The Communication Rights Debate
  Stating the Obvious in the WSIS Declaration
 
 
  Geneva/Dublin, September 2003. Behind every paragraph, line and even word of the draft Declaration is a story. This is the tale of the first lines of Paragraph 4, which read:

"Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization. It is central to the information society."
 
 
  At the Paris Inter-Sessional meeting in July several ad hoc intergovernmental working groups were set up. Each took a section of the draft Declaration aiming to gaining agreement at PrepCom III. Paragraph 1 and 1A were taken together. The former was a reaffirmation of fundamental human rights; and there were three options for the latter, the third of which began with the sentence: We recognise the right to communicate and the right to access information and knowledge as a fundamental human right.

The right to communicate is a contentious issue in the WSIS. Some use it as a strong expression of support for universal access. The CRIS campaign uses it as a collective term for all rights associated with media and communication. And there are others still under the influence of the divisive battles in UNESCO in the 1980s, when the right to communicate began as a struggle for more equitable global communication structures and ended up as a battlefield of the cold-war. The working group set up in Paris to deal with Paragraphs 1/1A, chaired by Canada which is a strong supported of universal access, called itself the Right to Communicate Working Group. Although probably initially unaware of the controversial choice of title, they soon realised they had a difficult task ahead of them.

At PrepCom III, a friend alerted me to the ad hoc Working Groups first meeting late the night before. At 8:00 am on Wednesday the 17th I showed up. The Chair, presumably to circumvent any controversy, opened the meeting by excluding from subsequent deliberations paragraph 1A Option 3 on the right to communicate, noting correctly that it was impossible to recognise a right that had no legal existence.

Civil Society was allowed 10 minutes for interventions, and could sit through the rest of the meeting as observers. Ill prepared, I mumbled a few words about communication rights being at the heart of any information society. After the business sector spoke, my second attempt to be more coherent was abruptly and mercifully cut short by the Chair. I was content to just listen for the remaining 50 minutes, during which governments failed to agree on anything.

The meeting reconvened the next morning, but circumstances had changed. Due to complaints from a few governments, civil society could now speak for only three minutes, and then were obliged to leave returning at the end to be briefed on the outcome. There was nothing we could do, and indeed even rallying civil society to protest about it proved difficult.

Politics apart, I cursed the need to drag myself in so early for just three minutes. But at least I was better prepared having conferred with others in CRIS to produce a couple of proposals. As the sole civil society representative there, I had the full three minutes to present these proposals for Paragraph 1A. When I returned later on to be briefed, the Chair - who was supportive of civil society participation - noted that several delegates liked the wording but the process would continue.

Later, after further redrafting, she informed me that the first two sentences of our submission had been retained as the opening of Paragraph 4, at least until the next round. To some, it got them off the hook: Placing communication at the centre of the information society retained the spirit of what they intended and preserved the word 'communication', while the formula could never be accused of raking over old cold-war coals. In fact, I had taken the first sentence from a passage written by Cees Hamelink, and linking it directly to the second compensates somewhat for a deficit in the limp and static term: 'information society'. Paragraph 4 continues with reference to Article 19 and 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, making it a key passage of the Declaration.

On a human side, the Chair revealed her own preference for the words was based on a keen interest in paleoanthropology the study of early human fossils an interest I share. There is much controversy over what first stimulated the emergence of human society. Both she and I favour the idea that the decisive factor was language our ability and need to communicate, and the CRIS proposal neatly restated this founding thesis in todays context.

I admit I indulged in some juvenile pleasure in seeing these words in print, on the first page of the latest draft Declaration. But there was little reason to rejoice. That communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organisation merely states the obvious. Few could reasonably deny that communication is central to the information society, though too often it is forgotten.

Indeed, if this passage can claim even minor significance it is because so many far more important statements of the obvious are shamefully omitted from the Draft Declaration.

That more and more of society's information is owned by multinational corporations and released to the public only on terms that maximise their profits is found nowhere: copyrights, patents and trademarks are strongly skewed in favour of the corporate owners of 'intellectual property', and the Declaration displays a basic misunderstanding of the balance to be struck when society grants monopoly ownership over knowledge use. That concentration of media ownership globally is given a tiny number of corporations control over production and dissemination does not warrant a mention. And the crucial potential role of community and genuinely independent media (independent of state and commercial control) is ignored. Free and open source software tried and tested means to introduce more effective, equitable and development-friendly software - are given short shrift. References to governance, to gender, to education all show little conviction that the international community will fight for an information society focused on improving peoples lives.

In general, the draft Declaration is a timid document that says more about the current pecking order of power - indeed going to some lengths to confirm current imbalances - than it does about the major questions confronting the creation of an information society.

Seán Ó Siochrú, CRIS Campaign. 22 September 2003.
 
 
 
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