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Trends in World Communication:
On Disempowerment and

Cees Hamelink


"....a valuable guide to understanding an increasingly vital, and rapidly changing sector of social activity....outlines the mechanisms and institutions by which most of the world's population has been disempowered, while at the same time illuminating the key political, economic and technological interests that have produced precarious condition worlwide.... does not flinch from presenting developments that powerful interests do their best to conceal or cosmeticize...."
Herbert I. Schiller

"This is the most up-to-date and...the best guidebook to the bewildering world of communication....It traces the history of globalization, names corporations which pull the multi-billion dollar strings, and explains the technological developments whic h make it possible. It is a book packed with facts and insights."
Michael Traber

"....a timely challenge to the uncritical false optimism of the deterministic economic and technological advocates of globalization and international consumerism. Many of the myths associated with 'technological progress' particularly with regard to t he Third World are exposed and rarely considered damaging cultural implications spelt out."
Prof. James Hailoran , Centre for Mass Communication Research, University of Leicester.

Contents of the book

Chapter One A Global Village

How global is global?
The Intermediaries
The market place
The right to remain ignorant
Common information future
World communication and disempowerment
Human rights and disempowerment
Empowerment and self empowerment

Chapter Two

On the History of World Communication World Politics
Cold War: disinformation
Cold War: propaganda and psychological warfare
Cold War: the expanding intelligence community
Warning systems

Cold War: the mulitarization of outer space
The North/South confrontation
Interlocking interests
Capital intensity
Ownership structures: institutional investors and tycoons
Economic significance of the industry
Techological innovations
Computer technology
Telecommunication technology

Chapter Three

Trends in World Communication The trend towards digitization
The digital guardians
The trend towards consolidation
The trend towards deregulation
Universal service
Market access

The trend towards globalization
Technological development
Financial markets
The enormous growth of trade



Chapter Four

World Communication and Self-empowerment
World communication and local space
World communication and disempowerment
Digital technologies
Access to knowledge
Cultural production
The regulatory approach
The educational approach
The alternative approach
The access and participation approach
The technical assistance approach

Limits to empowerment
Self empowerment
People's media
People's network
The revolt of civil society


People's Communication Charter

Scope of application
General standards
Protective standards
Accountability and liability
Education and development
People's responsibilities

Enforcement of the charter
General provisions
Institutional provisions
Function of the commission



A Global Village?

How Global is Global?
Contemporary discourse on the state of the world frequently refers to a metaphor which is attractive, lucid, simple, and wrong. It is the projection of the world as a village. 1 When on September 29, 1992 Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Z ia inaugurated the access of CNN to the Bangladesh Television (BTV) she observed that fast technological development brought about a revolution in information, turning the entire world into one village. It is indeed very tempting to use the village metaph or in situations where a network such as CNN makes TV audiences around the world eye-witness to marine landings in Somalia or the parliamentary revolt of 1993 in Moscow. This is indeed very impressive but does it warrant the use of world TV reporting as e vidence that we live in a "global village"? The village metaphor suggests that world news on TV has a global scope and hereby ignores the very limited and fragmented nature of international reporting. It also suggests in a rather misleading way that watch ing TV news leads to genuine knowledge and understanding about world events. Particularly striking about the village imagery is that its authors know very little about village life. In the village most people know what is going on and know each other. Th e opposite is true in the real world: there is more going on than ever before, yet most of us know very little about it and the majority of the world's citizens have little knowledge or understanding of each other. Even in relatively small regions such as Western Europe, there are myriad cultural differences that often obstruct meaningful communication. Although we can travel around the world and stay everywhere in very similar hotels, drink our favourite brand and watch our preferred TV show, intercultur al misunderstandings remain. Gestures, words, colours, or objects have different meanings in different cultures. Also the seasoned globetrotter never ceases to be amazed about how offensive his or her own social conduct may be elsewhere in the world. The term "global village" proposes that our world is shrinking, is becoming a smaller place. This is yet another misguided representation. In a real sense, our world is expanding. There is more world than ever before in history: more people, more nations, mor e conflicts. It is certainly true that advances in communication and transport technology have made more contacts among people and nations a reality. Yet it is also true that around the world most people stay home. Most people lead their lives within the boundaries of the "local village". They may have a "window" on the world outside through the mass media or telecommunications. This window offers a partial view only and in any case for most people even this is not available since they live in rural pover ty without electricity supply, movie theatres or transmitters. Even when they are literate, there are no newspapers or books.

