Magazine article UNESCO Courier

From the Cold War to the Era of New Technologies

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

From the Cold War to the Era of New Technologies

Article excerpt

After being a hostage of the East-West confrontation in the 1970s and 1980s, UNESCO can new encourage a wider and better balanced flow of information without any obstacle to freedom of expression.

Some fifty years ago, the founders of UNESCO singled out the "free flow of ideas by word and image" as an essential factor in the development of collaboration among the nations. For this fundamental principle to become effective, however, it would have to be practised by all states, and unfortunately it was incompatible with the totalitarian system existing in the countries of the East. This incompatibility became one of the key issues of the Cold War, which was indeed partly a communication war.

In the 1970s and 1980s, therefore, UNESCO became one of the hottest arenas of East-West confrontation. As the German philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, "the force possessed by totalitarian propaganda lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world".(1) Arguing that there could not be a totally free flow of information as long as the dissemination of this information was so strongly imbalanced in favour of the North (i.e. the West), the Soviet Union skilfully took advantage of the understandable frustration of the developing countries to impose within UNESCO its own interpretation of the so-called "New World Information and Communication Order" (NWICO). Its objective was to limit, and if possible to prevent, the penetration of the big Western media into the territories it controlled. This was one reason, although not the only one, why the United States and the United Kingdom decided to leave UNESCO respectively in 1984 and 1985.

The end of the Cold War gave UNESCO a unique opportunity to work out an approach to the communication issue that was adapted to the needs of both the emerging democracies in Eastern and Central Europe and the developing countries. In November 1989, UNESCO's General Conference adopted by consensus at its twenty-fifth session a "new communication strategy", the objective of which is "to ensure a free flow of information at international as well as national levels, and its wider and better balanced dissemination, without any obstacle to the freedom of expression...."

Communication and democracy

The first objective of this "new communication strategy" commits UNESCO to promote freedom of expression, which is the corner-stone of the human rights edifice, and freedom of the press, which is an essential component of any democratic society. UNESCO supports the action of the intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations specialized in the defence of these fundamental freedoms, while preserving and developing its own means of action. Furthermore, in a number of countries it is helping to pave the way for the creation and strengthening of pluralistic and independent media.

In certain contexts of ethnic and/or sectarian conflicts, UNESCO, in liaison with the United Nations and various international media organizations, is also supporting the local media that are independent of the parties to the conflicts, as long as they provide non-partisan information and promote coexistence between ethnic and/or sectarian groups.

Finally, UNESCO must react against the growing use of violence in the mass media - cinema, television, video, comic strips, electronic games - which provide people, in particular children, with a vision of human relations which is in total contradiction with the spirit of the Organization. "Violence on the screen" is one of UNESCO's priority concerns. There is no doubt that it would be very difficult to set up and enforce universal standards in this area. Moreover, such an approach might be used as a pretext to prejudice freedom of expression. Hence UNESCO is eager to foster dialogue with and among those responsible for creating, publishing and broadcasting, with a view to encouraging them to determine themselves the limits that should not be overstepped, bearing in mind the cultural context and the public these works and products are addressing. …

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