The Birth and the Death of the New World Information and Communications Order
The New International Information Order (NIIO), also known as the New World Information and Communications Order (NWICO), was a short-lived UNESCO initiative that focused on global information policy. In this paper I will examine the origin and short life of this initiative within the UN bureaucracy. I will analyze how and why it came to be, and how it met its end. I will conclude with some thoughts on why such an organization is needed today, more than ever before, especially in light of new global technologies for storing, transmitting and distributing information.
Keywords: information policy, new information order, international conventions
The Birth and the Death of the New World Information and Communications Order
A passing reference in a Buckland article (Buckland, 1997) to the existence of the International Institute for Cooperation, an agency of the short-lived League of Nations, sparked my interest in exploring international institutions dedicated to global information policy. That, a few searches later, led me to the New World Information Order, also known as the New World Information and Communications Order, another short-lived initiative, this time in UNESCO, the branch of the United Nations that deals with science, cultural exchange, and information policy, among other subjects.
This paper examines the origin and short life of this initiative within the UN bureaucracy and analyzes how and why it came to be, and how it met its end. It concludes with some speculative thoughts on why such an organization is needed today, more than ever before, especially in light of new technologies for storing, transmitting and distributing information.
First, a few words are in order about information policy and policy formulation in general. From Rubin’s textbook and Chancellor’s class notes we know that domestically, the federal government determines how information is created, acquired, disseminated, evaluated, and organized in a country through the creation of laws and regulations (Rubin, 2010 and Chancellor, 2013). Globally, international institutions make a similar determination regarding the range of issues governing information flow across national boundaries, subject to agreement by member states.
Of the several policy formulation models to be considered, Kingdon’s Multiple Streams model provides a robust explanation for how policy is formulated at the international, multilateral level (Cohen-Vogel and McLendon, 2009). Problem, policy and political streams interact and inter-twine. Policy choices seek issues, problems that exist seek decision-making points where they can insert themselves, solutions are on the lookout for problems for which they may provide an answer, and politicians are ever watchful for issues, projects, and programs that might propel or sustain their careers and positions (Cohen-Vogel & McLendon, 2009). Information policy formulation at the international level presents a unique example of multiple streams at work. And the idea of agenda change, prominent in Kingdon’s model, finds unparalleled expression in our discussion.
Two historic, geopolitical forces were set in motion as a result of the allied victory in World War Two: the Cold War between the US and her allies versus the Soviet Bloc; and the process of decolonization of Africa, Asia and Latin America by the European powers – simultaneously East versus West, and North versus South. In fact, although the U.S. and the then Soviet Union never actually went to war in a traditional sense (hence, the Cold War), they each fought proxy battles through their respective allies in decolonization struggles at several locations. The importance of information resources and methodologies at play in both these geopolitical conflict sets cannot be overstated, especially in an increasingly technology-oriented world where the wheels of economic development are lubricated, as it were, by the oil of information exchange.
Anthony Smith (1980), in his book, The Geopolitics of Information, wrote,
The collecting, editing, and distribution of information is now a key element in all economies. It is not inaptly that the French have come to speak of the ‘informatisation’ of society; more and more governmental, economic and cultural processes have come to depend upon a set of companies, institutions and systems which make up the information sector and so the tension over the international flow of news has spread across a wide range of concerns which formerly were not conceived as part of this sector. Changing technology has brought more and more matters into the problem-strewn area of information policy, now subject to this further international wrangle (p. 16).
It was in this environment that legal scholars, information experts, government officials and politicians came together, fresh from the victories of World War Two, to create the United Nations and to adopt a UN General Assembly Resolution 59(1) declaring freedom of information to be “a fundamental human right” (Hajnal, 1983, p. 241). In 1948, the United Nations Conference on Freedom of Information held further debates on freedom of information and information policy subjects. In the same year, the member states of the United Nations unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of which states,
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” (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” “Article #19”).
Moreover, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 contained similar language to that of the Universal Declaration with respect to information policy, but, in addition, couched as a legally binding agreement among states party to the covenant and containing a provision for an international implementation mechanism (Raude-Wilson, 1986, pp. 116-117). The original Universal Declaration lacked both the legally binding condition and the implementation mechanism, and thus, lacked any true authority under international law (Raude-Wilson, p. 116).
