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Toward a NWICO for the twenty-first century?

The rampant quest today for a so-called new world order is not new to contemporary international relations. In particular, the technologies and institutions of communication that have become so central to world politics and economics over the last couple of decades have fundamentally altered the nature and sources of power and influence, both domestically and internationally. Clearly, a new global order of information and communication has emerged -- but whose order is it?

There has been much discussion -- in academia, in government and among the mass media -- as to whether the faster transmission of greater volumes of information that occurs through the global media today has in fact brought the peoples and nations of the world closer together. For example, many argue that the simultaneous, instantaneous and worldwide broadcasts of such images as bombs falling on Baghdad during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, or U.S. Marines storming the beaches of Somalia in December 1992, have begun to increase and more equally distribute the world's communication resources. This would represent the realization, at least in part, of Marshall McLuhan's "global village," in which everyone in the world system has the opportunity to listen and be heard through an international communications network that can be accessed by all.(1)

Yet despite the technological and scientific developments in communications -- including the tremendous growth of information hardware and software over the last several decades -- the majority of residents of this global village are deprived of even the most basic tools of modern communication, information and knowledge. They live in degrading conditions of illiteracy, disease, hunger, unemployment and malnutrition. This paradox is well-captured by J.V. Vilanilam:

If there were 100 residents in this global village, only one would

get the opportunity for education beyond school level, 70 would

be unable to read and write. Over 50 would be suffering from

malnutrition, and over 80 would live in sub-standard housing. Six

of the 100 would hold off the entire income of the village. How

would these six live in peace with their neighbors without arming

themselves to the teeth and supplying arms to those willing to fight

their side?(2) Far from the ideal of a global village composed of equitable partners, the village as it exists in reality appears more to be a hierarchy of chiefs.

The persistence and even worsening of this situation in many less-developed countries (LDCs) forces the question: Who is benefiting from the communication advances of the late twentieth century? A serious examination of the emerging technologies, their ownership and influence are needed to assess the extent of this new world order.


During the 1970s, calls for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) and a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) were the hallmarks of an international debate in the United Nations and its specialized agencies, as well as among non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active in the fields of economics and the media. The main protagonists and promoters of that debate were members of the Non-Aligned Movement, including most LDC governments and numerous intellectuals. These parties demanded a more equitable share of the world's economic and communication resources -- particularly increased democratization of the media and more equal access by the world's "many voices" -- in light of a fundamental imbalance in the North-South information flow and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. The non-Western and less-industrialized countries resented Western domination of radio, television, film and satellite communication. Their demands included more equal distribution of the world's limited radiofrequencies; reduced international postal rates for magazines, books and newspapers; preferential telecommunications tariffs; less restrictive copyright laws; protection against possible direct broadcast satellite intrusion; and rejection of the attitude that media are commercial products, rather than instruments for development. These demands, however, largely fell victim to the superpower rivalries of the Cold War, as well as the overwhelming opposition of the private, commercial media and information industries -- all of which dictated adherence to the status quo.(3)

The NWICO proposals also encountered enormous hostility from the United States and other Western nations, who saw them as a threat to the ideals of the unrestricted flow of information and the free market, as well as an unacceptable form of state intervention in and control over international communication.(4) The arguments of NWICO's supporters were also distorted by the mainstream Western media, who struggled to coalesce their commercial self-interests with their traditionally free-market, liberal philosophies concerning the appropriate direction for world communication. Within the field of information and communication, the debate ultimately resulted in the withdrawal of the United States and the United Kingdom from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Several lessons can be drawn from this early NWICO debate. First, it crystallized the natural reaction of the world's major economic and political actors to resist any genuine change in the global order, if such change threatened their dominance over the world's vital resources. Second, the state-centric argument for creating a new world order -- popular during the 1970s and 1980s -- is not sufficient in an era of increasing global interdependency, although basic reforms must begin at the national level with a comprehensive communication policy. Third, the mobilization and participation of NGOs, individuals and the other components that make up civil society are vital elements for any world order that seeks legitimacy -- and hence the ability to cope with the realities of complex global interactions.


In the two decades since the NWICO challenge was first posed, the changes that then appeared impossible to many are now a part of everyday life. The world continues to witness a social transformation that cannot be explained merely by orthodox political and economic theories of social or developmental change. In this era of challenging and chaotic digital transformation, human relations and international politics have met a complex and uncharted world.

