10 May 2015 / By M. Zahangir Kabir
In November 2005, the World Summit on (WSIS) called upon the UN General Assembly to declare May 17 as the World Information Society Day to focus on a wide range of issues. The General Assembly adopted a resolution in March 2006 stipulating that the World Information Society Day will be celebrated every year on May 17.
The term ‘Information Society’ has been coined to refer to communities in which there are ready access to information and knowledge, leading to sustainable and equitable opportunities for growth and progress. In an Information Society, there is free flow of two-way communication between governments and their people, and among the people themselves. In such a society, everyone is informed of current affairs, especially those affecting them directly and everyone has the ability to make his or her voice heard. Hence, everyone has a say in shaping socio-economic plans and strategies of national relevance.
Media in conjunction with Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) have to do with everything in an Information Society. Mass media have to reach the masses. It has to seep down to the grassroots level – to fishing villages by the sea, hamlets on mountainsides and even to remote nomadic settlements wherever they may exist. But it cannot be merely a one-way transfer. Community needs and aspirations, culture and values. Indigenous wisdom and experience have to filter up to policymakers and other stakeholders in order for communication to truly improve people’s quality of life.
The most cost-effective way of achieving such widespread communication is through the mass media, and especially the radio. Of all forms of media – both traditional and new – radio has by far the most pervasive reach. People living in rural areas in many countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, depend heavily on radio to connect them to the bigger world ‘outside’.
The potential of newer forms of media – such as the Internet – in non-urban areas is also there. However, these forms of media have not yet made their way to a large enough area beyond major towns and cities to have significant mass impact. The concentration of ICTs in urban enclaves, as we all know, has led to the digital divide which neatly splices the world into its haves and have-nots.
Once again, traditional mass media can make a difference. Radio, television and newspaper journalists can make a bigger effort to educate those on ‘the other’ side of the digital divide about ICTs and how they can be used to improve standards and quality of living in hitherto-neglected areas.
There is as yet very little reporting on ICTs and their long-term potential and consequences in the traditional media. Superficial news on the launch of an updated version of some hot technology will make the pages of newspapers, but in-depth, analytical and thought-provoking pieces on the impact of ICTs on development do not often appear. As a purveyor of information and change, the mass media have a duty to spotlight this potent tool and agent for global change.
The Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) has, since its establishment, advocated the use of ICTs to catapult growth and progress of developing nations. However, we realise that ICTs on its own are not enough. ICTs have to depend on mass media, for the time being anyway, to create greater awareness of the potential benefits that can be derived from it.
In order to promote a higher level of awareness among journalists of ICTs and their ramifications, and to motivate a higher standard of reporting on these, the GKP along with one of its members, Panos – a global network of NGOs working with the media – launched the GKP/Panos Media Awards in 2003, a few months before the WSIS in Geneva in December 2003.
There are admittedly certain challenges that the mass media have to overcome if these are to fulfil grassroots duty. Over the last couple of decades, media around the world have grown in number and acquired greater freedom with regard to content. This has been due to a gradual liberalisation of various forms of media, as well as erosion of traditional government monopolies. At the same time, financial independence has meant greater reliance on advertising which has tended to concentrate in media houses in urban areas where there is an obligation to cater to urbanites’ demands. In terms of radio, this has resulted in higher entertainment content and ‘hip’ programmes imported from developed nations.
Mass media and radio stations in particular, need to break from the commercial groove and focus more intensely on rural folks as well as other marginalised groups. The ultimate aim is to create what has been termed ‘media pluralism’, namely media that reflect the needs of all members of the society, and especially those whose voices have till now been ignored.
The GKP hopes to see media pluralism materialise by advocating for policies and regulatory frameworks that will facilitate free, plural and inclusive media. It also plans to support local content creation by local stakeholders through the use of ICTs, particularly those that contribute to poverty reduction. Towards this end, the GKP will intensify its efforts on capacity-building, awareness-raising, knowledge-sharing and advocacy on this issue.
