The New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) is the result of a political proposal concerning media and communication issues emerging from international debates in the late 1970s. The term originated in discussions within the NonAligned Movement (NAM), following the proposal for a “new international economic order,” and became the expression of the aspirations of many countries in the global south to democratize the international communication system and rebalance information flows worldwide. UNESCO played a major role in fostering the debate until the early 1980s, especially through the work of an independent commission chaired by Irish diplomat Sean MacBride. The commission’s report, Many voices, one world (MacBride Commission 2004), outlined the main international problems in communication and summarized NWICO’s basic philosophical thrust. It was adopted at the twenty-first general conference of UNESCO in Belgrade (1980) and still remains a milestone in the history of global debates around communication issues.
In order to fully appreciate the relevance and implications of the NWICO debates it is important to stress the political climate of the time. Confrontations between the Soviet and western blocs were paralleled by the growing importance of north–south confrontations: a large number of former colonies had gained political independence over the 1950s and 1960s and corresponding political weight in international institutions such as the United Nations. These states formed the NAM (initiated in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955) and began to question the constraints of the Cold War climate on their development perspectives. Between the market-oriented western model and the state-centered communist paradigm, they attempted to develop a “third way,” by criticizing the international economic system as well as structural imbalances in flows of information and culture.
Information and communication issues were not new to international debates (Carlsson 2003; Raboy 2004; Vincent 2005); yet the changes in power relations in the 1970s due to the global south’s new strategic relevance (following the 1973 and 1979 oil crises and the position of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries [OPEC]), allowed for a strong coalition of social forces contesting imbalances in information flows between global north and south. Access to communication technologies in development processes and the need to protect cultural diversity became defined as crucial for genuine autonomy on the international scene. Starting from the Tunis Non-Aligned Symposium on Information (March 1976), a series of regional meetings was held between 1976 and 1979 in which the need for a “new international (later, world) order on information and communication” was developed.
Notwithstanding evident differences among NAM members, the NWICO platform allowed for a unified front, but the whole discourse became hostage to the Cold War climate; western states, especially the United States, saw in NWICO a potential threat to their cultural industries’ global opportunities, and an attack on the doctrine of the free flow of information, their basic normative reference. On the other side, the USSR took advantage of the situation to promote state control over information flows and reduce the capacity of communication satellites to interfere with Soviet-bloc media control.
Several problematic trends were addressed in those debates: from imbalances in information flows, summarized in the one-way-flow formula (indicating the univocal direction of news and cultural flows from the north to the south), to the threats to cultural identities in the global south; and from the monopolistic positions of trans-national communication corporations to the inequitable distribution of communication resources (such as satellite orbital spaces). Communication systems were accused of serving the industrialized countries’ interests instead of helping developing countries, whose national communication infrastructures were poorly developed.
The content of the debates has been effectively summarized in a “4 Ds” formula (Nordenstreng 1984). There was a request to democratize the international information and communication system, overcoming univocal flows and promoting the right of peoples to acquire a comprehensive picture of the world while participating in the international exchange of information. There was a request to decolonize the system, reducing dependency on northern countries by fostering self-determination and local cultural identities. There was a need to demonopolize the system, reducing the influence exercised by transnational corporations so that every state could develop their own independent information systems. There was finally a transverse challenge, that of development, to be faced through the creation of national communication policies, information infrastructures, national and regional information agencies, and journalism training institutions.
These general themes were articulated in terms of different types of information and all kinds of media. They also emerged as constitutive components of a new overarching principle: a right to communicate conceived as a new social right, more extensive than the right to information (D’Arcy 1969).
UNESCO And The Macbride Commission
Being responsible for “assuring everyone . . . the free exchange of ideas and knowledge” and for facilitating “the free circulation of ideas by means of words and images” (UNESCO Constitution, preamble and art. 1), UNESCO was entitled to deal with communication and information matters as a specialized UN agency, and to operate within its different roles – development assistance, fact finding, and norm-setting – to bring third world countries’ perspectives into the broader international arena. It did so through its general conferences from the early 1970s, when the focus of debates shifted from freedom of information and development assistance in communication technology to new perspectives that challenged prevailing principles (Carlsson 2003).
