From the national to the international
Despite increasing globalization of information, the principles discussed above have not been transferred from national settings to the international arena. Ample testimony provided to the Commission leads it to believe that the time has come for such a transfer to take place. There is room for an international framework that complements national regulatory frameworks. Of course, such national frameworks do not yet exist everywhere and therefore still have to be encouraged in a number of countries. Some existing systems are outdated. In either case, governments should be reminded that their responsibility for human development also requires them to define their stances in accordance with the key principles.
Concentration of media ownership and production is becoming even more striking internationally than it is nationally, making the global media ever more market-driven. In this context, can the kind of pluralist "mixed economy" media system which is emerging in many countries be encouraged globally? Can we envisage a world public sphere in which there is room for alternative voices? Can the media professionals sit down together with policy-makers and consumers to work out mechanisms that promote access and a diversity of expression despite the acutely competitive environment that drives the media moguls apart?
The Commission does not have ready answers to questions such as these. It does believe, however, that the questions must be squarely posed in the context of culture and development. It is also convinced that tabling such questions can contribute to a richer international dialogue.
Many specialists have told the Commission how important it would be to arrive at an international balance between public and private interests. They envision a common ground of public interest on a transnational scale. They suggest that different national approaches can be aligned, that broadly acceptable guidelines could be elaborated with the active participation of the principal actors, that new international rules are not a pipedream but could emerge through the forging of transnational alliances across the public and private media space.
1. Encouraging competition.
Although the emergence of international communications networks such as Internet defies control by one or a few interests, this is not the case throughout the communications and media sector. Rather, the convergence of interlocking technologies and the positioning of domestic market leaders abroad have favoured the international concentration of ownership. An unprecedented round of alliances, mergers and acquisitions has affected every sector in the last decade: consumer electronics, media production, television, cable, publishing, computer and telecommunications are all striving to position themselves in the global market. Producers themselves are blurring the distinctions between information and entertainment, software and hardware, product and distribution.
New alliances are being forged between owners of content and owners of infrastructure. For example, in May 1995, MCI, the American long distance telecommunications carrier, announced a 2 billion dollar investment in Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, bringing together the fibre optic pipeline hardware and the "software" content. A vast array of films, television programmes, publishing and multimedia will henceforth be distributed through a fibreoptic telecommunication network with access to Internet. The Time Warner agreement to buy Turner Broadcasting System for $ 7.5 billion has been trumpeted as the creation of the world's largest media company. The 19 billion dollar merger of Capital Cities/ABC with the Disney empire will lead to what Disney's chairman Michael Eisner sees as "the world's greatest entertainment company in the next century." There is much talk of giants seeking synergies. AT&T appears at the same time to be getting smaller. But the impact on the workforce is the same: jobs in jeopardy, careers in chaos. While global efficiency gains, ommunities suffer from these reshufflings. Towns are losing corporate headquarters and civic-minded business leaders are replaced by transient managers.
In the face of such awesome power, where will the world find checks and balances? This concern is giving way to anxiety in many quarters. More and more informed observers are asking for some countervailing influence of both government and the citizens to be put in place.
At the moment, however, there is little international policy to promote such a development. Mechanisms of co-operation between national policy makers and regulators are rare. Various UN agencies have some say in the workings of the international communications sphere, but only a very limited voice when it comes to promoting competition. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is primarily involved in harmonizing technical telecommunications standards, the allocation of radio spectrum usage and providing some development assistance. UNESCO is an important forum for discussion of the cultural and social aspects of communications and information, although after having weathered intense controversy in the 1980s, it has confined itself to international technical assistance and limited policy-related comparative analysis. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has a limited mandate with regard basic telecommunications services and does not deal with cultural matters.
In this setting, the Commission asks whether the world should not consider a co-ordinated regulatory approach, a possible international competition policy. It may also be necessary to establish some form of international broadcasting policy regarding satellite broadcasting and other media-related services. Within nations independent agencies already oversee telecommunications and broadcasting activities. Could a parallel world body of this nature be envisaged?