A series of conventions and declarations, put forward in 1952, in 1962, and in 1966 all cleared the path for a 1972 Soviet-sponsored UNESCO resolution calling for guiding principles on the use of satellite broadcasting for the free flow of information. But it was the Cold War, and the United States, although it didn’t have an absolute veto vote in UNESCO, cast the sole negative vote against the Soviet-sponsored resolution (Hajnal, 1983, p. 244). The resolution called for prior consent of the receiving nation before receipt of any informational signal. The official United States position was that the Soviet–sponsored resolution and corresponding insistence on host nation “prior approval” would result in “an abridgment of the universal right to receive and transmit information” (Hajnal, p. 244). But the Soviets saw it exclusively as a matter of national sovereignty.
In some respects the United States, even though voting against the resolution, took perhaps a more forward-leaning and progressive approach than the consensus position, stating that the resolution “does not put sufficient emphasis on the central importance of the free flow of information and ideas in the modern world” (Nordenstreng, 1980, p. 213).
And on the issue of sovereignty, the U.S. delegation said “in actual practice the sovereignty of States and the unimpeded flow of information and ideas should complement rather than conflict with one another” (Nordenstreng, p. 213). But the die was cast, and the gulf between the two Cold War powers, even though more symbolic than actual, only continued to widen within the UNESCO framework.
The 19th session of the UNESCO General Conference in Nairobi (1976) occurred as a culmination of the Non-Aligned Symposium on Information in Tunis, the Ministerial Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in New Delhi, and the 5th Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo (Gunter, 1978, pp. 44-49, 122-23). All of the aforementioned non-aligned meetings focused on various aspects of mass media and information policy across member states. The Mass Media Declaration that resulted emphasized national sovereignty, noninterference, the growing inequality between developed and underdeveloped nations regarding the circulation of information, and the need to achieve a balance in information exchange (Nordenstreng, p. 213). In Nairobi, the United States told the non-aligned countries that it understood their feelings and aspirations and offered interested countries what Kroloff and Cohen referred to as a “Santa’s bag” of development assistance programs and projects, diverting those countries’ attention from the incorporation of mass media and information policy requests clarified in the Mass Media Declaration (Kroloff & Cohen, 1978, p. 31).
But the U.S. offer was just a subterfuge. In the background, the draft declaration on freedom of information prepared by an intergovernmental group of experts carried with it a draft amendment proposed by the Yugoslavians which equated Zionism with racism (Hajnal, p. 245). The U.S. found that equation unacceptable, and, along with programs and projects it offered, convinced enough delegations to postpone a vote on the actual declaration and instead, to defer the decision by referring it to a study group (Hajnal, p. 245), which postponed the vote until the next session in 1978.
Another contributing subplot in Nairobi was the growing gap between the African countries and the Arab and Asian countries (Kroloff & Cohen, p. 26). The Africans, led by then UNESCO Director General Amadou-Mathar M’Bow, from Senegal, were simultaneously upset over African/Arab conflicts in Western Sahara, Chad, and Ethiopia/Somalia, lured by United States offers of programs and projects mentioned above, and disappointed by Arab oil states’ broken promises of financial and developmental assistance. The Africans voted as a 40-member bloc to delay the vote in Nairobi (Stevenson, 1988, p. 44-45). The agenda was again shifted. Late in 1976, Director General M’Bow created the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems and appointed Irish jurist and legal scholar Sean MacBride as its chairman. One of several papers prepared in 1978 for the Commission, a draft by the Tunisian Secretary of State for Information, Mustapha Masmoudi, more or less coined the term “The New World Information Order.” In it, Masmoudi delineated political, legal and technico-financial imbalances requiring the creation of a new world order for information (Masmoudi, 1978. pp. 3-10).
Politically, Masmoudi listed the imbalance between two-way flow of information from the developed to the developing countries and vive-versa: he cited the information resource inequality resulting in an absolute monopoly of the news by five major transnational news agencies, all in the developed world; and he highlighted the vestiges of the former colonial system enshrined in the present-day information system through selective reporting (Masmoudi, 1978). On the legal side, Masmoudi addressed individual and community rights, freedom of information and its corollary, freedom to inform, the right to access information, imbalances in copyrighting practices, and inequities in the distribution of broadcast spectrum and use of satellites and other telecommunications (Masmoudi, 1978). Technically and financially, he drew attention to the inequities in telecommunications infrastructure, tariffs and taxing structures held over from the colonial era, transport and logistics imbalances and other regional distinctions that put the developing countries at a distinct disadvantage (Masmoudi, 1978). The focus of the New World Information Order came to be known as the “4 D’s,” democratization (just flows of information and just allocation telecommunications infrastructure), decolonization (cultural identity), demonopolization (regulation of multinational corporations), and development (national communication policy and journalism education) (Carlson, 2003).