The prefix "global" that pervades so many current debates, suggests a condition in which its related noun (an institution, an activity, an attitude) affects most if not all human beings and stretches out to all parts of the globe. This begs the question " how global is global"?

Taking a close look at contemporary realities, it would seem that the pretence of "globalism" is not necessarily in step with the world as it is. Today's world is certainly still a long way from conducting financial business in a global currency or govern ing through a global government.

What is generously termed the global economy would rather seem the economies of few OECD member states and newly industrializing countries. What is often referred to as "global communication" is virtually the transnational proliferation of mass-marketed a dvertising and electronic entertainment produced by a few mega-companies. As with so many other 'global' events: if there is a global information revolution, the majority of the world's population has not received an invitation. There are still very stark inequities between North and South in the access to communication hardware and software. Disparity is a clear feature of the today's global communication.

In the area of communication hardware, the world's majority of information processors and carriers are installed in a few countries only. The technology that is basic to their manufacture and up-grading is designed, developed, and controlled by the leadin g traders in the USA, Japan, and Western Europe. There can be little doubt that communication hardware is differentially distributed across the world.

For the North/South disparity in communication software we can look at the volume and the direction of information flows and the possibilities for generating, distributing or accessing relevant information. Information flows across the globe are imbalanc ed, since most of the world's information moves among the countries in the North, less between the North and the South, and very little flows amongst the countries of the South. Less than 10% of all telephone, telex and telefax traffic takes place between countries in the South.

This does not mean that there would be no demonstrations of global reverberations in which all parts of the globe are vulnerable to acts performed by some. The ecological risks provide the classical example. The environment seems to be the unique area whe re there is a genuine search for global solutions under way and where a level of global consciousness would seem to be emerging. Without in any way minimizing the importance of this process, it should be unequivocally stated that it is still a far cry fro m a genuine global understanding which would imply an acceptance and mutual recognition of socio-cultural differences and a perception of the needs of the global community as more important than those of the local community.

In reality the world's citizens have hardly begun to address the problems of the global coexistence of races and cultures. There are noteworthy upsurges in ethnic politics, communalism and nationalism. Nationalist minorities in many countries have become very active and militant. For most of these nationalist actors local autonomy and state sovereignty take precedence over global integration. There is obviously also the rise of religious fundamentalism as a very divisive force. Interestingly enough, fundamentalism partly derives its strength from the resistance against movements towards global integration.

Global consciousness in the sense of an awareness that local events have global consequences, an understanding of the political roots of global problems, a sensitivity to the need of global solidarity, and an acceptance and mutual recognition of social an d cultural differences, is largely obstructed by the ways in which the prevailing educational systems and the mass media operate. Our educational systems pose formidable obstacles because of the highly specialised, fragmented, piece-meal approaches to knowledge. Our current university systems go a long way in discouraging any unconventional, multidisciplinary exploration. Multidisci plinarity which would be prerequisite to any attempt at global understanding and knowledge, remains a proposal in numerous academic memoranda. In reality, most universities do not train students to speak the language of sciences other than those they stud y. In addition, it needs to be observed that in many countries attempts at multi-ethnic and multi-cultural education have met with relatively little success.

The mass media are equally ill-equipped to enhance global consciousness. They commonly stress the priority of the local over the global, deal with problems in isolation and as incidents, leave whole parts of the globe outside their audience's reach and re port in superficial, often biased if not racist ways about foreign peoples and their cultures, often exclusively highlighting their exotic features. The International Institute of Communications conducted on November 19th, 1991 a worldwide survey on the global news agenda of that day. What emerged from the data is that the world has not come closer. In most of the news the local issues dominate. As o ne commentator observed, "It seems that there are many worlds on this one earth and that mostly they stay next door, minding their own business". (Chapman. 1992: 33).

