Academic journal article Global Media Journal

Public Interest in Communications: Beyond Access to Needs

Academic journal article Global Media Journal

Public Interest in Communications: Beyond Access to Needs

Article excerpt


The Canadian government's shift to a neo-liberal communication policy regime has also been accompanied by a narrowing of the public service aspect of public interest in communications. This has had a major impact on community organizations that provide communication and information services to citizens. As part of the regime both federal and provincial levels of government invested heavily in advanced digital networks and systems that permitted the outsourcing of public and social services, which were previously provided by government, to community organizations. The paper shows that these services were provided with government short term programs and initiatives, which only provided the community centers with connectivity or learning networks. It also notes that the government electronic systems measured and monitored organizational service delivery and citizen interactivity. The paper proposes extending and strengthening democratic communication rights and social collective obligations as part of the public interest in communications to address the broader needs that permit communities and individuals to realize their full capabilities.

Keywords: Public Interest; Access; Information Society; Public Policy; Community; WSIS; Right to Communicate.


Why is the right to communication and information crucial in an information society? The short answer is to address global, national and local inequalities arising from neo-liberal media and communication policy changes. A more in-depth answer would benefit from considering Amartya Sen's research for the United National Development Programme on equality in order to address inequalities (Sen, 1992, p. 12). The solution he offers is the capabilities approach, which is grounded on the principles of freedom and distributive rights. Capabilities offer the freedom to choose a life one has reason to value (Sen, 1999, p.74). The concept also involves functionings - agency or doings - the various things a person may do or value such as having adequate nourishment, good health, self-respect and taking part in community life (Ibid, p. 75).

The approach has valuable implications for media and communications. As Garnham explains the capabilities perspective demonstrates that access to technologies is not enough (1999, pp. 120-121). To evaluate communicative entitlements we need to consider a range of real communication options beyond consumer products and services. Communication entitlements should be broad enough to address social, cultural, community development, economic and political needs. In his analysis of capabilities perspective and the issue of the digital divide Couldry argues that in richer developed countries initial policies that focused on access to the internet are no longer fashionable. An extensive body of international and national research reveals a gap in communicative resources between countries and within countries (Couldry, 2007, p. 385). Neo-liberal government policy makers tend to apply a narrow consumer freedoms focus on the distribution of access and content. By contrast, Sen maintains that these economic freedoms are presented as public freedoms. In other words communication functionings conflates public, social and cultural freedoms to consumer choice (1999, p. xii).

A History of Progressive Agency

Communication and media history is rife with progressive movement struggles over the democratization of earlier communication systems and technologies from the telegraph, to telecommunications, radio and television broadcasting, among others. In Canada and the United States these struggles were successfully establishing public interest and public service policies and regulation (see McChesney, 1997; Reddick, 2002; Rideout, 2003; Schiller, 1999; & Winseck, 1998). An ongoing persistence to establish communication rights and the right to communicate has been led by such organizations and institutions as the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), UNESCO, the MacBride Commission, the International Telecommunication Union and, more recently, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). …

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