What are ‘communication rights’? How do they relate to ‘human rights’? How do they differ from ‘freedom of expression’?
Communication is recognised as an essential human need and, therefore, as a basic human right. Without it, no individual or community can exist, or prosper. Communication enables meanings to be exchanged, impels people to act and makes them who and what they are.
Communication strengthens human dignity and validates human equality. By recognising, implementing and protecting communication rights, we are recognising, implementing and protecting all other human rights.
Communication rights go beyond freedom of opinion and expression to include areas such as democratic media governance, media ownership and control, participation in one’s own culture, linguistic rights, rights to education, privacy, peaceful assembly, and self-determination. These are questions of inclusion and exclusion, of quality and accessibility. In short, they are questions of human dignity.
The first broad-based debate on media and communication globally, limited mainly to governments, ran for a decade from the mid-1970s. Governments of the South, by then a majority in the UN, began voicing demands in UNESCO concerning media concentration, the flow of news, and ‘cultural imperialism’. The MacBride Report in 1981 articulated most comprehensively a right to communicate. The debate was compromised, however, by the Cold War, and fell apart after the US and the UK pulled out of UNESCO, clouding discussion in UN bodies ever since.
At the same time, NGOs and activists from the 1980s onwards became increasingly active in a variety of communication issues, from community media, to language rights, to copyright, to Internet provision and free and open source software. In the 1990s, these began to coalesce into umbrella groups tackling several issues. The idea of communication rights began to take shape, this time from the ground up.
A ‘right to communicate’ and ‘communication rights’ are closely related, but not identical, in their history and usage. The former is more associated with the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) debate, and points to the need for a formal legal acknowledgment of such a right, as an overall framework for more effective implementation. It also makes intuitive sense as a basic human right. The latter emphasises the fact that an array of interna- tional rights underpinning communication already exists, but many are too often ignored and require active mobilisation and assertion.