Rights relating to communication have been central to the concept of universal human rights emerging in the mid-20th century, and its consolidation in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). But Jean d’Arcy is generally credited with being the first to explicitly make the case for a “right to communicate” In 1969, then Director of Radio and Visual Services in the UN Office of Public Information, he wrote:

The time will come when the (UDHR) will have to encompass a more extensive right than man’s right to information, first laid down 21 years ago in Article 19. This is the right of man to communicate. It is the angle from which the future development of communications will have to be considered if it is to be fully understood”. [2]

Intergovernmental platforms: NWICO, UNESCO, and the MacBride Commission

The issue was catapulted to the forefront of geopolitics soon after. Soon the idea of a “right to communicate”was at the centre of an international diplomatic row that lasted several years the debate over what became known as a New World Information and Communication Order - NWICO.

Against a backdrop of the emergent role of media and communication, many countries became seriously concerned at the impact on national identity, ¬cultural ¬integrity, and political and economic sovereignty. NWICO, spearheaded by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of UN countries focused on:

- The “free flow” doctrine of information flow, which was reinforcing the dominance of western media and news content;

- The growing concentration of the media and communication industry translating into more foreign ownership of media in smaller and poorer countries;

- How the growing importance of western-controlled technologies to media production and dissemination was making it difficult for others to keep up.

As the only UN body equipped to debate in a coherent manner the range of issues raised, the battle would primarily be staged at UNESCO, where it would stay for a decade. From 1973, the NAM was developing a much more sophisticated plan for a New World Information Order. At the 1976 UNESCO General Assembly, the wide gulf between NAM and western countries (USA, UK and others) became apparent. A showdown was avoided only by the creation of an International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, generally called the MacBride Commission after its Chair, Seán MacBride.

The MacBride Commission’s report to the 1980 General Assembly, “Many Voices One World”, bore the hallmarks of a fractious political process, fudging many issues and containing numerous caveats. But it was comprehensive (with a notable weakness in relation to gender) and wide-ranging, and came with concrete recommendations, including:

Communication needs in a democratic society should be met by the extension of specific rights such as the right to be informed, the right to inform, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public communication - all elements of a new concept, the right to communicate. In developing what might be called a new era of social rights, we suggest all the implications of the right to communicate be further explored.” [3]
For the first time, the NWICO had a general framework, a detailed justification, a set of proposals, and a unifying concept - the “right to communicate”.

Eventually the Commission’s findings were endorsed-a defining moment for NWICO, but one which was short-lived. The veneer of agreement was thin; instead of bringing the sides together, the process merely exposed the gulf between them and entrenched the positions, especially of West governments mired within Cold War geo-politics.

The USA led a “counter-offensive” on UNESCO, supported strongly by the private media industry and lobbies. The main charge was that less developed countries were attempting to impose government control of media, and to suppress freedom of the press - despite the fact that press freedom was strongly endorsed at every turn by NWICO. The US (in 1984) and UK (in 1985) eventually withdrew from UNESCO, partly due to NWICO.
While the newly politicised “information society” was becoming ascendant, NWICO in its original form had declined. It did manage to stay on the UNESCO agenda, though with little action, until 1987. With the “New Communication Strategy” under new UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor in 1989, it basically died out. Yet the arguments that animated the NWICO movement continued, and even in some respects became sharper. The arguments continued to surface in new calls-outside of governments this time - for “communication rights”.

Beyond NWICO: civil society engagements

For many, the main lesson from NWICO was that the way forward would have to be through the democratization of media and communication, rather than through state - or industry - led efforts to create new global orders. In practice, a major shift was needed towards civil society, which had so far been largely excluded. Those that had been involved - mainly journalists’ organizations and some academics -continued debating in the form of the MacBride Round Table, which met annually from 1989 to 1999, and brought new civil society actors into the discussion.

A growing number of NGOs, some quite independent of previous debates and largely unaware of them (and often of each other), also began to question trends in media, knowledge, and communication. These included community media associations, faith-based organizations, international trade unions, emerging Internet NGOs, and advocacy groups springing up to address diverse issues (e.g., internet surveillance, concentration of media ownership, commercial censorship, copyright and patent excesses). These were now set alongside more traditional concerns of government censorship and controls. The growing significance of digital technologies and the emergence of the Internet also provided new arguments for democratization, as existing social contradictions manifested themselves in so-called “digital divides”. New arenas opened up where traditional and emerging advocacies could converge.