These changes have influenced the unpredictability of international events, the growing insecurity of the major powers, the erosion of the legitimacy of the nation-state system and the increasing demands for change and cultural rights by smaller nations and groups. The obvious instance is how popular uprisings in East Central Europe, publicized on television, had a domino effect in the region and the world. A decade earlier, the Islamic revolution in Iran had led to the worldwide resurgence of Islam in many countries. Furthermore, nationalism and communalism today represent antagonistic identities in the appalling conflicts occurring in the former Yugoslavia. The result of such events has been the redefinition of international politics in terms of communication and culture.

As a result of these trends, the state of international communication today is fundamentally different in both substance and form from the one demanded by the earlier NWICO proponents. Two unclear and yet visible notions of the new world order exist. One is the official and publicized version -- expressed through the media and other fora -- by the United States and a number of European and highly industrialized countries; they envision a totally unrestricted market economy, globalization of information by dominant Western transnational firms and military and political coalitions composed of a handful of states who use their might to police the rest. The second is the unofficial, unpublicized and often desperate call for access to information by the less fortunate groups, nations and citizens at the grassroots. Although dynamic, they lack the resources and strength of numbers to strike any bargain with the more powerful. They are frustrated instead by what they see as an order dominated by their Western counterparts, led by global telecommunications and media conglomerates.

Yet it is at the juncture between these two visions that there is an opportunity for the reconceptualization of global development, led by those with genuine concern for achieving a more just world order. The quest is now focused on achieving a new cultural order, which goes beyond the simple notions of communication and information. This new discourse, with the potential for a major international and worldwide debate, endorses the broader notion of a communication ecology. It now seems more imperative than ever to discuss global tensions not only in terms of explicitly economic, geopolitical and military structures, but also in the context of the cultural, communication and information environment. As I have argued elsewhere, the process of information and technological innovation can be explained by a "unitary theory of communication as ecology." I use the term ecology here in a broad sense, to include all the symbolic environments in which human and technological communications take place.(5) This new notion takes into account the fact that, although NWICO advocates rightly acknowledged the relationship between information and culture, they incorrectly made technological, economic and political factors the foci of their demands.

It is through such forums as the current MacBride Roundtable that international communication experts and other NWICO advocates are reconceptualizing the NWICO argument for the current and ever-changing international context.(6) Rather than perceiving communication and culture merely as things that one acquires through the processes of development, the latter-day NWICO platform promotes the combined roles of culture and communication in the process of community-building -- not from a forgotten purity of the past or from superior Western standards, but from the dynamic interactions among peoples and social, technological and economic processes. In this sense, communication is community and development is from not one but many different processes and points of view.(7) This new thinking also spurns the myth that information and communication can be culturally neutral.

In the global search for peace, justice and development, the role played by culture has often been disregarded. Yet it is precisely in this political environment that cultural forces come into play. As international relations expand into a multitude of diverse interests and structures -- including military, political, economic and cultural spheres -- the question of one's cultural environment occupies a prominent role. In addition, increasing forays by scholars into the ethical and moral dimensions of international relations in recent years illustrate the centrality of value systems and the symbolic environment created by information technology.(8) As we have seen for many years in the Middle East and most recently in the former Yugoslavia, religious and ethnic struggles have become the major source of global strife, highlighting the urgency and depth of cultural clashes. The nature of the international communication community thus becomes a critical one: The survival of the global system may depend on whether this community is one that is moral and ethical or one that reflects the persistence of a model in which the West is the center and the rest of the world is on the periphery.(9) Throughout Islamic history, especially in the early centuries, information was not a commodity but a moral and ethical imperative.(10) As a NWICO emerges for the twenty-first century, its ethical basis too must be ascertained. Its likely shape -- as evidenced by the current global discourse -- is two-fold: It may signal the arrival of the new communication ecology while also increase the likelihood of greater information control by a powerful few. Some important questions to ask include: Will new information networks influence the adaptation of a new rationalism, through which social problems are treated as technical problems and citizens are replaced by experts? Will the new information technologies encourage more centralized decision making and societal fragmentation, replacing a sense of community life with an exasperated individualism? Is the information society in a position to produce qualitative changes in traditional forms of communication and eventually transform social structures, and will these new structures in turn require new guiding ethics?(11)


The communication revolution has also affected -- and is being affected by -- the changing nature of international development. Development has become a global issue; it is no longer merely a question of technology transfer, foreign investment or establishing free-market economies. In the 1990s, there is hardly a major political, social or economic problem among the LDCs that cannot be observed to some degree in the industrialized world as well. Societal decline, hunger, violence, homelessness and hopelessness are evident everywhere. The term Third World -- used during the Cold War to describe economically disadvantaged and politically non-committed countries -- is no longer either academic or applicable. Although the countries of East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union are in many ways advanced, their problems also resemble those of the LDCs -- as they emerge from the ashes of repression and colonialism and enter an already established international economic system. Despite their often high levels of industrialization, the new members of the global system -- especially the nations of Central Asia -- are predominantly agricultural and linger at the periphery of world politics. With these countries added to the ranks of the "underdeveloped," it is possible now only to classify nations according to the extent of their struggle for economic and political reform.