In 1976, during the nineteenth general conference in Nairobi, a “Mass Media Declaration” was drafted, and the director-general, Mathar M’Bow, opened the session by calling attention to the global nature of communication and the efforts made by third world countries toward regional cooperation in communication and information. Western states and media, however, saw the declaration as an attempt to limit the free flow principle. The whole NWICO discourse was conceived as inspired by the USSR in order to foster its own agenda internationally. There was great tension during the conference. No declaration came out of that conference, but an International Programme for Development in Communication (IPDC) was initiated, reflecting a technical-assistance approach to the problems under discussion. Nevertheless, an International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems was set up with the mandate to “analyse communication problems . . . within the perspective of the establishment of a new international economic order and of the measures to be taken to foster the institution of a new world information order” (UNESCO work plan 1977–1978).
Chaired by Sean MacBride and composed of 17 scholars, media professionals, and policy-makers from different regional and cultural contexts (seven from NAM countries), the commission was to study contemporary communication problems, and identify possible solutions according to the specific needs of developing countries. It organized several seminars, addressing a variety of communication processes as central to human societies, not just developing ones. It also engaged experts to produce specialized reports on specific issues (over a hundred works), all of which would analyze current trends while identifying constitutive elements of a new information order.
Attempts were made to define NWICO as “an international exchange of information in which states, which develop their cultural systems in an autonomous way and with complete sovereign control of resources, fully and effectively participate as independent members of the international community” (Hamelink 1979). The commission produced a final report, Many voices, one world (2004), where data and analysis were accompanied by 82 concluding recommendations arranged in thematic chapters. Throughout the text a comprehensive vision of communication prevailed, linking media institutions, organizations, and audiences with a strong development perspective that resonated with the NAM proposal. The report can be considered as the highest point in the NWICO debate; it created awareness, consolidated existing knowledge, and influenced the academic field of international communication.
The report was presented at the twenty-first UNESCO general conference in Belgrade (1980) and adopted with a unanimous vote for Resolution 4/19, paragraph 14 of which set out the NWICO essentials: the elimination of information imbalances and of the negative effects of media concentration; the removal of obstacles to a free and better-balanced dissemination of information and ideas; the plurality of channels of information; and the need for developing countries to improve their equipment, personnel, and infrastructures, with the support of developed countries. The right of all peoples to their cultural identity was emphasized, as was the right to participate in communication and international exchange of information on the basis of equality, justice, and mutual benefit.
Follow-Ups And Recent Developments
Following the Belgrade conference, controversies on NWICO continued, led by western agencies at a big 1981 conference in Talloire, France, promoted by the US World Press Freedom Committee. Meanwhile, with the election of President Reagan, the shift to unilateralism, and his administration’s strong pro-market push, the NWICO discourse began to fade from view. The MacBride recommendations did not influence UNESCO’s 1984 –1989 plan, and the US mentioned the organization’s implication in NWICO as one of the reasons for its withdrawal in 1984 (soon followed by the United Kingdom and Singapore). This led to a severe restriction of the organization’s budget and to a depoliticization of communication-related issues. The focus remained on practical and technical development assistance, as promoted by the IPDC, but funding remained a major problem.
NWICO debates underlined the centrality of information and communication developments to societal transformation as the twenty-first century approached. Yet the global shift toward a purely market logic, the interplay between eastern and western superpowers, the lack of political will to address unequal information structures concretely, and the incapacity to engage a wider public in discussions, did not allow this global debate to live up to the many expectations it had raised. By the end of the 1980s NWICO had been left to scholars and communication specialists and to some civil society organizations (Traber & Nordenstreng 1992).
Yet international communication issues have again been discussed in world fora fostered by the UN-promoted World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, Geneva 2003 and Tunis 2005). Nonetheless a major historical silence was evident: no mention was made of previous international efforts (from the MacBride report to the 1985 Maitland report on telecommunication policies and development priorities, promoted by the International Telecommunication Union). According to some observers (Padovani & Nordenstreng 2005) this lack of historical depth in facing contemporary global communication challenges reflects a problematic tendency to understand them as complete novelties, thereby fostering superficial policy approaches. Much was learned through the NWICO experience that is of great relevance to contemporary world communication realities.
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