The free flow of information has been a key policy as well as a political aspect in the US government’s approach to international communication since World War II. There has often been a conflation of the term between a principle of democratic governance found in many national constitutions and United Nations agencies’ charters, and the political principle of promoting free trade status to the export of news and entertainment content across national boundaries. The historical review of the term “free flow of information” made by Schiller (1981) showed that the US Associated Press (AP) news agency had for decades before World War II argued against the European cartel of British, French, and German news agencies that controlled the dissemination of international news. At the end of World War II, the US emerged as the dominant economic and military power and began to promote the free flow policy as a universal principle of democracy for other nations. The US was among those nations that proposed and approved the inclusion of rights to free speech and information flow in the United Nations charter. As the Cold War got started in the late 1940s, the issue of free flow took on a whole new character, making it into an enduring political factor that included both the issue of government control of information and the export of news and entertainment to other countries.
The history of the term was complicated by the Cold War standoff between the US and the USSR but also by trade and technological developments. In the early 1960s the US launched experimental communication satellites that were geostationary, that is, remained in fixed positions over the equator at such a distance that they rotated in sync with the earth. This meant that with three satellites the entire world could in theory receive messages from anywhere. By the late 1960s the US and other western countries had started such an international system with the consortium called Intelsat. The USSR and its allies saw this as a direct propaganda threat that might feed unwanted television programs into their territories. The fight within the United Nations was a standoff, but the consequence was that nations agreed to honor the territorial integrity principle in their satellite communication for the next two decades. At about the same time, the free flow principle emerged in another context within the United Nations agencies.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was an agency that had from its beginning in 1945 promoted the free flow principle and had also placed mass communications squarely into its most basic efforts to promote international development. As recently freed colonial countries joined the agency as members, the issues and focus began to change. The expansion of mass communication infrastructure, including communication satellites, was joined by the issue of the dominance of foreign content on the new television systems. The proposal to institute national communication policies to plan for more national news and entertainment content as well as limiting the import of foreign content touched on two important issues: the control or even censorship of content by national governments, and the trade status of information that circulated among nations. The fact of US dominance in the international trade of both news and entertainment became a contentious point in the ensuing New International Information Order (NIIO) debate within UNESCO. The conflation of freedom of information and the free trade of content made for complications in settling the dispute. The US government, which through its State Department had promoted both free trade and freedom of information, opposed many of the policies proposed by the report of the MacBride Commission in 1980 (2004) to resolve the issues. Eventually the US withdrew from UNESCO in 1985, only rejoining in 2003.
In the aftermath of the withdrawal, many scholars analyzed the factors that led to this political decision. Giffard (1989) provided the most compelling data about the coverage of the NIIO debates in newspapers and on television. He showed that there was biased coverage by the news organizations that subverted the very principle of free flow that these same organizations were vigorously advocating. The issue of trade dominance in export of content remains unresolved although the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been moving in the direction of greater freedom for trade in information. The solution is not clear as there remain a number of national and regional policies that limit the import of foreign content based on cultural integrity, including Canada’s “cultural exception” principle in the North American Free Trade Agreement and the European Union’s Television Directive of 1989 (Communication Law and Policy: North America; European Union: Communication Law; NAFTA and International Communication). The issue of the right of countries to control access to content that is deemed dangerous culturally or politically confronts the increased availability of this content through free trade pressure as well as more sophisticated technologies. The resolution will not likely be easy.
- Giffard, A. (1989). Unesco and the media. New York: Longman.
- MacBride Commission (2004). Many voices, one world: Towards a new, more just and more efficient world information and communication order, 25th anniversary edn. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. (Original work published 1980).
- Mehra, A. (1986). Free flow of information: a new paradigm. New York: Greenwood.
- Schiller, H. (1981).Genesis of the free flow of information principles. In J. Richstad & M. Anderson (eds.), Crisis in international news: policies and prospects. New York: Columbia University Press.