Fighting for the Right to Information

2005-08-08 00:00:00

The control wielded by big media and the need for strategies to challenge that power were among the central themes addressed at the First Information and Communication World Forum (ICWF)

The one-day event was held Jan. 25 as one of the preparatory activities for the fifth World Social Forum (WSF), taking place Jan. 26-31 in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.

The moderators for the three ICWF panel discussions were Mario Lubetkin, director general of the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS); Sean O'Siochru of Nexus Research; and Roberto Savio, secretary general of Media Watch Global (MWG) and president emeritus of IPS.

The panel participants included French academic Armand Matellard; Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique and president of MWG; Adrie Papma of Novib/Oxfam-Netherlands, a non-governmental development agency; Marcelo Furtado, director of the Brazilian branch of the environmental organisation Greenpeace; Giulietto Chiesa, an Italian deputy on the European Parliament; Steve Buckley, president of AMARC (World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters); and U.S. academic Andrew Calabrese.

The participants unanimously agreed that WSF coverage has always been passive, and little effort has been made to bring the meeting's message to the mainstream media.

Sociologist Cándido Grzybowski, a member of the WSF International Committee, said that while the Internet ”has allowed us to be in contact with the whole world, and the existence of this technology has made the Forum possible, it has also been destructive, because it doesn't reach everyone, only the elites.”

For the WSF, this is a political issue of prime importance and a problem that must be solved ”in order to reach all communities, because what we have now is more confusion than diversity.”

Roughly 3,000 of the 5,000 journalists covering the WSF write for non-governmental organisation (NGO) publications, and largely limit themselves to informing their own specific audiences, as opposed to transmitting a common global message, noted Lubetkin. The proposal that won greatest consensus involved creating a system for coverage of WSF themes that is not restricted to the five days that the meeting lasts each year. The goal would be to continue disseminating information on civil society activities throughout the year, by building a network of journalists who cover these issues.

There is a ”deplorable lack” of external information on the WSF, ”because until now there has never been a mechanism for actively following the process in general, or its various annual activities,” said Lubetkin.

Another shortcoming highlighted by the ICWF participants was the lack of ”follow-up information”, because most people still fail to grasp the fact that each WSF is in fact a synthesis of what has happened throughout an entire year.

”This Information and Communications Forum is a process that should contribute to strengthening the World Social Forum's capacity to communicate,” said Lubetkin.

For his part, Le Monde Diplomatique's Ramonet maintained that the world today is faced with a new problem: ”the mass media, which often use their mechanisms to obstruct democracy.”

The U.S. media outlets viewed as the most influential ”are today completely incapable of curbing the warmongering stance adopted by Washington,” he said, noting that mainstream media also failed to reflect the overwhelming condemnation by international society of the ”false pretext used for going to war (in Iraq).”

Information ”has become a form of merchandise, which circulates in accordance with the rules of supply and demand,” said Ramonet.

Increasingly, the news media have adopted the role of entertainment, ”relying on sensationalism and the exploitation of emotions instead of reflecting concrete realities and helping to create a greater understanding of society as a means to change it,” he added.

”We are faced with a system that is complex and multi-faceted, but not trustworthy, where the media, which should serve as the expression of social sectors, are controlled in the world's most powerful countries by three or four corporations,” Ramonet concluded.

Matellard, in turn, said ”we find ourselves facing a world marked by the invasion of a single, monolithic culture, while we ourselves strive to defend the multiplicity of cultures and actors.”

This enforced, monolithic thinking (pensamiento único) ”is technocratic, and we have a tough battle ahead of us, because it is difficult to mobilise people around the issue of information and communication, despite the fact that it affects our daily lives,” he added.

Most ICWF participants agreed that privatisation of the media is in no way a guarantee of pluralism, because, as Italian journalist Gianni Mina noted, ”businessmen today buy media outlets to promote their business and gain favour with the government.”

A journalist attending the Forum, who did not identify herself, emphasised the need to gain access to the mass media for information of interest to civil society. One means of doing this, she said, is to produce high-quality material that can be used by television networks, a strategy that has been successfully used by Greenpeace to reach a broader audience.

The conclusions of the first Information and Communication World Forum were presented by Savio, who noted that governments consider it politically incorrect to talk about the press, since it is a private enterprise sector and everything comes down to freedom of ownership.

The concentration of media control is more closely linked than ever to the imposition of ”enforced thought”, although the issues debated 30 years ago with regard to the ”new world order of information and communication” remain relevant today, he said.

Journalists have only relative independence, said Savio, because their activities are largely determined by their editors, who choose the stories to be covered on the basis of their ability to sell. And to a growing extent, emphasis is placed on events, while underlying processes are ignored.

Another troubling aspect, said the Media Watch Global secretary general, is the overwhelming political use of the media, which can even be utilized to ”invent” candidates.

Savio also pointed to the fact that although there are thousands of consumer protection associations around the world, there is not a single one devoted to defending the public's right to information.

Civil society still has a long way to go before it can establish a real system of communications, he concluded, stressing the need to create an ongoing information-sharing mechanism for the WSF, and to fight to make the right to information one of the basic human rights of all the world's citizens.

IPS - V Ciranda