The mass media are so much a part of our contemporary lives that it is easy to forget it forms a fundamental part of the Information Society. Mass media creates an environment in which use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) can flourish.
We cannot afford to forget about the mass media. Over the past 25 years, the media in most countries have both proliferated and become more liberal. While creating exciting opportunities for variety, inclusiveness and debate, commercial pressures which threaten these have also increased. Specific efforts are needed to encourage the media to address issues of public interest, including those affecting the poor and marginalised. Otherwise, media content all over the world will become increasingly bland and meaningless.
The term ‘Information Society’ came into use along with new ICTs – internet, email, mobile phones – and generally refers to aspects of modern life that are shaped specifically by these. For instance, the term may be used to refer to a hoped-for future in which everyone has access to the internet; or to today’s economic and trade systems which depend on the new ICTs for their speed and spread; or to economies in which information processing is responsible for a high proportion of jobs and wealth created.
The ultimate objective of an Information Society is the benefits information is expected to bring, such as economic growth, individual opportunities, better health, participation and good governance. Hence, mass media have a great and absolutely fundamental part to play. The specific and unique functions of press, radio and television are journalism and public service. Mass media focus the public life of a society, whereas much of the use and value of new ICTs is in communication between individuals or among restricted groups.
Mass media mediates the relations of people with their governments and the societies in which they live. It debates the big public questions of citizenship, democracy and political processes, identity, society and culture. It helps shape meaning, forms public opinion, demands transparency and holds governments accountable. It is an irreplaceable part of public education, and can help build social cohesion. Mass media is the guardian of the wider environment in which ‘micro-ICTs’ like telephones and the internet can fulfill their functions.
Both mass media and new ICTs are needed to make an Information Society. In the words of the statement from the Second Global Knowledge Conference (GKII) Media Forum, a book, ‘The media play an absolutely central role in the development of a knowledge-based society. A free and pluralistic media (public, private, community) is essential for transparent and accountable political and economic systems….Media helps set the agenda and influence public debate.’ Mass media, especially radio, is also distinguished from ICTs by the far larger number of people who have access to it.
The WSIS, held in Tunis in 2005, conceived principally to promote the NICT-based kind of ‘Information Society’. As African media expert Guy Berger puts it, the aim of the WSIS was ‘to hasten the construction of a single networked world.’
Civil society organisations lobbied hard for the WSIS to acknowledge mass media as part of the Information Society. For instance, the August 2003 African media conference, Highway Africa, took as its theme Mainstreaming Media in the Information Society. The conference’s final Declaration proposed ‘that the concept of the ‘Information Society’ should be wider than the role of Information and Communication Technologies and [should] incorporate issues related to the mass media such as freedom of expression, access to information and the role of journalism.” Tracey Naughton, chair of the WSIS Media Caucus group, said, “An Information Society without media would be like agriculture without farmers.”
As it turned out, however, the role of the media was one of the most divisive issues in the run-up to the Summit. This was not so much because delegates questioned the value of the media, but because for most of them, commitment to the inclusion of media as an actor in an Information Society goes hand in hand with commitment to media freedom and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some governments – notably China – were unwilling to sign this.
A compromise wording for the Summit Declaration was agreed to at a later stage of the preparations. The Final Declaration confirms Article 19 as a basis for the Information Society but refers to Article 29 for a caveat that ‘the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society’ may be invoked to limit freedom of expression.
Thus, the WSIS did agree that mass media are a part of the Information Society – but it did not give it high priority. Of the 10 targets agreed to in the WSIS Plan of Action, only one, the Eighth, relates to what is now often referred to as ‘traditional’ media – radio and television. Stronger backing for media was given by the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan when he opened a parallel event, the World Electronic Media Forum. Meanwhile, activists were vigilant during the 2005 WSIS.
Dr. M. ZahangirKabir is the head of department, Journalism and Media Studies, Manarat International University, Dhaka.