Introduction: Human Rights and the Media

By Hamelink, Cees J. | Critical Arts, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Human Rights and the Media


Hamelink, Cees J., Critical Arts


Abstract

The best way to preface this issue of Critical Arts is by commending the editors on their timely and pertinent choice of the topic "human rights and the media". It would seem to me that this is one of the most urgent themes in need of serious analysis and debate among both communication theoreticians and practitioners. The international catalogue of human rights standards has now been with us for some fifty years and the international community should begin to take a serious look at realistic ways of implementing these standards. This particularly so, as recent world events have once again demonstrated how fragile the protection of human dignity is. We are still a long way from the establishment of a global human rights culture: an environment within which the respect for human identity and diversity are self-evident matters. Essential to the effort to create such a culture are the media as they relate to the defence of human rights at various levels.

The Need to Know

One of the great obstacles to a more effective implementation of human rights is that worldwide many people lack knowledge about what human rights are and how they can be protected. Too many people do not know they are entitled to the protection of fundamental rights. Particularly, in the world's rural areas there is widespread ignorance about human rights legislation and jurisprudence. As a consequence, since rural people lack knowledge as to whether an illegality occurs, they will often not seek legal redress. Knowledge and awareness of human rights are so essential, because through the awareness that one possesses fundamental rights, the development of self-confidence is encouraged. It is important that poor people know and understand that many of their food, health, habitat and environmental problems can be translated into human rights problems. This is the beginning of a process in which the victims assert their rights and demand remedies. To recognise that you have rights and that others can be held accountable for the infringement of these rights helps to establish a basic feeling of human dignity. However, even if the texts of human rights instruments were widely disseminated, which is not the case, there would still be the problem that so many people could not read them. The availability of the written entitlements would be of little significance for the world's one billion illiterate adults or for the hundred million children for whom there are no schools.

And, even if human rights standards were published and people could read them, it is far from certain they would also understand the often technical, abstract and complex legal language in which they are articulated.

The Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states the expectation that "every individual and every organ of society ... shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms". This is repeated in the preambular paragraphs of both the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with the phrasing that the individual is "under a responsibility to strive to the promotion and observance of the rights recognised in the present Covenant". The implication of these provisions is that the media have a critical task in human rights education as they should contribute to the teaching and the respect of human rights.

Exposure

An important aspect of the protection of human rights is the public exposure of violations.

   Exposure recognises the victims as individuals or as groups that are
   entitled under international law to the protection of their integrity.
   Exposure identifies the perpetrators. Exposure may shame the perpetrators
   so as to deter future violations. Exposure may relieve some of the burden
   on the victims. Exposure may shape public opinion on human rights matters
   and educate a general public. 

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