As was its strength, civil society let its praxis on the ground and advocacies on national and regional arenas dictate the discourse, although initiatives were not labelled “communication rights” work at the time. However, a history of the Communication Rights movement “from below”, would probably include various threads of activism: the telecenter movement, Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) communities, independent media centers, gender-based organizations in communications, local content/local language advocates, nonprofit ISPs - all empowered by new networking tools and technologies. These formations - supported by sympathetic donor institutions and academics - evolved independently and sharpened critiques of new information/communication hierarchies.

By the 1990s, various coalitions were formed and initiatives taken to address the larger picture underlying many of these concerns, among them the People’s Communication Charter and the Platform for Democratization of Communication. Many broad-based conferences and meetings were held to pull the threads together and exchange understanding internationally.

Gradually a new civil society-based constituency was emerging, but now from a different perspective and benefiting from historical experience and on-the-ground praxis [4]. Many of these coalesced in October 2001 into the Campaign for Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS Campaign) [5], at the ¬onset of another global governance arena of struggle - the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

The “Right to Communicate” and “Communication Rights”

The terms “right to communicate” and “communication rights” are not synonymous, and history, principle and tactics are bound in their usage by different groups.

As we have seen, the term “right to communicate” became associated with a (mis)reading of the NWICO promoted by its opponents. Even today, in the context of the WSIS, some claim that attempts to promote a “right to communicate” are merely veiled efforts to revive the NWICO [6]. For these opponents, the idea of “communication rights” as distinct from a “right to communicate”, is more difficult to criticize since it leaves behind the connotations of NWICO.

At the political level, there also have been calls for the creation of a new right under international law. This would build on the existing international legal framework, establishing a “right to communicate” as an unambiguous right of all people. This position clearly recognizes that many existing human rights are key components of this, but that an explicit “right to communicate” would both bolster these, conceptually and on the ground. However, the specifics of this right, its precise wording, in what legal form it would be incorporated and so forth, have not been fully teased out.

On the other hand, the term “communication rights”, in a plural form, implicitly points towards existing rights that relate to communication. The emphasis shifts subtly to realizing the existing communication rights on the ground, not on establishing a new global covenant.

Calling for the realization of communication rights, and reaffirming that everyone has - or should have - a right to communicate, are entirely complementary. The “right to communicate” can be used as an informal rallying cry for advocacy, while it can also be used in a formal legal sense, in which it should take its place alongside other fundamental rights enshrined in international law. “Communication rights” relates immediately to a set of existing human rights, that are denied many people, and whose full meaning can only be realized when they are considered together as an interrelated group.

The CRIS Campaign is the most articulated global civil society alliance that seeks to promote the concept and praxis of communication rights. But beyond this formation, many others have adopted the term in various platforms.

A “right to communicate” was strongly endorsed at several points by influential actors during the WSIS process. The issue gained some prominence, although efforts to discredit it, and the fear of controversy, were probably responsible for its exclusion from the final text [7]. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that: “millions of people in the poorest countries are still excluded from the “right to communicate”, increasingly seen as a fundamental human right.” [8] And the European Commission noted: “The Summit should reinforce the right to communicate and to access information and knowledge.” [9]

Other key NGOs not members of the CRIS Campaign have also endorsed it. Article 19, in its overview of the right to communicate, describes it as: “an umbrella term, encompassing within it a group of related, existing rights. This means that any elaboration of the right to communicate must take place within the framework of existing rights.” [10]

Communication rights viz.“freedom of expression”

“Freedom of expression” ranks among the sacrosanct foundations of all human rights. It is contained in numerous international Treaties and Conventions, and enshrined in varying formulations in virtually all national constitutions and legislation. The most frequently cited reference is to Article 19 of the UDHR:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Is freedom of expression enough?
The question facing communication rights advocates is why anything more than “freedom of expression” is needed. Furthermore, given that such a basic right is still denied to many in practice, surely our energies should focus on securing freedom of expression for all? Would securing freedom of expression in effect secure communication rights?

The ideal from which freedom of expression draws its legitimacy assumes a group of communicating individuals, each with an equal right to conceive, impart and receive ideas from others, and thereby to rationally arrive at decisions of mutual benefit. The trouble with this is that we do not live as a group of equally empowered individuals. We live in a society of hugely varying levels of access to power, a society in which most communication between people is heavily mediated and filtered - with mass media, governments, commercial corporations, special interest groups and many others all vying for attention, seeking to influence and control the content and flow of communications. An exclusive insistence on freedom of expression says nothing about the process by which society’s means of expression - newspapers, television, radio, films, music and educational material - are controlled, and in whose interests they operate.