The Intermediaries

Precisely, the fact that we have more world than we can personally know, makes us in unprecedented ways dependent upon a caste of professional intermediaries. They form the real priesthood of our times: telling us what is and what is not, filtering for us the truth from the lies, and providing us with an authoritative exegesis of current events.

As they stand between what we know about the other and vice versa, the quality of their mediation becomes essential to the quality of our lives. Let us briefly look at how accurate they operate. The following is obviously a limited account only and it sho uld be recognized that there are cases in which the mass media have performed much better. However, it is important to highlight the flaws since these are not accidental but a result of common features in human perception and specific structural condition s that affect the performance of the mass media. 2

In 1983 there was a clear prospect of a very serious famine in Africa. However, people were not yet dying like flies. Among the comments by TV station NBC on footage that showed a food distribution in Eritrea was "It is not yet a Biafra". As long as the f amine did not have sufficient news or entertainment value, it could be ignored and go under-reported.

Once, however, people began to die on camera, the famine became a media-event. Then it was over-reported and hordes of anonymous Africans, without dignity, became media objects. Then also the sensationalizing began and the international media stated that some 125 million Africans were threatened by starvation. The situation was bad enough, but never over some 10 million people were actually near to starvation. In the international news media Africa was un-reported, under-reported, or over-reported.

In October 1988 three grey whales got stuck under the ice in Alaska. 150 reporters, and 26 camera crews came to report the event to over 1 billion viewers in the world. Most reports said nothing about the socio-economic conditions of the Eskimos in the sa me location.

In 1989 the events at Tien An Men Square took place. The New York Times reported 2.600 students killed in a massacre. On 21 June 1989 The Times admitted that about 400 may have lost their lives and that the original figure was based on rumours. There were certainly students killed in Bejing, but on Tien An Men Square never a massacre took place. Killings took place at various places in the town and according to various estimates between 200 and 1000 people may have been killed on June 4, 1989. Most of them were civilians, some soldiers, and probably some 30 to 40 students. Most media used as most important source the highly partisan Student Broadcast Station and ignored basic journalistic rules about checks and balances. (Galtung & Vincent, 1992: 240-244).

In December 1989 Eastern-European agencies reported the sensational discovery of a 4.000 people mass grave in Timisoara, Rumania. The images were shocking and looked very real. In reality, as it turned out in Timisoara never more than 150 people were kill ed and the grave was an old poor people's graveyard hastily dug up.

The 1991 Gulf War reporting provided prime examples of distorted mediation. Many TV stations, for example, have broadcast the videotapes manufactured for propaganda purposes in the 10 million dollar campaign conducted for the Bush administration by the W ashington-based Public Relations firm Hill and Knowlton. Many important stories about the war were not reported. Videotape footage that did show that civilian damage was much heavier that the US administration cared to admit, was spiked by most TV network s. Most media selected not to report about the Allied Desert Storm casualties. Satellite photos taken on September 11, 1990 demonstrated no evidence of the massive Iraqi army threat to Saudi Arabia that President Bush referred to the same day when he tri ed to promote public support for the war. The news media were censored and allowed themselves to be censored.

These examples could easily be multiplied and complemented by analyses of highly wanting coverage provided by the international newsmedia of such events as the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the bombing of Tripoli, the trial of Panama's President Noriega, or the Indonesian killings on East Timor. It should also be noted that the inadequate coverage of world events is not only the shortcoming of international agencies, since very often this is compounded by the selections local gatekeepers make.

The Market-Place

The dubious quality of information provision by the professional intermediaries, is related to the structural conditions that shape the international market in which mass communication has become a large-scale commercial activity. Essential dimensions of these structural conditions are the processes of consolidation and commercialization.


In the past five years there has been a strong growth of various alliances between information providers from different countries. Close linkages have been built up between the most important firms in Western Europe, Japan and North America. Several of th ese links turned out to be preludes to mergers. In all the segments of the information market there are observable trends towards a high rate of concentration and all indications are that this will continue throughout the 1990s. The current wave of merger s in the communication industry is different from earlier processes of concentration. Today's oligopolisation is caused by very large and profitable companies that merge into mega-companies, whereas before (for example in the 1960s) concentration usually meant that big companies acquired small, loss-making firms.

