The search for principles in national settings
Governments, citizens and media interests themselves have taken up these challenges. They have collectively defined a number of principles. These relate to issues of structure as well as content; the Commission focused its attention upon four of these. The first principle it considered, one of structure, is that the communication media ought to flourish in a competitive environment. The second, one of content, is that competition itself should promote a diversity of voices. A third principle, also one of content, is that freedom and diversity need to be balanced by certain standards -- this refers not to the ethics of information as a whole but to the increasing presence of violence and pornography on our screens. And finally, an overarching structural principle, the idea that the three previous principles can only be respected and sustained if efficiency and equity are balanced.
1. The need for competition
Until recently, broadcasting and telecommunications were state monopolies practically everywhere. With very few exceptions, governments saw them as the vehicles to ensure that "national culture" was properly reflected by delivering information, education and quality entertainment to all. Often nation-building has been involved, as in the case of Palapa, the Indonesian satellite broadcasting service which spread the use of a common language, Bahasa Indonesia, amongst the country's different ethnic groups. In 1980 most European States, whether communist or capitalist, held a monopoly in these domains. In Africa too national broadcasting was strictly government-owned and operated. Countries such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland or the United Kingdom had mixed systems. Community broadcasting was rare.
This picture has changed completely. Governments are now having to deal with the delicate task of opening up protected monopolies to competition. The causes are mostly technological, since satellite and cable cut across all borders. They are also political: not only the passing of totalitarian systems of state control but also increasingly vocal pressures for access and voice in democratic societies, where communication is still predominantly "top-down" in nature. They are economic as well, in the search for profit in a free market environment. The role of the state and its regulatory authorities needs not so much to be removed as to be redefined in this context. Competition is often ephemeral, and refers to a repositioning within industry, in which new dominant players inevitably emerge to form new monopolies. For there is nothing in the nature of laissez-faire that either establishes or maintains competition. But the virtue of markets depends on the existence of competition.
In most of Europe, state-dependent media prevailed until the beginning of the 1980s. In the United Kingdom, commercial television stations had been admitted side by side with the BBC in 1959; commercial radio was accepted in Italy in the 1970s and commercial television in 1980. France and the Federal Republic of Germany followed suit in 1984. By the end of the decade, all the European countries were admitting private providers to the market, while government continued to facilitate infrastructure development.
In the rest of the world, apart from North America, public interest is still equated with public ownership; the problems facing media in the transition to democracy are typical of the entire democratization process; and independent public service broadcasting is far from a working reality. But forces in civil society are increasingly ready to pre-empt the issue. In the early 1990s, for example, over 700 "illegal" radio stations were set up in Turkey, challenging a law which gave a monopoly over radio and television broadcasting to the state authority.
The situation in Central and Eastern Europe has changed in a special way, as less well supported state media are having to compete with private companies. Broadcasting organizations in the Commonwealth of Independent States operated until early 1995 in a legal vacuum since there was no legislation on radio and television broadcasting. Its International Television Congress based in Kiev intends to launch an international satellite channel "Culture Via Television." A remarkable initiative is the proposal of Cable Plus, a private Czech cable television company, to create a cable television union to work out principles and coordinate actions in the field of legislation, technology and financing -- a task that governments would normally have been expected to assume.
The movement to deregulate broadcasting is strong in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mali, with more than fifteen operational private radio stations, is a showcase for private broadcasting. Burkina Faso has licensed more than nine stations. The National Broadcasting Commission of Nigeria has granted licences for one radio and six television stations as well as eleven cable/satellite retransmision stations. These new private stations suffer some major limitations, however. They tend to broadcast a restricted diet of popular music and religion in a limited number of national languages. Many such stations appear to be following in the footsteps of their most commercial counterparts elsewhere, focusing their attention on advertising targets and entertainment oriented programming. It has also been pointed out that licences tend to be granted to individuals with close connections to government.
