Armand Mattelard: “New fronts in the communication fight

2005-08-09 00:00:00

Belgian Armand Mattelart, a professor at the University of Paris VIII, is one of the most biting critics of the global monopolies of the communications and cultural industries.

-How do you see the evolution of public policies on communications around the world? Is governments held hostage by the mass media?

The notion itself of "public policies" in the area of communications and culture, as the non-aligned countries demanded of UNESCO a New World Information and Communication Order, during the 1970s, underwent a long journey through the desert in the last decades of the past century. The strategies of structural adjustment and deregulation simply prevented it. We had to wait for the late 1990s and the first years of the new century for the need for public policies to be heard in the debates about the world communication order. And governments remain very reticent.

- How are social movements positioning themselves in this context?

The social movement has an important role in getting the matter on the agenda. I have talked about the positioning of the social movement in the global leadership of the information society. I could list the projects for reforming radio and television industries that are emerging in the European Union, and in several Latin American countries, from Argentina to Mexico, passing through Brazil. These projects lay out the need to rethink the functioning of the private sector and public service as well as legitimising the existence of a third sector, composed of community media, free and independent.

- Are you talking about popular communication?

The agents of popular communication expanded their perspectives and no longer are content with merely strengthening their networks and their professionalism, but have become one of the most advanced points in pressing for replacing the overall media system and rehabilitating the idea of "public", aligned with the declaration of Latin American communications organisations which gathered in Quito in July 2004 for the Americas Social Forum: defend and promote the notion of public, because it enables a deliberative culture that challenges and takes on different positions to make them engage in dialogue and build agreements. I could also mention the efforts developed for enacting policies that preserve cultural diversity and the pluralism of the communications media.

- Has there been concrete progress in this effort?

I don't want to sound triumphalist but I think new problems and fronts for struggle are being opened in the broader arena of culture. There has been creation of city networks, both at the national and international levels. The initiatives launched by CRIS network (Communications Rights in the Information Society) and the Coalition for Cultural Diversity attest to this.

- How can the peoples of the world use communications to overcome the dominance of big media?

We must think about the brutal asymmetry between the audiences and the media corporations, and extend counter-powers in order to promote an "ecology of information". This is the philosophy of action that motivated the launch during the 2002 WSF of the "ethical-moral" project, an international media observatory, Media Watch Global. This observatory aims to multiply itself through national observatories, made up of information professionals from all types of media; of university professors and researchers from all disciplines, particularly media and information experts; of media users and critical observers and the associations that represent them. To observe means also to study the structural causes of the silences in media coverage, the reasons behind censorship, distortions, to be attentive to all debates and initiatives that concern media structures. Observe is not stigmatising, but rather also putting forth proposals.

- What is your perspective on global financial capital's offensive on the communications and entertainment industry?

It is a phenomenon that responds to a global logic. Deregulation of the global telecommunications system played a key role in this process because it drew together the industry of content and the industry of machines. This process was opened by the shockwave originating in the United States, in 1984, with the dismantling of the quasi-monopoly of the domestic system, but truly gained force in 1998, with the World Trade Organisation agreement that made "liberalisation" of telecommunications widespread. Concentration extends to all sectors of the cultural industries, from the press to books and bookshops, to radio and television and the recording industry. This is reinforced in the countries that already have high rates of concentration and is emerging in the countries that had seemed to be the exception.

- How does concentration of media ownership affect freedom of information?

The problem is size, and in 2004 the European Parliament issued a warning of the risk that freedom of expression and information face with the dominance of a handful of media groups. It convened the responsible parties of the European Union to create a directorate that would safeguard media pluralism threatened by the growing concentration and homogenisation in the way information and content were presented. The agents of the oligopoly incorporated into their strategies the political dimension of the international debates on communication and their representative entities are present wherever the "new world information order" is discussed. And they exert pressure on governments and international institutions in order to overturn the legal frameworks that limit concentration or obstruct positions of dominance. They don't tolerate criticisms that don't come from their own side.

- Can information and communication technologies (ICTs) be a route towards democratising communication?

There is no recipe. What is important, I think, is not to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of the latest ICTs. We must take advantage of them without giving into the amnesia that makes us forget the long and rich tradition of accumulated reflection on experiences and grassroots use of earlier technologies, like radio.