At the huge peace demonstration in November in Florence, Italy, together with “No” to war on Iraq, were “No’s,” to globalization, genetically modified foods, commercial control of the Internet, copyright laws, and Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. While the mainstream media have trouble connecting the dots between these demands, the demonstration of a half-million people in the street was the culmination of a week of European Social Forum workshops, in which activists had been meeting to do exactly that: connect the demands of peace, media justice and anti-globalization.
Among those meeting were members of a new international coalition, called Communication Rights in the Information Society, and known by its acronym, CRIS, which is publicizing these connections and articulating an alternative vision of communications based on human rights and social justice.
The CRIS Campaign resurrects much of the international network of alternative media producers, activists, academics and non-governmental organizations who have been organizing informally since the 1970s, when a near-global call for the New World Information Order was stopped by the US withdrawing from UNESCO and pulling most of its money from the UN. [See Many Voices, One World, The Global Struggle for Information Justice, by Dee Dee Halleck. Media File Vol. 20#1.] CRIS’ Campaign strategy is to use the next UN forum, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), as a public education platform and mobilizing event.
Hosted by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), two forums (in Geneva, in December 2003, and Tunisia in 2005) will bring together corporate and government representatives, with representatives from “civil society.” This is the first time at a UN Forum that non-governmental groups have been ‘allowed’ in to the Formal Meetings, and already the ITU has tried to marginalize this participation through familiar tactics, such as excluding groups from meetings and press conferences, and stacking the meetings with ‘civil society groups’ made up of businessmen.
At a time when the .coms and the telecommunications sectors are crashing, there is a lot at stake for all sides. Many of the issues are familiar to US media watchers: corporate media monopolization; a further sell-off of public broadcast and satellite frequencies and privatization of publicly owned institutions; the takeover of the Internet operating systems by telecommunications giants; of software and on-line content through stringent intellectual property right regimes; and the vulnerability of community and independent media.
These issues play out very differently around the world. However, it should be no surprise that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a globally just and equitable “information society” are US corporate and government interests, and indeed, the model of corporate commercial media “made in the USA”. David Rothkopf, Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce under Clinton, and Managing Director of Kissinger Associates underscored the approach. In an article entitled In Praise of Cultural Imperialism, he wrote: “For the United States, a central objective of an Information Age foreign policy, must be to win the battle of the world’s information flows, dominating the airwaves as Great Britain once ruled the sea . . . it is in the economic and political interests of the United States to ensure that if the world is moving toward a common language, it be English; if the world is moving toward common telecommunications, safety and quality standards, they be American; that if the world is becoming linked by television, radio and music, the programming be American. . . It could not be more strategically crucial that the United States do whatever is in its power to shape the development of global information infrastructure.”
I think US activists should heed Rothkopf’s call, although in a much different direction. The Bush War strategy, has led to a greater re-engagement with the UN: they even began to pay back their overdue UN account, withdrawn over just this issue of control over global information infrastructure. The US Government is of course expected to play an important role in the upcoming forums.
No less than a year away, CRIS and other media activists have been debating how best to use the Summit opportunity. As the coordinator of the CRIS-Youth Arm, Sasha Costanza-Chock, has written, the underlying debate is whether activists should continue to engage with the (WSIS) Summit process and risk watering down any proposals, or take to the streets ‘Seattle style.’ However, as Chock notes, “tactics of counter-summit and protest are no panacea” and could “dissipate CRIS momentum.” [www.wacc.org.uk/publications/md/md2002-4/costanza].
But, what if we rotated the debate in an entirely different direction? If the made- in-the USA corporate media system is indeed one of the central problems, isn’t the first priority for US media activists to mobilize to change the US media system. There is already a growing media democracy movement, whose campaigns pivot around the media reform discussed in this issue, corporate campaigns, and support of community media. Success in these areas, would not only start to get at the root problem, but also aid our allies in other countries, by showing that ‘another media system is possible.”
Platform for Community Networks: www.globalcn.org.
Media Development. Journal of the World Association for Christian Communication: www.wacc.org.uk/publications/md/md2002-4/cris.
Dorothy Kidd teaches Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. Her story on legal challenges to the FCC was selected by Project Censored as the #1 most censored story in 2002.