Conference Cultural Diversity or or Cultural Freedom?

October 2003 -

A report on the Reclaiming Cultural Diversity conference held at the end of September in Amsterdam.
Eric Kluitenberg, who helped organise the conference, tells us what he observed in the article Cultural Diversity or Cultural Freedom?

De Balie in Amsterdam organised the Reclaiming Cultural Diversity conference at the end of September. The conference was initiated by Joost Smiers, author of the pioneer study Arts under Pressure - Promoting Cultural Diversity in the Age of Globalisation (2003).

Specialists and activists from at least 22 countries discussed the development of a legal instrument with which governments can protect their local artistic diversity. The disappearance of trade barriers as intended by the WTO will smooth the path for a bombardment of culture from the economically-dominant countries.

This is already evident in the power of the transnational media: the few conglomerates that control the vast majority of communication channels. Western culture flows into homes throughout the world, but the work of local musicians is rarely heard elsewhere. This is also noticeable in the Netherlands. Nearly every film theatre is owned by a mega provider. Making it difficult to miss the latest Hollywood hits but leaving virtually no screens for independent domestic and foreign productions.

During the closing public debate on 27 September, it was learned that almost none of the participants actually realised how complex this matter is. One of the primary obstacles, for example, was the terminology. What is culture, really? In North Korea it is something entirely different than in Cost Rica. Does this include traditional costumes? Or religious works of art?
And why, many of the participants from the southern hemisphere wondered, is so much emphasis being placed on copyright? According to Alinah Kelo Segobye from Botswana, in countries with a strong oral tradition no one owns a copyright on the stories that are told. Even the term 'cultural diversity' presented difficulties. In India, according to Nilanjana Gupta, this is the war cry of the fundamentalists fighting globalisation. It even proved impossible for the conference to unanimously support a mild form of regulation. As one of the participants commented: "I do not want to have to choose the colour of the police officers: it is the police officer himself that poses the threat".

Nevertheless, during the 32nd General Conference (29 September - 17 October), Unesco will present a recommendation for establishing a protective instrument of this type. This newsflash was announced by Canadian Garry Neil of the International Network for Cultural Diversity.