Moreover, there no longer exists the loose coalition among the non-aligned nations that consolidated around the NWICO debate. Indeed, such a coalition is no longer a possibility, given the sheer number of nations and the diversity of their political and economic conditions. The LDCs will probably come to be seen as geo-cultural regions rather than being labeled as the first, second, third or even the fourth world. For example, the religious, political and socio-cultural history of some of the Islamic countries can provide a much stronger bridge for potential coalition and mobilization than does the bridge of poverty that binds the countries of Africa and Latin America.

It is in this changing developmental context that the latest NWICO debate has already begun, albeit in a fairly invisible and hidden manner -- and with two dimensions. The first dimension is the quiet -- but highly competitive -- technological, legal and economic bargaining occurring among the industrialized countries and within the international organizations that are concerned with communications technology. The second is a series of national debates on the role of the media. In the United States and Western Europe, this is a debate about commercialism, excessive portrayal of violence and the role of the media in exacerbating racial tensions and promoting respect for minority and special group interests. In Russia and East Central Europe, the debate involves the nature of civil society, information and reason, in the effort to find an alternative model to overcome the already media-invaded terrain of these countries. Meanwhile in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, the debate has become a quest for popular participation and democratization within their own indigenous, socio-cultural settings.

In many LDCs, movements toward alternative development and social organization often bring with them innovative uses of new communication technologies. This results in part from scientific advances that have made technology cheaper and easier to operate. For example, most voice, data and image recorders are easy to learn and use. Media competency is widespread and no longer limited to professionals, and faxes have become a viable alternative communication tool even at the grassroots. Information can now be converted into digital form, stored and shared almost without cost in a growing web of interlinked telephone-computer networks.

These technologies in many cases permit the poor to move beyond simply being a passive audience. Cheaper and more accessible technologies allow individuals and groups to become their own message-makers. Alternative or participatory uses of the media are evident in the highlands of Bolivia, for example, where the mining communities have set up a network of miners' radios, or in the use of loudspeakers and community presses in the urban slums of Villa El Salvador in Lima, Peru.(12) Alternative communication networks link together grassroots and policy groups throughout the globe, working on environmental, peace and relief efforts and forging together interests and activists into a new global civil society.

In these and other cases, the new communication technologies can encourage wider participation and greater equality in politics and society. Yet doubts remain as to whether these grassroots communication infrastructures are capable of withstanding the onslaught of international communication interests in a sustained manner, not just sporadically, as was perhaps the case at the Earth Summit held in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. Moreover, numerous other communication-development efforts continue to affect grassroots activities and may increase their cost. For example, the privatization and deregulation of the traditionally public telephone companies in much of Latin America have resulted in pricing average consumers out of the market, especially in rural areas -- thus becoming merely another invisible way for elites to communicate with elites.


Distribution Channels

Clearly, increased access to information technologies will not yield benefits to the poor and less-developed regions of the world unless accompanied by basic restructuring of political systems. Technology alone will not change the prevailing order; rather, the power lies with those who control the distribution aspects of communication. While production of information is relatively widespread, over 80 percent of innovations in information technologies now occur in the tightly controlled distribution market.

As shown through the one-sided news coverage during the Persian Gulf War, this concentration of the distribution power of the media has reversed the earlier NWICO ideal: From "many voices, one world," the accepted norm has become "many nations, one voice." The new-found force of the Cable News Network (CNN) during the war gave the U.S. media in particular an even wider global dimension than they had enjoyed in the past.(13) Transnationalization of information distribution through media conglomerates is a particularly disturbing trend, for it allows one cultural and/or national perspective -- mostly American -- to expand its influence over the global cultural industries and the distribution of information.(14) A few newspapers are the only source of foreign news for the rest of the U.S. media, and these same sources account for about 50 to 80 percent of foreign news transmitted in most LDCs.(15) In the case of world television, CNN has become a monopoly news distribution system. Overall, the bulk of the world's news, information and entertainment are under the control of a dozen global media firms.