In terms of the technologies, just as the regulatory approaches to national infrastructure need revamping if they are to tackle new global realities, consistent rules of the game for all the world's regions may also need to be established from a wider social and cultural perspective. This means that issues such as liberalization, inter-operability, universal service, tariffs and interconnections should all be explored with capacity-building for human development in mind.
Observing that there reigns in the world today "a high degree of convergence of attitude and common interest in creating a regime that supports business but outlaws abuses," the Commission on Global Governance has suggested that the WTO may negotiate an international code of good practice regarding foreign investment, and give accreditation to transnational companies that accept the basic principles of good conduct that the code would embrace. It observes that most transnational companies are responsible entities, and that they should welcome an explicit global agreement which recognizes their property and certain other rights. It does not seem far-fetched to envisage a similar arrangement that encourages media competition.
Because ideas such as these merit careful reflection, the Commission proposes in its International Agenda that a feasibility study be commissioned for this purpose. In the search for the better functioning of media markets world-wide, some steps could be taken immediately. One would be for countries to determine amongst themselves how their own existing methods of encouraging competition could be harmonized. Such questions have indeed been raised in ad hoc gatherings of national regulatory agencies from countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Those taking part, however, were interested in applying foreign lessons in their own countries. It is now urgent that those who have experience in promoting competition nationally should work together to foster it internationally.
2. Encouraging a diversity of voices
. A degree of access and choice of content is available through the international commercial media. This is especially so now that satellite services which include some local programming are being introduced in most regions. It also makes good business sense. When media managers discover that their "global culture" product is hard to sell they become willing to diversify content so as to satisfy their market. For example MTV, the USbased satellite music video channel, has revised its worldwide strategy and is now developing regional services with local colour. It plans to combine global presence and single brand with a product designed for separate markets (USA and Canada, Europe, Brazil, Japan, U.S. Hispanics, Taiwan and India). Other compromises indicate the difficulty of balancing public and private as well as global and local interests. The June 1995 decision of the Indian Government to allow CNN International to have better access to the Indian market by having it provide limited broadcast time to the government's radio-television monopoly -- Doordarshan -- underscores national efforts to temper the information flow of global media.
But is this enough? Despite adaptations to local markets, both technology and economic considerations still favour standardization. When audience ratings are paramount, creative possibilities will be constricted. This is equally the case where freedom of expression is restricted by regimes exercising control over information. If the benefits of the international media in the exchange of information amongst peoples are to be maximized, more of the service mix found in national models is required.
Technological advances in digital compression now allow almost unlimited distribution capacity. There remain few technical hurdles in increasing the number and diversity of signals around the globe. In the context of a global market, calls for a more plural media system now raise questions that are primarily policy-related. Can the nationally-accepted role of public and alternative media as equalizers be applied internationally? On what basis could resources for alternative international services be secured?
The concept of public media services centres on the notion that public and private media space can co-exist. The public media space, as seen through the tradition of media regulation and public service radio and television broadcasting institutions or systems, is well-established in most countries. Alternative educational and community media, whether local newspapers in Malaysia or community broadcasting in Latin America, help to fill out this public space. Although we have witnessed the extension of some public broadcasting services beyond national borders, as exemplified by the BBC World Service, these are not founded on a notion of an international public space.
Ten years ago CNN launched its international satellite channel. Today we have the solid beginnings of a global infrastructure for information and communication. The question of public broadcasting and public space must therefore take on an international dimension. As public media in their countries are or should be platforms that allow all sectors and levels of society to be heard, is there not a corresponding need for international systems which are better able to address the diverse needs of all peoples?
Commercial satellite services use the earth's airwaves without reference to the concept of a public space. The global space defined by the radio frequency spectrum of satellite orbital slots, is there to be used by all. As Alvin Toffler has stressed, "the spectrum...like the ocean floor and the planet's breathable air, belongs -- or should belong -- to everyone, not just a few." Yet the use of this global spectrum is allocated through international agreements managed by the ITU in which the concerns of individual governments have so far prevailed. Each government seeks and manages its allocated frequencies in terms of its own objectives. In return for the use of this public good, domestic telecommunications and broadcasting services are usually required to meet performance requirements and contribute licence fees. But there are no comparable public requirements or obligations for international services which use and benefit from the global media space.