In the early 1990s consolidation has definitely become the main feature of many economic sectors (such as banking, insurance, airlines) and also in the communication sector have mega-mergers become a common phenomenon. The emerging mega-industries combine programme production (ranging from digital libraries to TV entertainment), the manufacturing and operating of distribution systems (ranging from satellites to digital switches), and building the equipment for reception and processing of information (rang ing from HDTV-sets to telephones). Companies are actively trying to get control over at least two of these three components. Illustrative is the Japanese company Sony that was already active in the equipment /appliance component when it acquired through Columbia Pictures and CBS-Records access to the programming component.


Since the early 1980s a process has begun that increasingly erodes the public sphere in many societies through the penetration of corporate interests into terrains formerly protected by public interest, such as government information, public libraries, or the arts.

Commercial sponsoring of more and more socio-cultural activities has become very popular and leads to the emergence of 'billboard' societies in which every location, institution, activity, event and person becomes a potential carrier of commercial messages. Even the United Nations have recently indicated to be interested in having some of its work supported by corporate funding. The erosion of the public sphere by implication undermines diversity of information provision.

Diversity becomes the choice markets can offer; but markets tend to offer multitude and more of the same, not fundamentally distinct goods; everything that does not pass the market threshold because there is not a sufficiently large percentage of consumer s, disappears. Diversity is also under threat because the larger commercial interests of mega information providers may override the interests of independent reporting. In this context Bagdikian raises the question whether GE-owned NBC would "produce a documentary on criminality and carelessness in defence contracts, with General Electric as an obvious recent example? If it were disclosed that the company paid no income taxes during the three years of multibillion profits, and General Electric owned NBC a t the time, would the network produce a documentary on inequities in the national tax system? One has to speculate, but the answer is probably a no". (Bagdikian. 1992: 210).

The Right to Remain Ignorant

The dominant mode of information provision in today's world order inflicts harm and injustice upon its ultimate clients by misinforming them, by distorting their realities, by refusing to listen to them, by keeping keep them ignorant, and by denying liabi lity.

A serious problem, however, is that a large majority of the world's citizens show remarkably little concern for their informational environment. During the Gulf War people were kept ignorant, but many also preferred to remain ignorant. The war demonstrat ed that official censorship, journalistic self-censorship, and the refusal to be informed are essential components in the late 20th century information environment. As Ronald Dworkin has observed "Truth may be the first casualty of war, but some people's desire to be told the truth is a close second"(Dworkin. 1991: 2). This could be confirmed by the finding that nearly eight out of ten Americans supported the Pentagon restrictions on the press and six said that the military should exert more control. Eight out of ten said the press did an excellent job and over 60% thought the press coverage was accurate. 3

The problem is complex: deficiencies on the supply-side and deficiencies on the demand-side mutually strengthen each other. The professional mechanisms of information mediation stand in the way of a comprehensive, and unbiased provision of information. Equally, the disinterest of the world's citizens to be fully informed, obstructs the information flows. In their preference for third-rate video and TV products and popular magazines and newspapers, millions of people state they have the right to be ignoran t. As a result our expanding and complex world has a double problem: the means of information provision are highly inadequate and the users are largely uncritical.

Common Information Future

In reflecting on our common future we are increasingly concerned about the quality of our primary environment. This is the physical environment in which human life takes place. Throughout human history there is a continuous search for optimal ways of cop ing with this primary environment. This search leads to efforts to control nature, to mindless environmental destruction, and to careful ecological balancing. In the effort to cope with the primary environment we create the secondary environment. This env ironment encompasses such human efforts as the provision of information and the production of culture.

