Several emerging and existing international communication agencies spearhead the governance of the global media and communications environment. International communication agencies have both specialized and collective responsibilities to advance multilateral and multi-stakeholder cooperation and collaboration on the broad issues of global media governance, including the development of regulation instruments and guidelines for intellectual property, media concentration and ownership, communication and network infrastructure, as well as promoting communication in the interests of human rights and economic, social and cultural development objectives. International communication agencies either fall under the aegis of the United Nations, or emerge as independent, international authorities, entities in and of themselves.
The multilateral jurisdiction for many of these agencies has evolved alongside the globalization of media and communications, which is now a complex terrain where management, ownership, commercialization, and consumption of media collectively challenge traditional models of regulation and governance. Radio and television, for example, have traditionally been governed under national broadcasting policies. Today, however, the landscape for both radio and television is complicated by satellite television and the Internet, the growing concentration in media cross-ownership, and the technological convergence of media communications. In this complex environment, international communication agencies find their mandates to develop laws and rules on issues such as copyright, ownership, and the promotion of diversity of media (Ó Siochrú & Girard 2002; Raboy 2002a; 2002b). The emerging framework for these agencies is one that brings together multiple stakeholders, including governments, the private sector and civil society, to influence, inform, and direct decision-making for relevant policy matters.
International efforts to formalize the regulation of cross-border communication date to a series of conferences in the 1860s, called to deal, first, with postal services and, soon after, with the new technology of telegraphy. A conference in Paris in 1863 laid the foundation for an international postal system and, soon after, the world’s first permanent intergovernmental organization, the International Telegraph Union (ITU), was set up in 1865 to provide a framework for development of international telegraph and telegram services. The Treaty of Berne (1875) created the General Postal Union (now the Universal Postal Union, UPU, a specialized UN agency), and an international convention on copyright was also adopted in Berne in 1886. With the emergence of point-to-point and point-to-mass sound communication in the early twentieth century, a whole new range of issues arose that required international agreement. In 1927, the Washington Radio Conference drafted a set of international regulations on radio and this was followed by a second conference in Madrid in 1932, at which the convergence of telegraph and radio technologies was recognized in the broadening of the ITU, renamed the International Telecommunication Union.
The United Nations System And International Communication Policies
The creation of the United Nations Organization in 1945 opened a new era in international communication. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization was established the same year. In 1948, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included the standard-setting Article 19 establishing freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. Communication issues were also present on the periphery of the Bretton Woods agreements, which created institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In the commercial sphere, the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) after much debate, accepted the legitimacy of foreign film import quotas (the GATT is now managed by the World Trade Organization, created in 1995). While the politics of the Cold War set the tone for much of the debate within international communication agencies between 1945 and 1989, the tension between culture and commerce has since become the dominant theme.
The ITU, UNESCO, UPU, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) are specialized international communication agencies within the United Nations. Each of these institutional bodies provides leadership and guidance on a specific mandate related to international communication, and each has evolved both institutionally and programmatically alongside the dynamic shifts occurring in the global media and communications environment. Moreover, in recent years, the inextricable link between communication and development has been aggressively pursued as an important mechanism that can help achieve internationally recognized aims such as the Millennium Development Goals, and broader sustainable development and poverty reduction agendas. In this regard, communication is considered a tool for capacity building, advocacy and awareness-raising, empowerment, accessibility and outreach, and local knowledge promotion and protection. The ITU, UNESCO, and WIPO are all involved in international development cooperation activities that aim – at least nominally – to reduce the digital divide and eliminate disparities in access to information and communication technologies.
Overview Of Individual Agencies
The ITU is the only UN agency that deals exclusively with issues of communication and is considered the first ever international communication agency (Ó Siochrú & Girard 2002). The ITU was developed as a collaborative platform where government and private sector representatives could discuss, negotiate, and coordinate the development of communication technologies. This became increasingly vital as teleand radio communication systems became more sophisticated, and as the basis for the multifaceted operation of global telecommunications grew more complex. The ITU currently consists of 191 member states and over 600 sector members. Sector members include industry representatives, research and development organizations, manufacturers, and others (ITU 2004).
UNESCO has a rich and textured history in international communication. UNESCO’s mission is to promote international collaboration in education, the natural and social sciences, culture, and communication. Together, these domains of activity create the basis and serve as a catalyst for UNESCO’s “culture of peace.” The rise of multilateral involvement in global media and communications was marked by a historic debate that took shape in UNESCO’s corridors between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s. It was spearheaded by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a group of UN countries that called for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). The NWICO debate was never fully resolved, but was significant in that it brought the agenda of international communication to the forefront of multilateral diplomacy and politics. The work of UNESCO’s communication and information sector is grounded in UNESCO’s constitution and is driven by three principal objectives: promoting the free flow of ideas, promoting expressions of pluralism and cultural diversity, and promoting access to information and communication technologies (UNESCO 2005). UNESCO has developed a number of normative instruments, including conventions, declarations, and recommendations in support of these principal objectives.