To be sure, technological innovations, together with alternative communication channels created at the grassroots level, challenge dominant transnational interests -- even at the level of distribution. The influence of the grassroots is assisted by such phenomena as the growing physical and social mobility of populations across national boundaries. For example, modern media outlets -- telephones and videotapes -- were employed in combination with traditional means -- mosques and bazaars -- to carry forth the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s; these tactics were applied again in the 1992 Algerian uprising and in a number of other Islamic countries. As the dominant powers and governments become aware of these areas of alternative communication, however, there is an effort to bring them under their control.(16)

Media-Government Collusion

Another constraint -- a most disturbing one -- is the changing nature of the relationship among the media, government and society. For nearly half a century, U.S. editors and government officials lectured the world on the virtues of a free press, the desirability of the free flow of information and the need to avoid government domination of the information system. Yet the Gulf War became a testing ground for information and opinion management, and offered a referendum on the relationship between the media and the global order as it has existed since the First World War. The Gulf War highlighted a few key trends: growing media adherence to norms of the state and of the existing global economic and political order; the rise of a philosophy of war in which mobilization of public opinion and the manipulation of public support has taken on a global focus; the use of propaganda as a tool in the conduct of international warfare; and the decline of traditional democratic institutions, including the cessation of the traditional watchdog or adversarial roles of the media.(17)

To an increasing extent, the news is being narrated by a single narrator with a very powerful voice. These charges were asserted by David Lloyd, an Irish critic of the Gulf War coverage:

The unqualified military success of the American-dominated coalition

means the triumph of a global narrative which allows for

only one version of human history, the gradual incorporation of

all nations by a Western notion of development or modernity.(18) Technological advances also have not altered the persistence of a mostly provincial, biased and censored view of the world that prevails in the global media. Factors such as national loyalty and state security continue to determine information content, and in international conflicts, the media often side with their perceived national interest, obviously interfering with their ability to maintain journalistic independence and neutrality. The performance of the U.S. media during the U.S.-Iran conflict, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Gulf War, for example, showed that journalists, conscious of strong patriotic feelings, gathered stories that were emotionally and ideologically compatible with these domestic standards. In these and other cases, the U.S. media have consistently supported their government's foreign-policy decisions without seriously challenging their own basic assumptions.

I would argue that this complacency on the part of the media is due primarily to a convergence of views between leaders and journalists. As more government officials become media consultants and expert commentators -- such as John Sununu's stint on "Crossfire" following his removal as President Bush's chief-of-staff -- and as some journalists and television commentators move to seats of government -- most recently seen in David Gergen's return to the White House as senior communications adviser -- the line between opinion and policy becomes ever more grey. The media are no longer watchdogs or observers, but participants in the policy-making process. In formulating foreign policy, for example, the U.S. government has had to acknowledge that the revolution in communication technology and information delivery has irrevocably altered the conduct of traditional diplomacy; this was illustrated by the use of CNN by the U.S. government to send messages to Saddam Hussein and vice versa. In addition, the accelerated pace of the transnationalization of telecommunications technologies has shown that waging war in the new world order requires access to and control over global communication networks. Thus, the world is witnessing in the information age a merging of two traditionally disparate and discrete sources of power and influence: media and political power.


Problems in the existing global information and communication order -- including the prevailing ethnocentrism; focus on violence and disaster rather than on the economic, cultural or political background of a given situation; and shallow and oversimplified reporting -- cannot be solved by advances in communications technology. Rather, these are problems of media ownership and policies, and of the relationship between media, the state and civil society. The impact of the technological advancements of the media on policy making and diplomacy must be seen in the broader context of political, economic and even cultural constraints.

The emerging new order of global media falls short of the demands of the LDCs and other early NWICO proponents for real justice and equality in information and communication among all peoples. The ethical basis of a NWICO for the twenty-first century depends on the socio-political structure of society. It depends on the willingness of media owners and those with the power to influence information distribution to discourage a centralized process of decision making that ignores cultural considerations. Qualitative and sustainable changes in traditional forms of communication will require the transformation of social structures, and in turn new ethics to support those new structures.

