Western news executives are girding themselves for battle in what may be the most dicisive confrontation yet in UNESCO's ongoing struggle to radically alter Western notions of press freedom and responsibility.
UNESCO's Senegalese director-general, Amadou Mahtar M'Bow, is introducing its International Program for the Development of Communications (IPDC). If approved , the IPDC will claim for UNESCO much of the responsibility for setting standards in international news reporting.
Differences of opiniion about press freedom are split along two axes: East-West, and North-South. While most Western countries feel that a free and independent flow of information is important to development, many Eastern-bloc countries believe that development should be directed by an informed party elite , and that ordinary citizens are often unable to distinguish what is ideologically right and wrong. to them news reporting that emanates from nonofficial sources represents an opportunity for confusion and counterrevolution.
The third-world nations of the South, on the other hand, feel so overwhelmed by a news media blitz from the developed nations of the North, that many unconsciously begin to see themselves through European and American eyes. The picture is often not very pretty. News editors seem naturally to zoom in on stories of war, corruption, and atrocities. Genuine achievements often seem to go unnoticed.
The debate over press freedom and responsibility began at the 1976 UNESCO general conference in Nairobi, Kenya when the Soviet Union introduced a seemingly innocuous resolution that would, among other things, have held governments responsible for the reporting of their own nationals.
The Soviets never really expected the West to abandon its concept of press freedom. But several developing countries found the argument interesting for a numbe of reasons. They noticed that Western news agencies felt guilty about neglecting the third world. The guilt could be cashed in for money in the form of aid. American news organizations became so worried that a great deal of aid was promised in a successful effort to prevent the resolution from passing in its original form.
Not much aid actually materialized, but by the time the 20th general conference rolled around in Paris in 1978, many third-world diplomats realized that they had stumbled onto a potential gold mine. By this time the "draft resolution," as it was called, had been expanded.
Not only could it be interpreted to hold governments responsible for the reporting of thier nationals, but it was also to be taken for granted that newsmen should receive official guidance concerning the fairness of their reporting. Even more ominously, the newsman's right to function should be "protected," and his standards upgraded.News organizations saw in this last initiative a move toward "licensing" in which governments could decide who could or could not be a reporter (and thus worthy of protection) according to basically abstract standards.
To give weight to its debate, UNESCO appointed a 16- member commission in 1978, headed by Sean MacBride, a former Irish foreign minister, co-founder of Amnesty International, and the only man to win both the Nobel and Lenin peace prizes.
By now the executives of the leading American news organizations had been awakened, and they raised a roar of protest. Some wanted to see the US walk out of the UNESCO conference. Cooler minds prevailed. Ultimately in exchange for new promises of aid, the draft resolution was watered down to a fairly innocuous list of abstract good intentions.
Despite that setback there is no doubt in anybody's mind now that information has become UNESCO's hottest selling item.
If Mr. M'Brow's IPDC is approved and becomes a permanent organization, its sole function will be to make pronouncements on media theory. M'Bow has suggested that the program be based on an intergovernmental council of 35 members to be elected by the predominantly third-world UNESCO general conference. The IPDC director would be picked by Mr. M'Bow and by the UNESCO secretariat, which is to say by Mr. M'Bow.
In an earlier report, M'Bow estimated the cost of the IPDC would be an additional $1.5 million in UNESCO's budget over the next three years, plus another $500,000 for travel expenses during the yearly intergovernmental meetings in Paris. In his opening statements at the Belgrade general conference , Mr. M'Bow upped the costs of UNESCO-proposed communications programs to $4 million for the three-year period.
By now, Western news executives are so tired of debating the press-freedom issue that they may accept the IPDC in order to sidestep still another draft declaration on press freedoms and responsibilities.