wrote, that there was a “flagrant quantitative imbalance between North and South created by the volume of news and information emanating from the developed world and intended for the developing countries and the volume of the flow in the opposite direction.”
Besides, other subject matters that radiated from this debate, were the ability to utilize new technologies such as satellites with important developmental uses that were now monopolized by the stranglehold countries, and also more paramount the unfair division of the radio spectrum where frequency allocations were controlled by few companies with the necessary and adequate capital and equipments.
In words of one syllable, the demands of the South countries were based on the declaration of ‘seeking a more just and equitable balance in the flow and content of information; a right to national self-determination of domestic communication policies; and at the international level, a two-way information flow reflecting more accurately the aspirations and activities of less-developed countries.’
Those issues described above, laid the basis for the set up of an international commission under the United Nation Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1979, in order to critically analyze and look into the “new order” plans that the countries in South were drumming up support for and ‘to study the totality of communication problems in human societies.’
The International Commission for the study of Communication Problems, or the MacBride Commission (taking the name from its head MacBride) as it was famously to be known, contained of 16 members, who represented both the South and North countries.
The MacBride Report:
The report was finally presented to the Unesco in their 1980 General Conference, that year in Belgrade. In its final conclusion and 82 recommendations, the report stated that the subsisting order of information flow was far from satisfactory; making it a rallying point for the South countries and an attack target for the countries in the North.
The report announced the need for the plurality of sources and conduits of information. It also recommended the ‘elimination of negative effects of certain monopolists, public or private, and excessive concentrations’ and called for the democratization of communication and augmentation of national media to circumvent dependence on only external sources.
These propositions sparked a huge debate among the Western countries especially the United States and the United Kingdom, who saw this as a ‘Soviet-inspired Third World design’ to attack the freedom of the press and also a direct threat towards their business interest in the developing world. This dispute rose to the effect that the US and UK withdrew from the UNESCO in 1984 and 1985, respectively.
Africa today and the relevance of the MacBride Report:
First, let us take on the question of news flow in Africa.
Major African newspapers still subscribe to the chief Western international news services, namely Reuters, Associated Press (AP), and also Agence France-Presse (AFP). This monopolized control over the news has sent the African media into absolute dependency for international and in some cases, even local news.
In an article titled ‘Kenya: Spare us the agony and bias’ (New African, June 2008), Wanjohi Kabukuru argued, that during the election violence, “for failing to cultivate its own niche, The Kenyan press- which normally borrows heavily from the Western media- found itself torn between sensational reporting of the Western media and the hard facts on the ground. It chose sensationalism.” Besides, Wanjohi contended that “at a recent meeting… top editors within the region accepted that they had played second fiddle to the Western media and engaged in a soul-searching of their true call.”
In terms of satellite broadcasting and television programming, Africa still surfaces as a very fertile soil to plant Western ideologies and beliefs. For instance, in Kenya, broadcasting networks and channels like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Cable News Network (CNN), Consumer News and Business Channel (CNBC), Voice of America (VOA) and Deutsche Welle Television, all disseminate through our television screens without us subscribing to it through satellite dishes. This is because our local Kenyan channels - Kenya Television Network (KTN), Nation Television (NTV), Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and also Citizen Television- pledge almost 6 to 9 hours of their broadcasting hours to them.
Nonetheless, what is missing in action is whether our local reports and stories are being shown in return back in the West. And if its shown, from whose perspective? For instance, the two programs Africa Journal (Reuters) and Inside Africa (CNN), are broadcast on KTN and CNN respectively. These programs try to portray an image of Africa that is told from the Western perspective. The themes that head these programs’ coverage can be summarized in what the Nigerian journalist and author Pascal Eze called PIDIC (poverty, instability, disease, illiteracy and corruption).
Hence, it puts one in a position to question why these Western programs, although anchored by people with African descent, rarely offer an alternative view of Africa.
In addition to that, the blockbuster Hollywood movies; the Rhythm and Blue (R&B) and Hip Hop music that blur our ears throughout the day in our radio stations, taxis and matatus; Cosmopolitan, Playboy, GQ and Oprah’s O Magazine, which cover our supermarket and newspaper stands all over the country- are all these trying to idealize and popularize the Western way of life.
In the light of the new world debate and how the countries in the South were fighting for their place in a world dominated by the North, one marvels at the inferences that would have taken place if the MacBride report could have been put into action. Perhaps the African story could be told in a more enlightened way and in a realm that narrates both the negative and positive sides of the story.
Nevertheless, we need to shake off this stigmatizing image and put our media houses in the battlefront of what Regina Jere-Malanda, deputy editor of the New African, termed as ‘our new war of liberation’. It rests in the power to use “our resources to educate and empower ourselves, strengthen our cultures, develop our countries and make information available to millions of our people so that these masses of our people are able to make informed choices about their future.”
It is only after we have reinforced these pillars that we can only assume that the world will look at us with a different eye.
Plausibly, the words of Thabo Mbeki in his ‘I am an African’ speech suffices us for inspiration to keep us moving forward. He said, and I quote: “Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now!... However improbable it may sound to the skeptics, Africa will prosper. Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say – nothing can stop us now!”