This hiatus should be at the heart of the coming debate over how best to share the global commons in media terms. One simple idea would be to use international taxation to generate new revenue that may be invested in alternative regional and global services and programming. A tax might be levied on the commercial use of the global commons, much like taxes which have been suggested elsewhere for cross-border capital flows and fossil fuel consumption. One might explore approaches comparable to proposed compensation that would be paid by the commercial fishing, shipping and mining industries for the free use (or misuse) of the high seas. Detailed study is required to see if such ideas could be adapted with a view to funding alternative public media services and, obviously, several jurisdictional implications would have to be assessed.
An alternative would be an investment-oriented strategy: a tax, equivalent to a small percentage of gross revenues from all commercial media and communications services, would contribute to an investment fund for the production and distribution of alternative content. Such an investment fund could be established without the use of an agency to regulate frequency spectrum-based licence fees. It would be non-discriminatory, taxing both foreign and domestic commercial interests.
The Commission recommends therefore that the feasibility of these and other funding choices be seriously examined. It underlines that any effort to generate diversity of content through the definition of a public media space would be in the interest of the private sector which is already investing heavily in international communications infrastructure. Creating demand for new programming and services, especially when capacity is no longer an issue, may even encourage further investment in regions where such infrastructure development is sluggish. Whatever approach is used, there can be little doubt that multimedia technologies will soon provide a far more flexible and interactive vehicle world-wide for programming, expression and distribution.
3. Balancing freedom and moral standards
The global information environment arouses not only hopes but also fears that are fuelling a growing international debate. The aspect of this many-sided debate that the Commission has chosen to focus upon is the question of whether the national search for balancing freedom with moral responsibility can be mirrored at the international level.
Weighing the benefits of exposure to globalized popular media, voices in every region, from young people in France, to parents in the Philippines or even potential candidates for the presidency of the United States of America express deep concern with the growing tide of gratuitous violence, explicit sex and offensive language and images produced and distributed today. What all fear most of all is the impact of such material on children.
Although film and television programming from the United States of America flood the world's airwaves, nowadays such material comes also from many other sources. A recent survey of programmes in India revealed that more than 70 percent of these were considered violent by the people surveyed. In another survey of nine Asian countries, all with a fairly high level of local programming, at least 60 percent were perceived to be violent. It was very much a question of local context versus foreign images. For example, concern amongst Thais and Koreans was focused on the "brutal samurai and erotic dramas" of Japanese programming and "the mental aggressiveness alien to their values." With the rapid development of new communications technologies, such reactions are not limited to foreign television and pop music lyrics; they may extend to the kind of offensive material now carried by networks such as the Internet.
The national efforts already discussed have shown us that this value-loaded confrontation must be dealt with by society as a whole, in an open and constructive trialogue between the public authorities, the industry, and the public. In many countries a consensus has formed around basic principles.
If such efforts are to be internationalized, the media themselves must not be dictated to; a more enlightened public stance would be to encourage them to take certain initiatives themselves. The management of CNN has in fact already acknowledged that as "we are a 24-hour news and current affairs organization, this means that any hour can be early morning or breakfast time or evening supper time somewhere else in the world. Therefore we try to restrain ourselves from overly violent images throughout the 24 hours."
Can we respond internationally to the challenge without falling into the traps of censorship? And whose responsibility should it be to launch the process: governments, regulators, broadcasters, parents? The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, already provides an international normative framework by referring, in its Article 17 dealing with the media, both to the need for States Parties to ensure that children have access to information and material from a diversity of sources and to "encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being..." The efforts of the European Union or the Council of Europe have already shown that the harmonization of standards is very difficult. Hence their agreements -- a Directive in the first case, Conventions in the second -- reflect a regional consensus that each country honours by ensuring that at least the minimum standards are respected.
These are precedents that should be followed at the global level. What guidelines to the global media services apply? The first step would be to compare national standard-setting practice, whether regulatory or voluntary, as a basis for international discussion. Some broad and difficult issues will have to be faced; they include conflict between existing national legislations, programme classifications that are commonly acceptable, the scheduling of "safe harbour" periods taking into account time zone differences and, of course, different scales of values on the core issues. Such a forum of ideas could contribute to finding the attainable common ground.