Fortunately, people around the world have become increasingly concerned about the sustainability of our primary environment and they are engaging worldwide in civil action for its defence. Yet, the ability to cope with the problems of the primary environm ent is directly related to the quality of the secondary environment. The more limited, one-sided, deceptive this is the less chances people have to take sensible action. Also in the sense of our informational and cultural ecology there is a serious quest ion about a sustainable development towards the future. The report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission), Our Common Future, states that sustainability requires a wider sharing of responsibilities for the impac t of public decisions and increased participation in decisions that affect the environment. Only thus can we hope to develop in ways that will avoid the destruction of our common heritage for future generations. Sustainable development means we have somet hing left for future generations.

If we condone the rapidly proceeding consolidation and commer- cialization of all our information provision and cultural production, there will be preciously little left for the future. Therefore, it is necessary that people mobilize themselves (for examp le through citizens associations, or consumer movements) to expose the deceptions and distractions of the mediators and to organize people's participation in policy making on the information environment. So far the arena of world communication has been la rgely ignored by people's movements.

World Communication and Disempowerment

Today's institutions and processes of world communication have a disempowering effect. This operates through censorship, deceit, victimization and information glut. The withholding and distorting of information obstructs people's independent formation of opinion and undermines people's capacity to control decisions that affect their daily lives. The very common forms of stereotypical treatment of women or ethnic minorities puts these social groups in submissive social roles. The resulting dependence, inti midation, and vulnerability victimizes and disempowers them. Disempowerment can also be caused by overpowering people with an "information glut". Just like censorship of information can be used to control people, this can also be achieved by inundating people with "a glut of unrefined, undigested information flowing in from every medium around us" (Roszak. 1986: 162). Flooding people, for example, with endless volumes of statistical inf ormation is an effective way of making people powerless.

Human Rights and Disempowerment

The present study proposes to judge disempowerment in the light of international human rights standards. The use of such external criteria is essential since often in situations of inequality both the more powerful and the more dependent actors will conve niently justify their positions by reference to some internal standard relative to their specific historical or social or cultural condition.

The normative framework defined by the respect and defence of basic human rights (as embodied in the standards of international human rights law), identifies disempowerment as a violation of fundamental human entitlements to dignity, equality, and liberty . Through the recognition of these entitlements those targeted for disempowerment can understand the illegality of wrongs committed against them. Human rights provide them with the possibility of redress and remedy. Human rights are at the starting point of all resistance against disempowerment because they give all people their unique dignity as "beings for themselves".

Empowerment and Self-Empowerment

Human rights imply both entitlements and responsibilities. This means that empowerment cannot be passively enjoyed, but has to be actively achieved and guarded. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote in 1947 to the Director General of UNESCO, "I learnt from my illiterat e but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship". Under international law the individual has duties towards the community. Internati onal human rights instruments articulate a duty to contribute to the protection and improvement of the human environment. They also demand a responsibility for the well-being of all people which includes both material welfare but also intellectual, spirit ual and moral progress. There is also a duty to exercise political rights and a duty to promote culture.

If people want fundamental rights to be recognized and enforced, they cannot escape from the responsibility to actively contribute to the defence of these rights. People cannot expect others (the state or the media) always to defend their rights and liber ties. The less alert people react to the violation of human rights, the more their own dignity comes under threat. If people do not actively engage in the battle for their empowerment, they should not be surprised to find themselves one day totally disemp owered.


  1. See, for example, Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fore. (1986), War and Peace in the Global Village. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  2. Biased representations of reality by journalists are not merely due to the specific shortcomings of this professional group. All human perception tends towards distortion. Human beings are inclined to a rapid closure of perception. This means that we o ften interpret complex situations with a convenient scheme by which people are divided into manageable dichotomies (for example good ones versus bad ones) and social groups are labelled in stereotypical ways. These stereotypes are then applied to all indi vidual members of such social groups.
  3. Reported in the International Herald Tribune , February 1, 1991.


Bagdikian, B.H. (1992). The Media Monopoly . Boston: Beacon Press.

Chapman, G. (1992). TV: The World Next Door? In Intermedia. Vol. 20. No. 1.

Dworkin, R. (1991). Index on Censorship . Nos 4 & 5.

Galtung, J. & Vincent, R.C. (1992). Global Glasnost . Cresskill: Hampton Press.

Roszak, T. (1986). The Cult of Information . New York: Pantheon Books.

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