China's Political Economy of Public Communication: Complexifying a Rights Approach to Information

By Chen, Ni | Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal, April 15, 2018 | Go to article overview

China's Political Economy of Public Communication: Complexifying a Rights Approach to Information


Chen, Ni, Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal


Introduction

The role of information does not occupy a particularly visible place in the broad spectrum of Human Rights provisions. Unlike freedom of speech, which has a provenance in many ancient political and civil rights and privileges, information as a concept is both multivalent (subject to many meanings and appropriations) and also the object of significant transformation (most notably, the role of communications technology and digital media). In terms of law, legal practice and the 'rights' dimension, information is submerged in a multitude of discourses and debate--on communications and media, regulation, distribution and markets, government, public authorities and governance, political communication and the public sphere. It is in this last discursive arena that this article is situated.

As a generalisation, the subjects of political communication and the public sphere have only concerned human rights to the degree that they are conditions, or facilitate, other rights--principally, of course, the right to freedom of speech and the concomitant public debates and usual Press-based public discourse that free speech implies. Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which is reiterated as Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966) asserts as follows: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". A self-evident fact all too easily ignored is that this, and most other, articles of the UDHR are either inoperable, insubstantial or of little effect, without shared information (offering, for example, an understanding of facts and procedures, the content of decisions, an understanding of causes and contexts, the ability to make judgements or assume a position in a given debate). Information is central, and makes possible both political communication by government, and public realm discourse by citizens or social institutions. It is one thing to propose a 'right', it is another to know, communicate, access and to claim or exercise that right in political, social or cultural contexts.

Information is central to the empowerment of citizens to know of, and claim, their rights. Other articles of the UDHR arguably assume this: concerning the rights to life and freedom--articles 2-7--justice and fair public representation--articles 8-12--mobility, belonging and privacy--articles 13-17--Article 18's crucial 'freedom of thought, conscience and religion'--association, membership and equality up to article 23, and up to article 30 providing the conditions for human fulfillment and flourishing, through work, leisure, education, culture and community). It is difficult to see how these spectrum of rights are substantive at all without the availability of information identified by Article 19.

Aside from the general observations on how information has become a central fulcrum of social and economic life--the 'information society', the 'knowledge economy' and models of globalisation built on these concepts (like Castells' famous 'network society' concept, and so on)--the actual rights to information itself remains problematic. Every society tends to its own privacy, confidentiality and State secrets laws, and moreover all societies have their own approach to informational accuracy, truthfulness, representation, and the conditions of factual, verifiable and evidential sources of information. The policing of information, across political communication, publication, print and broadcast reporting, research and public debate, crosses many spheres of law and order. The interest of this article is in the status of information itself, and the 'rights' to information--particularly where this information is central to the formation of public knowledge on the national body politic, identity, political values and the matrix of perceptions around the relation between one's country and the rest of the world. …

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