Media in the Arab world are characterized by state control. Each country has a broadcasting system that is either operated by the government or run by an organization directly under its tutelage. It is difficult in these circumstances for media to play an independent role. As a reaction, there is a wide availability of regional and international media channels. International viewing is pervasive in the Gulf states, which may provide the world's biggest video cassette market and which are major purchasers of pirated American and British television programmes.
As poor -- or small -- nations cannot upgrade their telecommunications networks without foreign investment, skills and technologies, privatization is the only answer: Singapore and the Republic of South Korea in 1993; Hungary, Pakistan, Peru, and Russia in 1994; Bolivia, Czech Republic, C‘te d'Ivoire, India, Turkey and Uganda in 1995. Some 26 telephone-company privatizations are scheduled for the next three years. Such plans still encountner political resistance, however. A developing country's state-owned telephone company may well be the largest employer; its tariffs serve to subsidize many activities and stiffly surcharged international telephone call revenues are a source of hard cash. Such negative attitudes are being broken down, however, by international pressures, for example the World Bank has tied telecom loans to deregulation in both Kenya and Nicaragua.
Greater competition can promote diversity in the media. Yet deregulation, or the relaxation of government controls of the operation of markets, which is one of the means used to promote competition, may also promote concentration of ownership. The high costs of attractive programming and the need to produce for very large markets have compelled companies to form groups on a regional and worldwide scale. Recent giant mergers, claiming the merits of synergy, are evidence of this. Such concentration certainly offers economic advantages. Among the main disadvantages is standardization.
There is a growing awareness too that pluralism of information, together with diversity of production and distribution, are prerequisites for, as well as indicators of, a properly functioning democracy. Unless people have clear, prompt and reliable information about what their governments are doing, they have no basis for assessing their leaders or participating in the democratic process. The breadth of access to information also determines the degree to which citizens are able to form informed opinions and therefore participate in public affairs. Yet tensions emerge in the definition of public access. Advocates of freedom of access to information have every reason to be wary of governmental regulation, yet the market is not necessarily better at allocating access.
Societies are tackling such issues by taking various measures at the community, local and national levels. These include independent public broadcasting networks, open regulatory frameworks, community and local media and strong, culturally≠oriented copyright policy. A growing trend is to frame these measures in terms of cultural policy orientations rather than purely in terms of the political control of information. Governments are beginning to envisage regulations for both the private and public sector, enforced and monitored by independent agencies, so that government in fact supports growth and access instead of impeding them. Resources are also being set aside for the high quality programmes based on "indigenous" content or inspiration.
Independent broadcasting services provide a venue for people's immediate interests. Direct and indirect public aid for programme production still needs to be strengthened, however, so that the local context can be reflected. This is where community radio and television come into the picture. Wherever a modicum of funding, political commitment and infrastructure is being made available, community media complement public and commercial broadcasting. They have become important fora of expression in the last two decades. They provide information on a range of issues in a form and language local audiences understand and identify with. Appalshop, a community media centre in the underdeveloped Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, was created in the mid≠1960s under the United States federal government"s "War on Poverty." Since then, Appalshop has helped preserve and celebrate the culture, voices and concerns of people in this marginalized region. Today it runs a television station, a local newspaper, a local community theatre group, a radio station, recording label, and a range of cultural projects and festivals. Peasants and miners in Bolivia have set up their own radio stations, broadcasting in Quechua, Aymara or Tupi-Guarani. Local participation in management and programming is growing. In Australia, for example, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have pressed, on the basis of their own successful experience in community broadcasting, for the establishment of a Indigenous Broadcasting Corporation funded by the government.
In addition to supporting domestic and local programming, many governments are placing higher priority on the reform of copyright and neighbouring rights so that, as technology moves forward, programme content will evolve in truly diverse ways. This is critical with regard to multimedia production, to the education and training of copyright experts and to raising public awareness of the need to respect creators through copyright protection. The new technologies make it easy to manipulate, reproduce, and broadcast works without the permission of the owner. To ensure balance, therefore, between the free circulation of cultural products and the protection of rights holders, there is growing stress on the review of existing copyright and neighbouring rights regimes.
