Media Carta: The Human Rights Battle of the Information Age

FREEDOM OF SPEECH – Freedom has always been Western civilization’s most powerful metameme. The idea of a free citizenry was born with the ancient Greek notion of democracy and has continued to evolve ever since. The English Magna Carta gave it weight and permanence. When the meme spread to the New World it inspired the end of slavery; later, it led to universal suffrage and the dream of equality among all people.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH – Freedom has always been Western civilization’s most powerful metameme. The idea of a free citizenry was born with the ancient Greek notion of democracy and has continued to evolve ever since. The English Magna Carta gave it weight and permanence. When the meme spread to the New World it inspired the end of slavery; later, it led to universal suffrage and the dream of equality among all people.

The march of freedom has been humankind’s gradual awakening. We have come to accept the simple truth that oppression does not have to stand. We are under no one’s thumb. In every way we control our own destiny.

At the heart of freedom lies the freedom to talk to one another – to communicate. That, too, is as old as the ancient Greeks, who recognized the right of citizens to express their opinions. When the world’s first mass medium – the printing press – was introduced, it became clear that “freedom of opinion” was not enough to ensure free speech. (Many “Gutenberg revolutionaries” were censored and repressed when they tried to express their opinions about kings and popes.) So the higher notion of freedom of expression was born. This new freedom was first guaranteed in the English Bill of Rights and then expanded to freedom of the press in the US constitution.

Article 13 of the 1979 American Convention on Human Rights reads, in part: “The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting… or any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions.”

Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, in part: “Everyone has the right… to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

Half a century after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, citizens have access to a mind-numbing amount of information. Hundreds of newspapers and magazines are at our fingertips. The 500-channel universe has turned out to be a conservative guess – try 5,000. CNN beams news live across the world 24 hours a day. Cyberspace expands exponentially from the Big Bang of the digital revolution. It would be easy to conclude, in this climate, that the long struggle for freedom of opinion, expression and speech is over.

But it’s not.

In the past 20 years, an unprecedented situation has developed with grave implications for democracy and freedom of speech: the emergence of a global communications cartel. The flow of information worldwide is controlled by an ever-shrinking number of transnational media corporations led by seven giants: Time-Warner, Disney, Tele-Communications Inc. (T.C.I.), Bertelsmann, General Electric, Viacom and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

The great power of the media megacorporations lies in their vertical integration. They can produce a film and distribute it through their own partially or fully owned theater chain, promote it through their own TV network, play the soundtrack on their own radio stations and sell the merchandising spin-offs at their own amusement parks. A property can enter this vertical chain at any point and be sent in either direction. A film becomes a book, a hit single, then a TV show, a video game, a ride. Between them, the media giants have the means to produce a never-ending flow of social spectacles, to nurture them, feed them, massage them and keep them resonating in the public mind. And with the exception of a few wild domains still left here and there (public-access TV, pirate radio, ‘zines, some unexplored reaches of cyberspace) the media megacorps have pretty well taken over the whole global mindscape and “developed” it into a theme park – a jolly, terrifyingly homogenized Las Vegas of the mind.

What does freedom of speech mean in this kind of mental environment?

The Human Rights Battle

On the surface, the battle for Media Carta – the struggle over who will control the production and distribution of meaning in the 21st century – looks like an unfair fight. On one side stand the mighty media megacorporations, the government regulators, and a half-century tradition of operating the airwaves as a commercial enterprise. On the other side stand a motley collection of writers, artists, academics, politicized communications professors and high school literacy teachers, and a loose global network of NGOs and media and environmental activists. But the underdog has some effective tactical tools at its disposal. On several levels there are “leverage points,” and, if we commit to working the levers simultaneously, they will bring results. Here are some of those leverage points:

TV Turnoff Week.

A social ritual every April where citizens reclaim a little time and tranquility by staying away from the set for one week. The short-term goal here is to get enough abstainers on board to actually depress the Nielsen ratings for that week – a powerful gesture of consumer sovereignty. The broader goal is to simply improve the quality of people’s lives.

The Two-Minute Media Revolution.

As citizen-produced advocacy messages challenge the status quo on TV, a cyberpetition gathers signatures. The petition demands that the broadcast industry’s governing bodies (in the US, the FCC – in Canada, the CRTC) give two minutes out of every broadcast hour back to the people (advocacy messages would be chosen on a first-come first-served basis from among those who wish to speak). If enough signatures are collected, this strategy will open a hairline crack in the media monopoly.

Antitrust Lawsuits.

The U.S. attorney general’s suit against Microsoft is a good example of how potent a tool antitrust legislation can be. If enough fed-up citizens demanded a more diverse cultural environment, the government could be pressured to go after the media monopolies like Time-Warner, News Corporation and Disney and limit the number of TV stations, newspapers and radio stations each is allowed to own.

The Revocation of Television Licenses.

Thirty years ago, local residents in Boston filed a petition to the FCC to protest the shoddy nightly news broadcasts on their local station. They wanted WHDH-TV to have its license revoked – and they succeeded. WHDH faded to black and a new station under new management was born.

No one since has repeated the Bostonian’s success. When a case does come before them, the FCC and the CRTC always come down in favor of the broadcasters. Now it’s time to turn the spotlight on commissioners Kennard and Bertrand and ask them point blank with the cameras rolling: “Are you carrying out your mandate? Are you promoting the public interest or the interests of the media megacorporations?”

Legal action.

In 1995, Adbusters Media Foundation launched a legal action against the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for refusing to sell airtime for citizen-produced advocacy messages. The challenge wound its way through the courts until 1998, when the Supreme Court of Canada threw it out. The highest court in the land refused to hear it as a constitutional, freedom of speech issue.

In the US, Adbusters is about to launch a First Amendment legal action against the NBC, CBS and ABC networks for routinely refusing to sell us airtime for any of the TV messages we have tried to air since 1991. We have files full of letters from the networks, plus transcripts of phone conversations with network executives, which prove that not just single 30-second ads, but whole classes of information about transportation, nutrition, fashion and sustainable consumption have been kept off the public airwaves simply because they threaten big-money sponsors.

A First Amendment victory in the US Supreme Court would create a new democracy on the airwaves. Citizens and groups would stand up and start speaking back at their corporate masters. TV would no longer transmit commercial propaganda to a passive population, but instead would become a key site of struggle over the production of meaning. The hollowness of our society of spectacle would be revealed. Our currently enforced menu of packaged fun, beauty, heroes and myths would fade. A vibrant new culture would be born.

Media Carta is the great human rights battle of the information age – a great personal, intellectual, social, cultural and legal test. In the early years of the new millennium, a worldwide media reform movement will rise. It will enshrine the “right to access” and the “right to communicate” as fundamental human rights in the constitutions of all free nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There can be no compromise on this. The alternative is simply too frightening.

Sign the cyberpetition

U.S.A. (F.C.C. Petition)

Canada (C.R.T.C. Petition)

Author: Kalle Lasn

News Service: Adbusters


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