Think of the recent Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street mobilisations: the vast and diverse sphere of what we call civil society bubbles, with action, ideas, and emotions. In the face of an unprecedented global crisis, affecting job markets and the cost of living, and food availability and the environment, civil society groups and organisations around the world have needs, preferences and proposals. But is civil society able to communicate on its own terms?
The ever-growing diffusion of social media and mobile technology, and the mushrooming of digital platforms for self-expression, might suggest that never before has civil society had so many venues to voice its claims and visions.
The picture, however, is not as bright as it might seem at a first sight. Although these are certainly welcome developments, and means and channels of communication have indeed multiplied, the mediascape is still characterised by growing media concentration, the predominance of ‘infotainment’ and ‘sensationalism’, over information and analysis, and the prevalence of Western voices at the expense of a silenced global South. Further, social media and blogging platforms, by privileging an individualistic approach to communication, are sometimes at odds with the ways in which organised civil society traditionally communicates. How can civil society organisations (CSOs) improve their communication? What does an enabling environment for civil society communication look like?
There are seven factors that, if positively dealt with, may help civil society’s voices to be better heard and understood. Six of them deal with the limitations and frequent shortcomings of CSOs, and are seen through the perspective of Inter Press Service (IPS), a global news agency devoted to empower civil society and the global South. But the first and, in our opinion, most intrusive obstacle to efficient communication for and by civil society has to do with the features of the current global media and communications system, which have an impact on civil society’s ability to get its messages across.
If we are to look at the disabling conditions that contemporary CSOs face in communicating their messages, we will soon realise that not much has changed since the last century, in particular in the areas of media ownership, diversity of voices and access. Media across the world are in the hands of only a few global conglomerates. The largest corporations active in the media, entertainment and digital content sector include Microsoft, Time Warner, Comcast, News Corporation, Walt Disney, Sony, Vivendi Universal and Viacom; Murdoch’s News Corporation is the only one active exclusively in the media field. Some fifteen years ago, critical media theorists Herman and McChesney argued that these global firms are “the new missionaries of capitalism.” At best, they contribute to homogenising news and entertainment content across the world, while leaving little room and market share for the initiatives of independent or local media outlets.
And what about the diversity of voices in mainstream media? Little has changed since the 1970s, when UNESCO, prompted by the newly independent states of Africa and Asia, promoted debate on a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). Official documents at the time claimed that the communication sector had to be seen “not only as a support to development but as an integral part of the development plan itself”; all countries should have “equal access to all the sources of information and take part on an equal footing in the control over and use of international channels of dissemination.”
In its book-length report, the MacBride Commission, tasked in 1977 with analysing communication problems in modern societies, and with proposing solutions to further human development through communication, had accused mainstream media of reinforcing Western cultural domination in developing countries, and had called attention to the increasing concentration of media and technology in the hands of Western companies. With the exclusion of a few companies oriented to give voice to the global South such as Al Jazeera, newscasts are to a large extent still monopolised by Western voices, at the expense of a rapidly developing South. A recent study found that, although the internet has exponentially multiplied the available channels and made the issue of space on a page irrelevant, the news agenda is today largely dominated by stories from the global North.
An enabling environment for civil society communication needs a reformed media system that is concerned with diversity of voices, equality of views and social actors and public service. Certainly, more and better public service media are needed, that are managed with transparency, and are able to cover issues of real concern to citizens, and to foster an active public sphere. More locally owned media are also needed to give voice to local needs and stories, and to issues relevant to communities. Finally, more and better funded civil society media are needed, owned and operated by people in communities, such as community radios and television stations, concerned with social justice rather than profit.