In this context, freedom of expression - in the sense of laws to prevent direct government interference and to defend free speech - can do little to prevent the domination of the loudest voices, i.e., those who can most strongly influence the means of communication within society, whether they are the government, newspaper proprietors and media owners, or powerful interest groups.

In this example, how real is the “freedom to receive and impart information” if one can hardly read nor write, or cannot speak the official language of the country? Or how real is freedom to “seek and receive information” if governments and corporations are not obliged to provide it? Or if you cannot afford to pay for educational materials, or access key means of communication such as telephony or (increasingly) the Internet? If you know your communications means are being spied on? These are symptoms of unequal access to power, of a world in which communication is possible only increasingly through complex and contested media and mechanisms.

Thus a key challenge for freedom of expression advocates is the conceptual shift from the idea of equal individuals, to a complex and variegated society with heavily mediated communication and various and differential configurations of power. Tackling this requires an additional set of concepts and instruments, which is at the core of “communication rights” discourse.

Framing “communication rights”

Communication rights can be seen as providing the conditions for the full exercise of freedom of expression in a complex and mediated society in which power and control of resources are distributed very unevenly. freedom of expression is indeed at the heart of Communication rights. However, the advocacy for Communication rights goes further in that it creates the environment in which freedom of expression may be fully consummated at the level of society.

Communication rights are premised on communicating, the completion of an interaction between people; it maintains that freedom to interact with others is ultimately about generating a cycle of communication, from which learning, understanding and cooperation may ensue. An initial approximation of the goal of Communication Rights is thus: to secure the generation of a considered, creative and respectful cycle of interaction between people and groups in society, that in practice endorses the right of all equally to have their ideas expressed, heard, listened to, considered and responded to.

Enabling rights
Communication Rights draw on aspects of other key human rights - “flanking” or “enabling” rights - contained in the International Bill of Rights and supplementary treaties and legal documents. For example:

- A right to participate in one’s own culture, and use one’s mother language, including ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities;

- A right to information regarding governance and matters of public interest (freedom of information);

- A right to the protection of the moral and material interests of authorship;

- A right to one’s honour and reputation, and to ¬protection against attacks;

- A right to privacy;

- A right to peaceful assembly and association;

- A right to free primary education and progressive ¬introduction of free secondary education.

A dimension of each of these bears strongly on the process of communication in society (all could be suffixed with “in relation to media and communication”). These might be termed “top-level” communication rights. However, they are further specified and sometimes additional dimensions added.
For example: the right to a diverse and independent media and to access to media, has been recognized in various fora as diverse as the European Court of Human Rights, Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, the German Federal Constitutional Court, UNESCO, and Resolutions of the Council of the European Union.
The promotion of communication rights attempts to strip away layers of social, historical, economic, and psychological barriers to communication, to reinforce an environment of mutual respect, and to build the capacities of all in communication and interaction.

The added value of communication rights
This interpretation of communication rights has a number of implications.

First, the whole set of communication rights yields something more than the sum of its parts. Communication rights bring together relevant dimensions from a set of component enabling rights, and can be realized only through them. However, Communication rights can also be seen as meta rights, which gives new and additional meaning to those enabling rights.

Second, the emergence of communication rights in practice is the creation of a climate of mutual respect and tolerance not just between individuals which hold these rights, but between diverse communities and cultures, ethnic groups and nationalities. Calling for communication rights at the same time endorses and supports the notion and value of diversity.

Third, communication rights unavoidably implicate social processes and dynamics. Communication rights by their very nature question whether social structures differentially constrain and enable the capacity of different individuals and groups to communicate effectively within societies. The concept of communication rights forces us to engage much more comprehensively the spirit of “freedom of expression” towards the elimination of constraints on whole sections of society, and building the access and capacities of those who are excluded.

Communication rights: why now?

Why is it that “communication rights” as a concept is especially relevant now more than it was in the past? What justifies a movement at this time to attempt to enforce and deepen our communication rights?
Communication rights have greatly grown in relevance in the last decades, due to a number of factors and trends in the sphere of global information and communications, including:

- Corporate media dominance and media concentration;

- Negative effects of media systems on identity/ies and culture/s;

- Emergence of “copyright” regimes and the erosion of the public domain of global knowledge;

- Limitations of market-driven initiatives in telecommunications and ICTs;

- Erosion of civil rights in the digital environment, especially post 9-11 (e.g., stronger comprehensive and globally-framed and enforced frameworks for electronic surveillance).

