Independent Media and the Right to Communicate

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by Paul Mueth

Article 19 of the U.N. General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In 1966, the legally binding Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed and ratified by the U.S., specified that this communication could be “either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his [the communicator’s] choice”.

These general rights were well and good but clearly required elaboration and strategies for implementation.

In 1980, Sean MacBride of UNESCO published One World, Many Voices, a report that introduced the idea of reforming the global communication media under the rubric of the New World Information Order (NWIO). This proposal criticized the corporate domination of major media by enterprises based in the first world. It called for the enhancement of citizen participation in all types of media, including state media common in less-developed nations.

Predictably, the report elicited from Western punditry shallow attacks, which did not deal with the central substance of the report. Observers in less-developed countries were not surprised by this bad press from organs in the so-called First World.

This propaganda blitz was documented in Hope and Folly: the United States and UNESCO 1945-1985. Its authors eventually contributed to the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO and further fed American nativist distrust and fear of the U.N.

In other localities, however, the critique of global media and the call for reform fell on more fertile soil. Francophone African nations pointed out that news about their near neighbors came to them through news agencies in Paris and asserted that more direct South-to-South connections were needed.

In Quebec, in 1983, the World Association of Community Broadcasters, or AMARC, was formed to encourage cooperation among individual radio “artisans” and community media organizations towards changing patterns of communication by fostering participatory media.

One of AMARC’s many projects was aiding the establishment of an alternative Latin American news service, Pulsar, which was based in Quito, Ecuador. The founding efforts were made by Bruce Girard, then of COOP Radio Vancouver, now with, and who is soon to publish a book on communication policy and the WTO. Such projects gained support from the 1989 Brazilian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which called for reform of Brazil’s highly concentrated media and stressed the importance of grassroots participation.

There is, of course, activity here in the U.S. as well. Community media, notably radio and small, weekly and monthly publications of various stripes, have filled an important gap in the media landscape, some for quite a few years. Recently, however, there has been a surge in activism in this country (and worldwide) around Indy Media Centers (see feature article) and micro-radio broadcasting.

The campaign for access to communication through micro-radio stations, (which you will find frequently treated in this journal), was successful for a handful of stations but was choked off by Congress at the behest of the NAB and NPR.

This campaign was essentially begun November 25, 1987, in the John Hay Projects in Springfield by Mbanna Kantako, whose eight-block radius signal-variously called W-Tenants Rights Association (WTRA), Black Magic Radio, Black Liberation Radio, and Human Rights Radio-was the first overt challenge to the FCC. Kantako maintained his broadcast for many years, despite raids and seizures by police and the FCC.

Kantako’s efforts inspired many, including Stephen Dunifer, who began broadcasting Radio Free Berkley from the hills above the San Francisco Bay. Upon seizure of his equipment, Dunifer decided to sue in behalf of the right to communicate. In the case of Dunifer v. FCC, Alan Korn of the National Lawyers’ Guild argued, among other points: “You have to remember that most of the station licenses were given away during the era of Jim Crow laws where it was very difficult for African Americans or any minority groups to own a station. Now…the only people who can afford to buy a broadcast license are…the biggest multinational, biggest cultural enterprises…who own hundreds and hundreds of stations….

He could also have argued that there is an internationally recognized right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas,” and that the U.S., having signed and ratified the 1966 Covenant, is legally bound to respect it.

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