Communicating for Justice


This article originally appeared in Issue# 61

Making a case for the right to communicate

Development and reform of global communications have been a continuing focus of mainline Protestant groups worldwide over the last 20 years. Led by the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), a values-based international communication and development organization, the issue has been discussed at WACC-sponsored international conferences in the Caribbean, the Philippines, France, Brazil and elsewhere. The National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCCC) drafted Global Communication for Justice and Peace, the policy statement that appears below, following a summary meeting in New York City in June 1992. This version has been edited slightly for space and publication requirements.

The National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. is seeking to help define and create the conditions for a just world order. As a new millennium approaches, we have a unique opportunity to replace the Cold War animosities that have dominated our lives with a more humane international community. But instead of a new world of peace and justice, we see unleashing of racial and ethnic violence everywhere: in the Sudan and India, the Middle East and South Africa. Multiethnic conflicts take place in Los Angeles and in Serbia, where the chilling practice of "ethnic cleansing" is [practiced]. The breakdown of communication threatens our hopes for peace on earth.

Communication is basic to community. The right to communicate is a basic human right. The right to receive and to provide information is as fundamental to the quality of life as food, clothing, and shelter. The right to communicate is essential to human dignity. It is a precondition of a just and democratic society. It is necessary if ever peace is to be achieved.

Communication is basic to community. The right to communicate is a basic human right.


But every right brings with it responsibilities, and the whole community is responsible for the functioning of communication in society. Christians, as citizens, have an obligation to exert whatever influence they can to insure that the mass media operate to serve the public good, rather than simply the interests of individuals. With humility, however, Christians should recognize the difficulties and dilemmas that are present. The tensions and polarities of some realities do not lend themselves to easy answers or solutions. For example, the right of all ethnic and minority people of a nation to speak is sometimes in tension with the goal of national unity.

Media technologies have great potential to bind the world together, when not beholden entirely to transnational commercial interests. Media need not divide peoples and cultures. Media can make it possible for persons, communities, and nations to participate fully in their own cultures as well as in shared world meanings and values. Media can enable people to participate in their community and national life. Television, radio, newspapers and film are powerful resources for education, promotion of health and other aspects of development. Media can offer an excellent source of information and a forum for dialogue and debate about the fulfillment of life. But they will not do so if left unchallenged.

We recognize that often religious organizations and individuals have been guilty of failing to use the communication media for the public welfare. Sometimes religious groups have put their institutional self-interest above the public interest. Too often they have failed to give serious attention to the forces which constrain the press and other communication media, and often have sought simply to put forward their own special interests. They have not challenged the use of communication as a cultural force to support the powerful and to victimize the powerless. They have ignored the use of communication by Western societies as a tool for the domination of other nations.

This policy statement addresses issues of global communication and justice. It suggests steps churches may take to provide alternatives to the increasing centralization of control, ownership and the politicizing of world media by a few transnational media giants.

Journalists will be fully protected only when everyone's human rights are guaranteed.
- MacBride Commission

A New Challenge

Citizens of developed and developing nations alike live in a global information society where information is a commodity that has rapidly replaced control of natural resources, capital and industrial might as an important determinant of global power. Traditional arbiters and purveyors of culture, including governmental, religious, educational and scientific organizations have lost much of their influence. Public discourse increasingly takes place around an agenda set by the media.

People in Manila, Santiago, Amman, Moscow and Minneapolis now have simultaneous access to the same images and interpretation of events. It is the nature of this kind of global communication to define and limit human prospects for successful common life. The media create and support an artificial transnational culture based on a selective vision which often ignores indigenous values and which affects the relations between nations and peoples throughout the world. The media thus chart the map by which we live our common life.

The global community now finds itself in an unrelenting process of transition from traditional communication, where face-to-face and oral interaction predominate, to modern top-down, one-way, technology-driven and media-based communication. New technologies and mass media have separated us from control over our own communication and thus from much control over our cultural and economic lives. Control has been transferred, in large part, to those with technical expertise who serve the interests of the mercantile and the military.

As churches we claim that we are on the side of the social, cultural, economic and spiritual development of all peoples. But we have not always recognized that such development is necessarily based on a strong cultural identity and autonomy through which peoples define themselves, their situations and their needs. Today there is an erosion of dynamic culture alive to its own needs and true to itself. While traditional modes of communication tend to enable development based on cultural autonomy, mass communication does not. People in every nation have become consumers of the values embodied in the entertainment and advertising supplied by their own or "foreign" societies.

