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A Tale of Paragraph 4: Stating the Obvious at the WSIS

Seán Ó Siochrú, CRIS Campaign
January 2004. (Revised May 2006)


Behind every paragraph, line and even word of the WSIS Declaration is a story. This is the tale of two lines of Paragraph 4, which read:

"Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization. It is central to the information society."

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At the Paris WSIS Inter-Sessional meeting in July 2003, several ad hoc intergovernmental working groups were established. Each took a section of the draft Declaration aiming to gain agreement for PrepCom III a few months later. Paragraph 1 and 1A were taken together. The former was a reaffirmation of fundamental human rights; and three options were offered for the latter, the third of which began with the sentence: "We recognise the right to communicate and the right to access information and knowledge as a fundamental human right."

The right to communicate is a contentious issue in the WSIS. Some use it as a vigorous expression of support for universal access. The CRIS campaign uses it as a collective term for all rights associated with media and communication. And there are others still under the influence of the divisive battles in UNESCO in the 1980s, when the right to communicate began as a struggle for more equitable global communication structures and ended up as a cold-war battlefield. The working group set up in Paris to deal with Paragraphs 1/1A, chaired by Canada which is a strong supporter of universal access, called itself the Right to Communicate Working Group. Although probably initially unaware of the controversial choice of title, the Chair soon realised she had a difficult task ahead of her.

At PrepCom III, I was alerted late the night before to the ad hoc Working Group’s first meeting. At 8:00 am on Wednesday the 17th September I showed up. The Chair, presumably to circumvent controversy, opened the meeting by excluding from subsequent deliberations paragraph 1A, Option 3 on the right to communicate, noting – and she had a point - that it was impossible to recognise a right that had no legal existence.

Civil Society at that time was allowed ten minutes for interventions, and could sit through the rest of the meeting as observers. Ill prepared, I mumbled a few words about ‘communication rights being at the heart of any information society’. After the business sector spoke, my second attempt to be more coherent was abruptly and mercifully cut short by the Chair. I was content to sit and learn for the remaining 50 minutes, during which governments failed to agree on anything.

The meeting reconvened the next morning, but circumstances had changed. Due to complaints from a few governments, civil society could now speak for only three minutes and were then obliged to leave, returning at the end to be briefed on the outcome. There was nothing we could do, and indeed even rallying civil society to protest about it proved difficult.

Politics apart, I cursed the need to drag myself in so early for just three minutes. But at least I was better prepared having conferred with others in CRIS to produce a couple of proposals. As the sole civil society representative there, I had the full three minutes to present my proposals for Paragraph 1. As part of a longer tract, I included the words quoted above. When I returned later on to be briefed, the Chair – who was supportive of civil society participation – noted that several delegates liked the wording but that the process would continue.

Later, after further redrafting, she informed me that the first two sentences of our submission had been retained in Paragraph 4, at least until the next round. Ultimately, these words hung in there to become part of the final Declaration.

To some, this formulation got them off the hook: Placing communication at the centre of the information society retained the spirit of what they intended and preserved the word ‘communication’, while the formula could never be accused of raking over old cold-war coals. In fact, I had taken the first of the two sentences from a passage written by Professor Cees Hamelink I happened to read the week before; and linking it directly to the second is intended to compensate somewhat for a deficit in the limp and static term: ‘information society’. In the final Declaration, these lines are prefaced with a vitally important reference to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By skirting around internationally divisive battles of generated over the ‘right to communicate’, ‘my’ sentences were shooed in with no contest.

On a human side, the Chair revealed her own preference for the words was based on a keen interest in paleoanthropology – the study of early human fossils – an interest I share. There is much controversy over what first stimulated the emergence of human society. Both she and I both favour the idea that the decisive factor was language – our ability and need to communicate - and the CRIS proposal neatly restated this founding thesis in today’s context.

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I admit to indulging in some juvenile pleasure in seeing these words in print, on the first page of the Declaration. But there is little reason to rejoice. That communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organisation merely states the obvious. Few could reasonably deny that communication is central to the information society, though too often it is forgotten.

Indeed, if this passage can claim even minor significance it is because so many far more important statements of the obvious are shamefully omitted from the Declaration.

That more and more of society’s information is owned by multinational corporations and released to the public only on terms that maximise their profits is found nowhere. Copyrights, patents and trademarks are strongly skewed in favour of the corporate owners of ‘intellectual property’, and nothing in the Declaration and Action Plan will change that (though we can claim some credit, along with more enlightened governments, that the final Declaration Article 42 was an improvement over earlier drafts). That concentration of ownership globally has led to control of mainstream media by a handful avaricious corporations does not warrant a mention. And the crucial potential role of community and genuinely independent media (independent of state and commercial control) is ignored. Free and open source software – tried and tested means to introduce more effective, equitable and development-friendly software - are given short shrift.

In general, the Declaration is a timid document that says more about the current pecking order of power –indeed going to some lengths to confirm current imbalances - than it does about major questions confronting the creation of an information society. Yes, it could have been worse. But it would have to be a lot better to make much of a difference.

 

 

 

 

 

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