Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Reinventing the Press

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Reinventing the Press

Article excerpt

Has the time come to reinvent the press? This question becomes particularly relevant against the background of two other prospective questions: what does the future hold for relations between the press (the "fourth estate") and the world of power, or rather the various centres of power? And what are the prospects for the written word in an age of channel-hopping, the multimedia revolution and information superhighways?

Has the press caught the power disease? Has it been contaminated by power? "If the press did not exist, it ought not to be invented. But the fact is that it does exist," as Balzac put it. I would contrast that vision with the ideal of Thomas Jefferson, who declared that "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right. And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." In 1787, he added, "I mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them".

The end of the Cold War and the upsurge of democracy all over the world are opening up new continents to freedom of expression. The press will have no future in these regions unless it builds highways to lasting freedom, and this will require a certain separation of powers. It is not enough to win freedom: freedom must also be organized and strengthened in face of established authority. However, the press is first and foremost the reflection of a society and of its readers. This is why Jefferson's message of hope still has meaning for us since it makes the link - which is at the heart of UNESCO's mission - between the principle of press and media freedom and its essential adjunct: literacy, education for all and the freedom of scientific and academic inquiry without which the concept of freedom can only be an empty shell.

There can be no democracy without freedom of the media and the free flow of ideas by word and image. We therefore cannot accept the slightest restriction on freedom of expression. However, independent media can only exist to the extent that the preconditions for freedom also exist. And there can be no free and influential press or true democracy without well-informed readers. Responsible and informed citizens are the best shield of democracy.

The new faces of freedom

UNESCO is working to promote free, independent and pluralist media in the public and private sector alike. Two meetings held with this in view by UNESCO, one in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1991, the other in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 1992, have been major turning points and have opened up many new perspectives. In these "march-lands" of democracy where everything needs to be rebuilt or invented - freedom of expression, a free press, professional ethics - UNESCO is acting as a catalyst by promoting public and private bilateral initiatives, by encouraging the new print and audiovisual media groups and non-governmental organizations to work together, and by helping with the establishment of training centres for journalists. The Windhoek Declaration laid the groundwork for the reinvention, or perhaps even the creation, of a democratic press in the countries of the South and East which had been deprived of it for so long.

These new media, these new and often heroic journalists, many of whom have known imprisonment, are reinventing the press from day to day and drawing the new shapes of freedom, sometimes even laying down their lives in this cause.

The advent of a society of global communications, a "programmed society" in which computers, information and communication all converge, is revolutionizing our outlook on culture, education and development - indeed on life itself.

The civilization of the written word may well be replaced by a new empire of invisible and intangible signs, forming the basis of a new commercial, worldwide economy governed by what the American political economist Robert Reich has called "manipulators of symbols". …

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