Even if rules exist, however, unless piracy can be halted or reduced, inexpensive, easily copied imported video and music programming will continue to dominate many markets. Hence many developing countries face the need to develop practical mechanisms to encourage local creativity and foster local commercial production.
At all these levels, however, a major question is the high cost of media development in poor countries. This applies to conventional as well as front-edge forms: radio, film and video production, sound recording and publishing as well as many other content-based, market-oriented cultural industries have become the dominant transmitters of cultural images, ideas and values while contributing substantially to economic growth. They have widened individual choices and access to cultural expression, information and education. The cultural industries reflect and reinforce the diversity of interests of the people using them. This is particularly the case with the most technologically advanced tools, i.e. multimedia.
Despite the universal appeal of the products of mass culture the world has observed for so long, specific publics are now increasingly demanding specific types of programming as well. But there are good economic reasons for using low-cost imported material; its other causes range from almost non-existent alternative local supply to low production quality and the lack of trained people. Although these problems are serious in developing countries, audiences appear to prefer home-made fare if given the choice. In a 1995 survey of prime-time viewing covering almost 40 countries -≠ from Brazil to India -≠ one in three appears to be indifferent to foreign products. When a choice exists, local programmes tend to score higher in the ratings than imports. This is also true for the European television market, where American programmes failed to rank among the year's top ten in eight of a dozen countries surveyed.
There is growing recognition of the need to use multimedia in teaching and learning. In countries with high rates of illiteracy and semi≠literacy, multimedia can provide alternative paths towards the acquisition of knowledge and skills. We must remember that young people, who acquire computer skills quickly, form a much larger portion of the population in these regions than in the industrialized world. The government of Malaysia has committed itself to providing its people with cutting-edge educational innovations. By the year 2000, the Ministry of Education expects to have equipped every school with CD-ROMs and multimedia facilities and to have trained its teachers in these new technologies. With 15 per cent of the national budget invested in education, Malaysia has today a literacy level of 70 per cent and a growing publishing industry. This is largely a result of a clearly defined pollicy, one that the Commission believes should be set out by other governments as well.
3. Media and moral standards
Today's media can deliver messages and symbols, imported or domestic, directly into every home. Even the tiniest fingers can press the wrong button, making parental control difficult if not impossible. The fitness of media content, particularly but not just for children, is a question of growing importance. How to tread the fine line between censorship and comunity standards?
Violence on the screen causes great anxiety everywhere. The question is increasingly asked whether the growing incidence of everyday violence -- among children especially -- is not induced by screen violence. Reuters has just quoted a study carried out by the Center for Communication Policy at the University of California at Los Angeles which highlights the rising presence of "sinister combat violence" in a large number of television cartoons screened for children on Saturday mornings.
Pornography is another major concern. It is debasing women and children by mixing violence and cruelty with sensuality.
In all countries, a growing number of citizens holds that it is time to set some limits. But there is no single way of doing so. A combination of measures is being sought, depending on specific needs and contexts. Regulation is one solution. Volunteer codes of conduct are another. As freedom of speech must be paramount in any democratic society, many efforts to respect community standards have been voluntary, as the media industry itself has responded to the mounting pressure of public opinion. In co-operation with public authorities, private and public broadcasters alike have begun to elaborate and respect such codes. Although it is obviously difficult for regulators to impose penalties on broadcasters who fail to abide by these standards, some countries have decided that such measures simply have to be taken. Disciplinary measures that already exist include the conditional attribution, suspension, or denial of a broadcast license. Still, the responsibility rests first with the informed viewer. This is why efforts to encourage media literacy are made in countries such as the United Kingdom so as to arm parents with the information required to make sensible decisions regarding what type of content is viewed in their households.