UNESCO published MacBride’s final report in 1980, “Many Voices One World: Towards a New More Just and More Efficient World Information and Communication Order.” The MacBride report combined information culled from several separate studies, including the Masmoudi draft. It represented a broad consensus of UNESCO’s membership, although the giant superpowers had separate and distinct problems with the language of the final report, centered primarily on the “perceived” anti-commercial bias of the Commission. (Hajnal, p. 248-249)
The MacBride report was detailed and comprehensive (MacBride, 1980). By all appearances, the problems, the imbalances, the inequities in information and communications, well-researched and documented, were on track to being addressed at the global level. But perhaps in keeping with Kingdon’s multiple stream approach to policy formulation, an issue will only gain traction on the policy agenda when the problem stream, the policy stream and the political stream all coincide with a window of opportunity where political entrepreneurs see an opportunity to move forward their personal agenda (Cohen-Vogel and McLendon, 2013). But the necessary coincidence of the aforementioned streams with a window of opportunity was not to be in this case.
Several environmental factors contributed to the postponement and eventual removal from the UNESCO agenda of the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) initiative. The U.S. and the U.K. both opposed the final text of the MacBride report and even threatened to withdraw from UNESCO. The UNESCO director general, sensing pressure from external criticisms of mismanagement and corrupt practices within UNESCO, attempted to appease his critiques by postponing a vote on adoption of the MacBride findings (Preston, W. 1989). Concern about heightened tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union resulting from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan diverted much of the attention of the New World World Information Order’s strongest advocates. An evolution within UNESCO itself, resulting in a dilution of attention to the thony issues of information policy and an increase focus on easy-to-understand and agree upon programs of assistance and development also diverted attention. Finally, the early 1980’s saw a general weakening of the Non-Aligned Movement, the strongest bloc of support for the NWICO (Carlsson, 2003). By 1985, the United States had withdrawn from UNESCO altogether and the New World Information Order had disappeared from UNESCO’s annual conference agenda.
Ronald Diebert wrote that the world of international politics was being transformed by the advent of high tech telecommunications, which he referred to as the “hypermedia environment” (Diebert, 1997, p. IX). Medium theory, first articulated by Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan (who was to have been the Canadian representative to the 1980 MacBride Commission until illness prevented his travel), sought to explain the evolutionary path to hypermedia by examining the effects of different modes of communication on the way information was stored, transmitted and distributed at different times in history. For example, changes in the human vocal tract and development of the spoken word resulted in a great leap forward in human development over 35,000 years ago; the invention of writing accompanied the development of the first civilizations along the Nile and in the Tigris Euphrates Valley; the development of the Alphabet accompanied the Greek enlightenment; and development of printing and movable type occurred simultaneously with the Renaissance and modernity as we know it (Diebert, pp. 1-3). One can speculate that the development of a global information and communication order, similar to what was attempted in UNESCO in the 1970’s, may well be the necessary and sufficient condition for peace between the nations of the world.
Since reading this Blainey (1973) passage over thirty years ago, I have found it to be haunting:
A pioneer of sociology, Georg Simmel, while lecturing in philosophy at berlin in 1904,set out a sad truth about international relations. He argued that the most effective way of preventing a war was to possess exact knowledge of the comparative strength of the two rival nations or alliances. And this exact knowledge, he wrote, ‘is often attainable only by actual fighting out the conflict.’ (Blainey, p. 118)
Imagine if the nations of the world, all the sub-groupings, all the regional alliances could agree to adopt a global information policy, that, among other things, promoted transparency about military strength in each country. Perhaps humankind could then attain the world peace we claim we seek, without engaging in conflict. Without putting too strong a spin on it, it may be that the New International Information and Communication Order proposed by UNESCO in the 70’s was on this path. We can only speculate.
A report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) in 1977 (when the new information policy was being considered) begins, “Whether we like it or not, there will be a ‘New World Information Order’” (Kroloff and Cohen, 1977. p. 1). Today, with new technologies for creating, acquiring, disseminating, evaluating, and organizing information, globally and practically instantaneously, we must acknowledge that we already have a new world information order in operation, in fact, we have several orders, several overlapping global orders. But these global information orders are not governed nor held accountable by states or international organizations like the UN or UNESCO, nor even by the superpowers like the United States, Russia, China, or the European Union. They are governed by multinational corporations like Google, and single government agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA), and regional and global communications networks like CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera.
That same SFRC report ends, “Today the computer is vaguely considered a factor in the “New World Information Order.” Tomorrow it could be the factor.” (Kroloff and Cohen, 1978, p. 38). The writers of that report could not have been more prescient.
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