Keep Information Free

Two decades ago the United Nations hit a shoal - the "new world information and communication order." NWICO, as it came to be known, was promoted by nonaligned, developing countries to counter Western domination of the world's communications systems.

Then, the effort to force change was pursued primarily through UNESCO, and it included such dubious proposals as the licensing of journalists by governments. The campaign went nowhere, though it did prompt the departure of the United States and Britain from UNESCO.

Now there are hints of a revival of NWICO - or at least of some of its censorious notions. Information ministers from what's left of the nonaligned movement met last September and called for a renewed struggle to break the Western hold on communications technology.

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Some defenders of press freedoms expected this struggle to surface during a recent meeting of the UN General Assembly's information committee. Their chief concern: that a world conference on the global flow of information (possibly late next year or early 1999) could become a forum to push "standards" that could restrict free expression.

But the urgings of repressive regimes like Nigeria's (a major backer of NWICO) are even less likely to fly today than 20 years ago. The world's momentum is toward a greater flow of information, spurred by new technology and the spread of democracy.

Which is not to say that developing nations don't have legitimate concerns. Expanded access to information in poorer lands is an issue the UN should address.

And Western journalists should strive to cover development and progress in the third world, as well as its wars and disasters.

As for UNESCO, which took the brunt of past Western reaction to NWICO, it has made a U-turn. Under director general Federico Mayor of Spain the UN agency has become an advocate of greater freedom for journalists. Mr. Mayor recently braved China's wrath to bestow UNESCO's first annual World Press Freedom Prize on reporter Gao Yu. She is serving a six-year jail term for writing about the Communist Party's control of decisionmaking in China.

Journalists like Ms. Gao are the true pioneers of a new communication order, one founded on freedom.

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