4. Efficiency and equity: towards a global balance.
Is the global information infrastructure fated to develop iniquitously and increase the North/South divide? How can the largest possible number of people be offered a ride on the "information superhighway"?
Internationally, the task of balancing the efficiency of market forces with considerations of equity is at least as urgent as it is nationally. Without human and financial support, many countries may ultimately find themselves voiceless and without access to the empowering opportunities of media technologies. The challenge is to strike a balance between the marketplace and government action, between private freedom to act and the public need to regulate, between the thirst for technology and the scarcity of resources.
A good deal has been attempted already by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Universal Postal Union (UPU), the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and UNESCO, but with mixed results. Increased multilateral co-operation and commitment are urgently required. "In the developing world, it was observed, it is interesting to hear discussions about 'information highways' but the majority on the continent still need a 'foot highway.' However, it was pointed out that while there might be more important needs in society, the relevance of new technologies to everyone, even those in the lower strata of society, is a reality that cannot be denied."
Paradoxically though, unencumbered with decades-old copper wire, developing countries that have made communications a priority are installing digital switches, fibre-optic lines, and the newest cellular and mobile technology. For example, the most sophisticated national networks are in Djibouti, Rwanda, the Maldives, and the Solomon Islands, where 100% of the main lines are digital, compared with 49.5% in the United States of America. Developing countries as a whole will be spending some 200 billion dollars in the next five years in order to build over 300 million main lines and upgrade their present telephone networks.
Given the scale of the task of building such infrastructure, governments will be obliged to encourage the private sector to make the huge investments required, yet ensure that social and cultural concerns are taken into account. Developing countries will need far more resources than any development agencies can provide. Hence the usefulness of a programme such as US AID's 75 million dollar telecom development programme for Africa, not to build new networks, but to "help with regulatory reform and other changes." When markets open up, investment capital quickly flows, and in many parts of the world, previous monopolies and closed telecommunications markets are being opened to competition, privatization, and foreign ownership. Carefully and fairly managed such co-operation can help poorer countries obtain the advanced infrastructure technology that will allow them to "leap-frog" forward in many senses.
The Commission knows that methods will differ from country to country and region to region, as will the required mix of advice and assistance. Private investments will shoulder much of the cost. In many countries this effort will not involve substantial public expenditure but the encouragement of a process of deregulation of the current telephone, cable and broadcasting industries, allowing them to broaden the scope of their activities to other available forms of communication -- voice, video and interactive communications -- which can service their public. These new opportunities will attract new investment. Elsewhere, the development of a digital infrastructure needs to be tied into privatization efforts. In countries which do not have extensive cable networks, there may be a stronger role for government in infrastructure investment. They should also be encouraged to incorporate enhanced digital technologies (ISDN) that enable existing telephone lines to move towards interactive multimedia potential without more expensive fibre-optics.
The Commission is convinced therefore that innovative partnerships should be encouraged between international agencies, governments, the media industry and civil society. Such co-operation should be launched everywhere, not just in the industrially developed and already media-rich world.
An alternative global television service
WETV is a new international satellite network created by a consortium of public and private sector interests in the wake of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The consortium includes agencies and programmes of the United Nations, bilateral development agencies, foundations, non-governmental organizations, broadcasters and private sector investors. They came together in response to Agenda 21, which called for countries to "establish ways of employing modern communications technologies for effective public outreach." The result is WETV, an alternative global public service television network in which audiences can access the diversity of the world's culture and society and a wide range of viewpoints on important matters of social and cultural concern. Through affiliate broadcasters and independent producers in both the South and the North, it promises to offer international programming of a variety never seen before on television. A large segment of WETV's initial programming will be produced in developing countries. WETV plans to offer programming which address global issues, global cultural diversity and capitalize on the power of television to reinforce life-long learning. Prior to its launch in early 1996, WETV began to co-operate with the UN and some 50 broadcasters to provide a preview of its services on the occasion of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, September 1995.