The central question in the new information and communication era is who owns and controls the distribution of communication, and for what purpose and intent. It is the ethics and mode of communications -- not the technical and instrumental aspects, but the emphasis on human interaction and the attendant moral and ethical systems -- that will determine the outcome of any emerging world order. (1.) See Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964); and Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village (New York: Bantam Books, 1968). (2.) J.V. Vilanilam, Reporting a Revolution: The Iranian Revolution and the NWICO Debate (New Delhi: Sage, 1989) p. 80. (3.) International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, Many Voices, One World (London: Kogan Page, 1980). The Commission gained its popular name, the MacBride Commission, from chairman Sean MacBride of Ireland. (4.) See William Preston, Jr., Edward Herman and Herbert I. Schiller, Hope and Folly: The United States and UNESCO 1945-1985 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989); and C. Anthony Giffard, UNESCO and the Media (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1989). (5.) Hamid Mowlana, "The New Global Order and Cultural Ecology," Media, Culture and Society 15, no. 1 (January 1993) pp. 9-27. (6.) After the 1980 publication of the MacBride Report and the withdrawal of the United States from UNESCO, there was little activity regarding NWICO until 1989, when researchers, scholars, media associations and media activists met in Harare, Zimbabwe for the first annual MacBride Roundtable. This roundtable has continued with follow-up sessions in Prague (1990), Istanbul (1991), Sao Paulo (1992) and Dublin (1993). The group has issued a number of reports to draw the attention of international organizations to the issues of international communication as stated in the original report. (7.) For a further explanation of this point, see Hamid Mowlana and Laurie J. Wilson, The Passing of Modernity: Communication and the Transformation of Society (New York: Longman, 1990). (8.) For further discussion, see T.W. Cooper, C.G. Christians, F.F. Plude and R.A. White, eds., Communication Ethics and Global Change (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1990); Hamid Mowlana, Global Information and World Communication: News Frontiers in International Relations (White Plains, NY: Longman, forthcoming); Johan Galtung and Richard C. Vincent, Global Glasnost: Towarda New World Information and Communication Order (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1993); and Hamid Mowlana, "Civil Society, Information Society and Islamic Society," in S. Splichal, A. Calabrese and C. Sparks, eds., Information Society and Civil Society: An International Dialogue on the Changing World Order (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, forthcoming). (9.) Johan Gaitung, "A Structural Theory of Imperialism," Journal of Peace Research 8, no. 2 (1971) pp. 81-118; and Johan Galtung, The Time World: A Transnational Perspective (New York: The Free Press, 1980). (10.) "Communication, Ethics and the Islamic Tradition," in Cooper et al., eds., pp. 137-46. (11.) George Gerbner, Hamid Mowlana and Kaarle Nordenstreng, eds., The Global Media Debate: Its Rise, Fall and Renewal (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1993); and Michael Traber and Kaarle Nordenstreng, eds., Few Voices, Many Worlds (London: World Association for Christian Communication, 1992). (12.) Hamid Mowlana and Margaret Hardt Frondorf, eds., The Media as a Forum for Community Building: Cases from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the United States (Washington, DC: SAIS, The Johns Hopkins University, 1992) pp. 1-41. (13.) It is estimated that CNN is now available in 100 countries either directly or indirectly through conventional channels. It reaches 20 million households in the United States and has an audience of seven million in Europe. (14.) See Herbert I. Schiller, Mass Communication and American Empire, 2nd ed. (New York: A. Kelley, 1969; Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992); and Kaarle Nordenstreng and Herbert I. Schiller, eds., Beyond Sovereignty (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992) International Communication in the 1990s (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp., 1993). (15.) In the 1970s, for example, 330 newspapers in the United States and 97 abroad subscribed to the New York Times syndicate; the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post service supplied 290 newspapers in the United States and 60 overseas. See William H. Read, "Multinational Media," Foreign Policy 18 (Spring 1975) pp. 55-67. (16.) This strategy considers the revitalization of traditional religious institutions as powerful sources of mass communication in the modern world. Thus the Algerian government's decision to close 5,000 mosques in 1992 became a significant issue of culture and communication. For Islamic society, this type of information repression is the equivalent in the West of shutting down magazines and newspapers. (17.) Hamid Mowlana, "Roots of War: The Long Road of Intervention," in Hamid Mowlana, George Gerbner and Herbert I. Schiller, eds., Triumph of the Image: The Media's War in the Persian Gulf -- A Global Perspective (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992) pp. 30-50. (18.) "The Gulf War and the New World Order," Irish Reporter 2 (2nd quarter 1991) p. 4.
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Title Annotation:Power of the Media in the Global System; New World Information and Communication Order
Author:Mowlana, Hamid
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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