The threat to certain aspects and value systems of these developed cultures is similar to that of less developed nations, for in both circumstances the social, political and cultural arenas of life are defined and debated in ways largely influenced by the media. The media play an ever more important role in political campaigns, the overthrow and creation of governments and in the way wars are planned, fought and interpreted. The media shape our consciousness and our quest for the meaning of life. Several international journalistic and media organizations have their own codes of ethics.

These most often stress the right to know, objectivity and reporting, and the freedom of journalists to communicate without restrictions.

Modern media technologies offer unprecedented opportunities for the exchange of information between peoples and nations. Unfortunately, however, most of the people of the world do not share in the real benefits of these technologies. They are often victimized rather than assisted by the way in which information is controlled and often distorted by the developed nations. Great inequities exist in the distribution of news and information among nations. The problem is not limited to the quantity of communications media available for use by the developing world. Equally significant is the quality of information that is offered. Developing countries rarely have the chance to tell their own stories-others tell it for them. Their reality is not depicted fairly and is often laden with stereotypes. The information provided is not geared to their best interests, but tailored instead to the commercial needs of the West. Of course, within nations one group can impose its opinions on all others if it controls the media.

Changes in the media industry


At the same time that mass communication has come to be more important to social and cultural processes, the media themselves are undergoing great change. Traditional definitions of media practices, such as the line between entertainment and news, have been blurred. Commitments to public service and obligation, once a part of the contract between the government, its citizens, and the media industry, have been abrogated in the United States in favor of marketplace regulation. Concentration of ownership of print and electronic media and the film industry has coincided with a powerful trend toward private ownership and commercialization in broadcasting. Where once public service traditions dominated in much of the developed and developing worlds, Western, specifically American, notions of commercialized private enterprise and deregulation are spreading. This trend, in both noncommercial and commercial media, has had two kinds of results.

First, our global media establishments are more and more driven by the needs and demands of world markets and less and less driven by national or cultural needs and interests. They have never adequately served the interests of the powerless at the peripheries: neither the masses who are dispossessed nor minority groups who have cultural, racial, creative and prophetic concerns. The global media increasingly represent the interests of powerful forces at the centers of political and economic activity, neglecting the concerns of churches and other institutions which advocate for alternative visions and futures.

The second result of these trends toward privatization has been a virtual elimination of any basis for global dialogue on issues of equity and justice in communication. For a brief period in history, there were influential public arenas where such issues could be addressed (such as UNESCO, the International Telecommunications Union, etc). But in a totally commercialized world marketplace, such discussion is disappearing. Media will be viewed entirely as product, thus discussion will take place entirely within the realm of trade negotiations where issues of justice and equity are often ignored.

This transformation of communication has theological and spiritual consequences. As communication changes, our participation in life, spirituality, and the dimensions of meaning also changes. As Christians and as churches, we must ask ourselves what God is saying to us in an era when our means of communication are being so radically changed and transformed.

Spiritual Consequences

This transformation of communication has theological and spiritual consequences. As communication changes, our participation in life, spirituality, and the dimensions of meaning also changes. As Christians and as churches, we must ask ourselves what God is saying to us in an era when our means of communication are being so radically changed and transformed. Western Christian theology places a high value on individual consciousness, articulation, and self-determination. It also places an equal emphasis on our corporateness and need for community. Today these processes largely take place in the media environment or are at least influenced by the media. Separation from the media environment is no longer possible. Thus the church has a critical interest in media structures, ownership, audiences and processes.

The churches of the world are a global communication system through which the voices of those rendered voiceless because they lack access to the media can be raised to question these trends. Churches are committed to development through empowerment, and empowerment through communication (both traditional and modern modes).

Churches have realized, often before others, that issues of justice in local and national development cannot be addressed without the tools and consciousness of the role of communication. Churches are in a unique position to undertake this cause. Few other institutions have the global networks, the commitments, the expertise, and the consciousness to take on the task.

The existing global web of communication-symbols, images, and pictures simultaneously transmitted into scenarios and sequences of events-catch and hold the lives of people everywhere. The web envelops people's perceptions and understanding and finally invades the innermost chambers of consciousness, deeply affecting spirit as well as life. The church is called to resist when any force subjugates the spirit, mind, will, and voice of people to the dictates of any worldly power.

Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.

- Archibald MacLeish, preamble, UNESCO charter