What do communication rights mean to people on the ground when they are denied them?

2005-08-09 00:00:00

In an age of increasing concentration of the media in fewer hands, governments working hand in hand with private companies to get their messages onto the front page, state paranoia and growing surveillance, groups and individuals are coming together to build a new communications agenda focused on equality, dignity, diversity and justice.

What do communication rights mean to people on the ground, especially when they are denied them?

Yesterday, activists from Tunisia, Italy, Paraguay and Brazil reported on the situation in their countries and the response of civil society in a panel organised by the CRIS Campaign on building social agendas for national action.

Tunisia - Where using the internet can land you in jail

Tunisia will be the seat of the 2005 United Nations' World Summit on the Information Society. It's a peculiar destination when as a nation it has one of the worst records in freedom of expression and where, as reported by Tunisian NGO activist Sihem Bensadrine of the National Council for Tunisian Freedom, an “army” of police spend their days reading and confiscating the email of all Tunisian citizens.

Tunisia is a country, said Bensadrine, where people have to read the foreign newspapers in order to find out what is going on at home. The Tunisian government controls the media with a strong hand. Hardly a day goes by when the president's photo does not appear on the front page of the major dailies.

“The Law controls public spaces” said Bensadrine. Use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is criminalised. A 2002 communications law mandated five-year prison sentences for those using the internet to inform others about conditions at home. The freedom to hold public meetings is non-existant. Of 8,400 non-governmental organisations less than a handful are autonomous. Bensadrine's own organisation is banned.

Since 1991, all independent press has been closed down, she told the audience. Activists like herself tried to break the silence by setting up their own publication. “Kalima” (meaning “Word”) did not receive permission to publish and was closed down after a week by the police, so the publishers put it online.

But any news or indeed even a discussion site coming from Tunisia needs to be hosted outside the country if it intends to stay online. Or else the publishers can end up in custody. A webmaster who ran an online discussion board from Tunisia was detained in 2002 and still remains in prison.

The Tunisian people have a huge thirst for information and are sating it by using the internet, said Bensadrine, but it's not only a dangerous business to publish online. Tunisians can also risk prison for going online to read webpages, she reported.

All cybercafes must display a sign warning users that it is illegal to visit banned sites. In Tunisia, banned sites tend to include all human rights-related pages as well as both national and international sites that report on national affairs. However, said Bensadrine, “no list of banned sites exists!” As a consequence, recently six young people were jailed -for thirteen years each- for visiting “banned pages”.

Given this context, Bensadrine was asked what her opinion was regarding the fact that the United Nations is taking a major world summit on information and communication to Tunisia later this year. She responded that she did not believe that Tunisia was the right country to host such a conference, given its record. However, she said that she believed that it was a good opportunity that Tunisian civil society could use to lobby for a restructuring of public spaces.

Italy - economic power + media power = political power

“Italy is a pathological case. It has the highest concentration of ownership in commercial television as well as the press, and also directly in public TV and the advertising market. 90% of the advertising market is controlled directly or indirectly by one person, and that person is the Prime Minister of Italy.” Jason Nardi of CRIS-Italia said that he was disappointed to report this 'record' amongst industrialised countries.

Journalists at the public TV channel RAI must toe the government line and many journalists are banned from appearing on state-owned TV for their views he said. Even the most well-known journalist in Italy was fired recently for having aired views that did not correspond those held by the Berlusconi government.

“The Italian case confirms the equation: economic power + media power = political power in our globalised mediatic world,” warned Nardi.

And the government intends to consolidate their grip further. Nardi outlined several bills in the Italian parliament at this moment that include the military vetting of journalists reporting from conflict zones and prison-sentences for people exchanging copyrighted files using peer-to-peer exchange. “If a journalist reports [from Iraq] without having first been screened, [if the bill become law] you can be tried by military tribunal and go to prison,” Nardi told the audience largely made up of reporters and other communications workers.

A positive change is the emergence at European level of movements to protect certain communications rights, particularly free software and copyright. Italian activists are learning from actions in other countries said Nardi in how to respond to their situation not just nationally but using the international scene. For instance CRIS-Italia was using some good lessons learned from CRIS campaigners in Colombia.

Paraguay - civil society beginning to find its voice after years of dictatorship

Paraguay is a country that has only recently emerged from 35 years of military government and political and social isolation. In 1992, a constitution consecrated all human rights for Paraguayans, however the Paraguayan Communications Law that was modified three years later was still the same law that had taken as its basis the communications law passed by Mussolino's Italy in 1948, reported Arturo Bregaglio of FM Trinidad in Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital.

Paraguayan civil society he said is working hard to get a new law in place, particularly one that recognises the role of the third sector and local radio.

Written media in Paraguay is dominated by four newspapers which are all politically motivated and commercial in their approach to news coverage, favouring sport and entertainment over social concerns. Together with other media, they tend to represent the interests of the government and the military.

80% of the Paraguayan population speaks the indigenous language – Guarani – however 99% of TV and radio are emitted in Spanish.

This grim situation has tended to provoke resignation in the Paraguayan population however, reported Bregaglio, over the last two years, civil society including different groups like young people, women's organisations and others, have become active in making proposals to the government. The heat is on.

Brazil - a paradigm shift is needed

In the 1970s, Brazil saw an explosion of the communications sector especially of TV and radio which was managed by the military dictatorship interested in ensuring that theirs was the message carried to all corners of Brazil.

“The alliance [of the military] with the private sector has marked Brazilian communications to this day,” João Brant of CRIS-Brazil told the audience.

With the end of the dictatorship, the Brazilian constitution of 1988 dealt with mass communications but a public notion of communications never emerged. The system in Brazil remains predominantly in private hands, reflecting an alliance of private interests and the government. “A paradigm shift is needed,” emphasised Brant. He outlined five areas for action including work in schools and fostering community radio.

The danger is not just the media in private hands, concluded Irish CRIS campaigner Seán Ó Siochrú. It's the combination of media and government/political power that is most dangerous.

- This report comes to you from the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre where the message is “another world is possible”. On January 27 2005, the CRIS Campaign held a day of events focusing on communications rights. APC is a part of the CRIS Campaign and co-organisers of the forum