General principles based on community moral standards have been introduced in the European Union and in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America. Broadcasters there and elsewhere are now voluntarily classifying the material they show (by designating some for universal viewing, other programmes as unsuitable for children, etc.). Viewer warning signals such as distinct squares or triangles on possibly offensive content is another method. Programme scheduling systems transmit sensitive material at times when young children are asleep. There is growing acceptance for ideas such as a "safe harbour" period for family viewing and the formulation of "family viewing policies." Such approaches require broadcasters and parents to share in protecting children from explicitly or implicitly violent programming.
The banning of satellite dishes by certain Islamic states is a radical way of responding to the objections that some of these countries have to the programmes. Such measures represent attempts to exercise what regulators call "the right to refuse." Ultimately, however, because of the nature of the technology, this right is illusory. An alternative procedure is the Singapore system, also used in China, of broadcasting through a cable system only so as to ensure that content can be reviewed before it is aired.
Violence and pornography are not found in the broadcasting media alone but also in electronic games, computer supported fax networks, independent video production and, increasingly, the Internet. Children are tempted to practise the violence they watch on their toy screens and interactive games allow them to take this one step further. For children as well as their parents product packages which combine children's programmes, toys and advertising are difficult to resist.
Advanced media technologies may also be applied in odious ways, for instance by North American hate groups, who propagate their ideas through all the means available. Grouped at the leading edge of a vast communications web, nearly 250 hate groups are currently exploring new ways of purveying hate, transmitting their call to re≠establish a white homeland and asserting their need to live separately from other races. In the United States, legislation to combat the dissemination of hate material and pornography on Internet was introduced in early 1995. Very difficult questions about whether the service should be regarded as broadcasting or as private "telephone" exchange are compounded by the problem of actually enforcing any kind of law on this precursor to the borderless information highway.
4. Balancing efficiency and equity
Most of the world's population now has access to free radio and television broadcasting, often through a mix of public service with one or more commercial channels. But only a very small minority, found mostly in developed countries and among urban residents elsewhere, can benefit from other services, usually through cable and audio or video tape player. Only very limited segments of society can be connected to more advanced forms of international communications such as satellite television and information networks. There is a yawning gap between those who have access and those who do not.
The liberalization of broadcasting and telecommunications leaves its future development primarily in the hands of the private sector. This is particularly true of industrialized countries, where market demand and deregulation provide attractive incentives. In developing countries, financing new equipment and infrastructure and the corresponding operational know≠how requires investment expenditures estimated to run into the billions of dollars. Hence it behooves policy-makers to find ways of reconciling the interests and energies of the market-place and the public good. The key notions are access for all and support for innovation, creation and production. In particular, greater equality in the access of women to being admitted as producers, directors and writers in the media is long over-due.
When giant companies such as AT&T project the creation of a fibre≠optic ring around Africa, they are serving their long term strategic interests. The major international operators and suppliers of telecommunications seek to establish themselves in such markets with the intention of replacing existing unreliable networks by new ones to be used by a specialized, mostly international, corporate clientele. It cannot be assumed that new services, when they appear, will be automatically responsive to the needs of the people.
As they look to the future, decision-makers know that negotiations between private, public and community interests are needed if equity, diversity and human development capabilities are to be reinforced as guiding principles. Governments are seeking an environment that encourages the private sector to invest in broadband information infrastructure. For most of the developed economies this will not involve substantial government expenditure but rather an effective deregulation, for example, of the telephone and cable industries so that they can operate more freely.
Media finance for political campaigns.
Where access to the media in election campaigns is left completely to the free market this access favours groups with more resources. The resulting electoral process may well be "free" but is certainly not "fair" in the sense of providing a level playing field of competing alternatives to the public. In response to this problem, many societies have decided that public access to electoral information is a "public good." Governments remove campaigning from the "free" market and regulate equality of access across the political spectrum. Removing electoral use of the media from the market inherently weakens the influence of money over politics and makes more accessible a politically and culturally balanced array of views.