WIPO was established in 1967. It is the sole UN agency dedicated to the promotion and protection of intellectual property worldwide. Intellectual property consists of two broad categories: industrial property, such as patents and trademarks, and copyright, which protects creative endeavors like film, music, novels, and visual art. An idea alone does not need copyright. However, in a digitized media environment, the specific expression of an idea (e.g., through film or television) is subject to the terms and conditions of copyright (Ó Siochrú & Girard 2002). WIPO upholds 21 different conventions and treaties in support of intellectual property rights. These instruments provide the overall framework for WIPO’s service, resource, and program activities. While WIPO is the central international authority for intellectual property, it does not have a mandate for treaty or convention enforcement. WIPO is currently governed by 184 member states. Civil society and industry groups can apply for observer status in WIPO meetings. As of the mid-2000s, there were 250 stakeholders with observer status (WIPO 2004).
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was initiated by the UN General Assembly. It marked the most important global gathering to date, concerned specifically with information and communication. WSIS was held in two phases: the first took place in Geneva, December 10 –12, 2003, and the second in Tunis, November 16 –18, 2005. Each phase was preceded by a lengthy preparatory process that mobilized a diverse array of stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, civil society, and other international communication agencies. The objective of the first WSIS phase was to develop a statement of political will and to address the most pressing issues arising from the establishment of a global information society, while at the same time respecting divergent interests. The first phase resulted in two documents: the Geneva Declaration of Principles and the Geneva Plan of Action. Over 11,000 participants from 175 countries participated in this first phase. During the second phase, participants were tasked with committing to the steps necessary for the implementation of the Geneva Plan of Action as well as pursuing discussion and reaching agreement on a range of other issues, most notably Internet governance. The outcomes of the second phase are outlined in the Tunis Commitment and the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society (WSIS 2006).
In April 2006, the United Nations chief executive board instituted the UN Group on the Information Society (UNGIS). This inter-agency mechanism has as its objective to promote policy and program coordination within the UN regarding the implementation of WSIS outcomes (UNGIS 2006). Advancing the platform for communication and development was also a major theme at WSIS and catalyzed the establishment of the Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development (GAID). The Alliance is considered a multi-stakeholder global forum and platform for policy dialogue on the use of ICTs for poverty reduction and development goals (GAID 2006). Another direct outcome of WSIS activities, and specifically the Tunis Agenda, is the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The IGF was conceived in Tunis as a platform for multilateral and multi-stakeholder policy dialogue on timely and emerging issues pertaining to the Internet. The first IGF was held in Athens in 2006. In support of the format and intent of the IGF, a number of “dynamic coalitions” formed on issues such as privacy, open standards, access to knowledge, and an Internet bill of rights (IGF 2006). The IGF will meet annually for five years, after which time its status will be reassessed.
Other international agencies that devote some energy to international communication include the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). UNRISD is an autonomous UN agency that undertakes multidisciplinary research on global development issues to foster dialogue and debate on contemporary policy matters. Created in 1963, UNRISD identifies a set of broad program areas to guide its research. The program in the mid-2000s included six research areas and special events: social policy and development; democracy, governance, and well-being; civil society and social movements; markets, business, and regulation; identities, conflict, and cohesion; gender and development (UNRISD 2005).
The International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (INTELSAT), is the only international communication agency that started as part of the UN, but was later privatized. INTELSAT was established in 1961 after the UN General Assembly introduced a resolution stating that global satellite communications should be made available on a nondiscriminatory basis. Satellite communications would be developed in collaboration and in cooperation with nations around the world. In 1965, INTELSAT established the first commercial satellite communication system. Today, INTELSAT provides media, telecom, and government satellite services and has the most extensive satellite network worldwide. In 2001, INTELSAT became a private company (Intelsat 2007).
International communication agencies have also emerged outside of the UN system. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN ) is an international, nonprofit corporation that is responsible for various functions of Internet protocol, including the technical coordination of address space allocation on the web. ICANN also undertakes the allocation of generic and top-level domain country codes, which facilitate Internet navigation as well as domain name system management (Ó Siochrú & Girard 2002). These responsibilities were initially carried out by the US government under the aegis of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
A robust global media governance environment has taken shape, with international communication agencies assuming a significant role therein. What invigorates and challenges this environment all at once is the need to balance sector-specific interests and transparent decision-making processes, with efficient governance for the global public’s interests in information accessibility and dialogic communication.
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