All of these concerns can be analysed and understood, and integral solutions designed, using the concept of communication rights.
Together, these dynamics hugely influence each step of the communication process in society. These trends can fundamentally shape the outcomes of social communication and who benefits from it, through controlling the creation and ownership of knowledge, the processes and media of dissemination and communication, and its use to solve political, economic, and social goals.

The imminent danger is that each moment in the cycle is becoming harnessed to the needs of capital and the market. The ultimate danger is that the cycle of society’s social communication process is interrupted, the process of social learning becomes ever more feeble, and in the end the process of creativity is transformed and reduced to short-term, unsustainable, generation of profits for a small minority. Society may find itself having virtually lost the capacity for creativity, for an inclusive and equitable sharing of knowledge, for democratic participation in political structures, for diverse cultural expression and expression of identity, even the capacity to learn from past and present generations.

Communication rights”, as a concept and as praxis, potentially have the depth and breadth to analyze and understand these dangers, and design integral solutions designed to tackle them.


[1] G [1] An abridged version of a an article Introducing Communication Rights included in a forthcoming Toolkit for Communication Rights, being published by the CRIS Campaign. Sean O’Siochru is the main author. With contributions from Alan Alegre.

[2] d’Arcy, Jean, (1969). Direct Broadcast Satellites and the Right to Communicate. In: Right to Communicate: Collected Papers, ed. L. S. Harms, Jim Richstad, and Kathleen A. Kie (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1977), 1-9. Originally published in EBU Review 118 (1969): 14-18. http://righttocommunicate.org/

[3] UNESCO (1980). Many Voices, One World, Report of the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems. Paris. (Recommendation. 54, p 265).

[4] Alain Ambrosi, La difficile émergence des réseaux de communication démocratique dans l’espace politique global in Proulx Serge et Vitalis André (dir.) Vers une citoyenneté simulée. Médias, Réseaux et mondialisation, Apogée, Rennes, 1999.

[5] http://www.crisinfo.org/

[6] The World Press Freedom Committee explicitly declares this to be the case. See http://www.wpfc.org/site/docs/pdf/P... Papers-Conf Booklet.pdf

[7] After considerable discussion the Final WSIS Declaration included the words: “Communication is a fundamental social process a basic human need and the foundation of all social organisation”. Paragraph 4, Geneva 2004.

[8] United Nations (2003). Statement on World Telecommunication Day. UN Secretary General, May 17. New York.

[9] European Commission (2002). Position on the WSIS. May 22. Brussels.

[10] Article 19 (2003). Statement on the Right to Communicate, February. http://www.article19.org/Deane James, Kunda Dixit, Njonjo Mue, Fackson Banda and Silvio Waisbord (2003). The Other Information Revolution: Media and Empowerment in Developing Countries in Girard, Bruce, Seán Ó Siochrú eds. Communicating in the Information Society. UNRISD, Geneva. [http://www.unrisd.org/]

Further readings

d’Arcy, Jean (1978). The Right to Communicate. Paper #36 prepared for the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems under the chairmanship of Seán MacBride.

Hamelink, Cees (2003). Human Right for the Information Society in Countries in Girard, Bruce, Seán Ó Siochrú eds. Communicating in the Information Society. UNRISD, Geneva. http://www.unrisd.org

ITU (2002). World Telecoms Development Report; Reinventing Telecom Services, Geneva.

Mendel, Toby Article 19 (2003). The Right to Communicate: An Overview, October.

Ó Siochrú, Seán, Bruce Girard, Amy Mahan (2002) Global Media Governance: A beginners Guide, UNRISD, Rowman & Littlefield, Geneva, Boulder, London. http://www.comunica.org

Sell, Susan K. (2002). TRIPS and the Access to Medicines Campaign. Wisconsin International Law Journal. Summer 481.

UNESCO (1980). Many Voices, One World, Report of the International Commission for th Study of Communication Problems. Paris.

UNESCO (1978). Declaration of Fundamental Principles concerning the Contribution of the Mass media to Strengthening Peace and International Understanding, to the promotion of Human Rights and to Countering Racialism, Apartheid and Incitement to War, 20th Session of the UNESCO General Conference, Paris 1978.

Deane James, Kunda Dixit, Njonjo Mue, Fackson Banda and Silvio Waisbord (2003). The Other Information Revolution: Media and Empowerment in Developing Countries in Girard, Bruce, Seán Ó Siochrú eds. Communicating in the Information Society. UNRISD, Geneva. http://www.unrisd.org/

6 March 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

Knowledge should be shared in free access... But authors and editors need an economy to keep on creating and working. If you can afford it, please buy the book on line (39 €)