New skirmishes in the global battle over media freedom

ABBA EBAN, one of this century's most eloquent commentators, ended his excellent book on the art of diplomacy with a keen observation. ``Diplomacy,'' he wrote, ``must be judged by what it prevents, not only by what it achieves. Much of it is a holding action designed to avoid explosion until the unifying forces of history take humanity into their embrace.'' Recent events concerning media freedom underscore the accuracy of his observation. Concerted action by three major groups representing the Western world's independent news media was able to keep a conference scheduled for Tampere, Finland, last month from being held. It is a meeting that would have caused considerable mischief in global media freedom.

Origins of the issue date back to the early 1970s, when demands for new world ``orders'' of affairs dominated global forums. As information and the ways it is collected, transmitted, and stored were perceived as a source and manifestation of wealth and power, the third world began to demand a larger share of the world's information resources.

This call for a new world order came not from journalists but from governments seeking to use the media for their own purposes. Involved were policies totally repugnant to Western ideals and traditions such as licensing of journalists and journalistic obligations to support particular policies or the establishment of new ``orders.'' In the 1970s several draft declarations on a New World Information Order were debated at meetings of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The democratic West found itself very much in the minority as the Soviet bloc, eager to legitimize its heavy-handed control of the media, became a ready ally of the governments of developing nations.

The Soviets had already presented a draft resolution at the UN in 1972 aimed at getting international approval for strong governmental control of the information media; it would have set up an international agenda for the press. The measure was debated during three biennial general conferences of UNESCO. The principal objection of the West was a provision which, in effect, officially sanctioned the use of the mass media as a tool of government policy. When the resolution finally reached the stage of a vote in 1978, the US and its allies were able to dilute most of the bad language on media ``responsibilities'' and eliminate the provision on government responsibility for media activities. A rather anodyne version was finally adopted on Nov. 22, 1978. It then seemed that the issue was laid to rest.

The Soviets and their allies do not give up easily. With the US and Britain no longer taking part in UNESCO, Moscow succeeded in getting that group's support for a symposium that was to be held in Tampere last month to evaluate the effects of the 1978 media declaration.

The symposium was obviously wired. The principal co-sponsor was the communist-front, Prague-based International Organization of Journalists. The agenda included papers by the dean of the Moscow University School of Journalism and other anti-free press luminaries, as well as some token Western participation. The meeting would not have supported the concept of media freedom, and it might well have led to proposals for international sanctions against nations opposing the East bloc's interpretation of the declaration.

The situation did not augur well for a prompt return of the US and Britain to UNESCO, and would doubtless have led to further bitterness on the part of free-press advocates.

Fortunately, however, representatives of the world's independent news media were also on the offensive. Alerted by the 1978 declaration, they have been organizing and taking their case to the people and governments of the world since that time. The World Press Freedom Committee, made up of 32 organizations of journalists and editors from around the world, has led the struggle. Set up in 1979, it immediately embarked on a campaign to alert everyone who would listen to the dangers inherent in the New World Information Order as it was developing and to the benefits to all from free and unfettered news media. The committee was the sponsor of the 1981 Declaration of Talloires, a forthright statement of the principles of a free press.

The Talloires measure has represented the independent media's stance in a series of international debates. The principles of that declaration united the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) and its allies, the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers and the Inter-American Press Association, in opposing the Tampere meeting in May. A resulting boycott by all responsible Western participants forced postponement of the conference at least until December and probably indefinitely. With the expected selection of a new UNESCO director general at the next biennial general conference in October, a new UNESCO agenda is likely.

The people and organizations representing the Press Freedom Committee, as well as the other groups and governments dedicated to media freedom, do not deny the great information imbalance that exists between the developed and developing world. Support for development programs and for scholarship and exchange programs evidences concern and support for the development and nurturing of free media everywhere. All of this is based on the premise that development in the broadest sense of the term will evolve best and most quickly where free media flourish. There is no evidence that development occurs faster - or even as fast - under conditions of restricted liberties. President Jimmy Carter put it well in 1979: ``The US is not free because it is rich; it is rich because it is free.''

In the meantime, the real new order of communications and information is already with us. It is the impact of technology and telecommunications. Meetings, debates, and reports of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) centering on the rapidly increasing impact of telecommunications on world development signal the path of progress.

Recent studies have shown that telecommunications development is at the core, not the periphery, of development. The ITU-sponsored Maitland report on the world's telecommunication problems makes it clear that investments in that field pay off. The real challenge of our times is in seeking to put together humankind's thirst for information with optimal use of our rapidly advancing technology. The technology of the first world is what is needed by the developing nations. The third world needs to embrace, selectively and openly, the technology of the industrialized democracies. The components of the real new information and communications order - satellites, computers, digitalization, facsimile machines, VCRs - will leap the barriers of the third world, no matter what. It would be much more useful for all concerned if this happened in an atmosphere of mutual understanding, respect, and freedom than in one of fruitless attempts to stifle progress in the name of media controls or hollow national cultural integrity.

The action of these guardian organizations of free and independent media in forcing postponement of the mischievous Tampere conference is very much in accord with the postulate of Ambassador Eban in attempting to avoid further explosions on the world media freedom front until the real interests of humanity are served.

Hewson A. Ryan is Edward R. Murrow professor of public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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