MEDIA - No Place for Politics, Economic Influence in Press - UNDP

MEDIA - No Place for Politics, Economic Influence in Press - UNDP

Gustavo Capdevila


GENEVA, Jul 24 (IPS) - The communications media can assure their independence from government and business if they heed strict ethical and professional principles, thus contributing to the deepening of democracy around the world, said the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Wednesday.


A free and independent press can "restore public trust" in democratic institutions, maintains the Human Development Report 2002, which the UNDP officially launched in Manila.


The communications media must be free not only of state control, but also of the concentration of private power, said Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, author of the study, in her presentation in Geneva.


"The answer to excessive corporate influence over the news cannot be a return to excessive control by the state," she said.


According to the UNDP Human Development Report 2002, the priority of the media must be to serve the public, and they can only do so by following strict professional and ethical principles.


This year's report is dedicated to examining the effects of politics on achieving human development, an analysis that incorporates social aspects, like freedom and dignity, to the study of economic variables and indicators of basic necessities.


Since the early 1980s, development policies have been overly concentrated on the economy and markets, says the UNDP document.


In the context of the globalization process, the world seems to be increasingly divided between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, and those who support the current economic order and those who demand a different path, says the report.


Global integration has not been accompanied by greater global pluralism, commented Fukuda-Parr, who proposed the deepening of democratic practices by multilateral institutions as a possible remedy.


Today, those institutions represent the concentration of power in the hands of the rich countries, she said.


The reform of the media is essential for making democratic institutions work, says the UN agency, and recommends "building diverse and pluralistic media that are free and independent, achieve mass access and diffusion, and present accurate and unbiased information."


Economic liberalization, privatization and new technologies have saved the communications media from the dominion of governments and put them in private hands, says the report.


Most of the media are privately held, although the public sector still owns 60 percent of the television stations worldwide.


The UNDP underscores the phenomenon of high concentration of the media in the private sector, frequently among family-based consortiums.


In Great Britain, four groups control 85 percent of the newspapers, equivalent to two-thirds of total circulation.


Six companies in the United States control most of the communications media: AOL Time Warner, General Electric, Viacom, Disney, Bertelsmann and News Corporation.


The empire of business tycoon Rupert Murdoch in Australia covers 60 percent of the daily publications.


A few families with great political influence own the world's communications media, a notorious case being the family of Silvio Berlusconi, a television magnate who is now Italy's prime minister.


Televisa in Mexico and O Globo in Brazil are two of the largest media monopolies in the hands of individuals and families. In Venezuela, two family conglomerates, Grupo Phelps and Grupo Cisneros, dominate the market.


Nevertheless, "the past two decades have seen major advances in the expansion of independent media," according to UNDP experts.


"Economic and political reforms have loosened restrictions on the media --including censorship and ownership controls -- and strengthened constitutional and legal guarantees of freedom of speech and information."


The new media climate is reflected in the changes and expansion of that sector.


Between 1970 and 1996, the number of daily newspapers in developing countries more than doubled, from 29 to 60 copies per 1,000 inhabitants.


But in that same period, industrialized countries suffered a decline from 292 to 226 copies per 1,000 people, and the world average fell from 107 to 96 copies per 1,000.


The UNDP report points out that most people have many more sources of information -- both in quantity and diversity -- than they did just 10 years ago.


"Widely available information is crucial to democratic governance because it helps challenge government authorities and provokes more balanced debate on problems and policies," according to the UN agency.


Freedom and diversity serve to reinforce the media's role as mobilizing agent and watchdog, says the report Fukuda-Parr presented Wednesday in Geneva.


But many countries continue to be "a long way from having a genuinely free and independent media that can serve democratic purposes."


State monopolies over the communications media persist in the Arab countries, with the exception of Lebanon, where privately owned radio stations are permitted. In some countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the defamation laws are applied in order to silence critics.


In Chile "contempt of authority" is a crime against state security, and the laws that the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) "used to great effect" are still in force.


Journalism continues to be a dangerous profession. In 2001, 37 journalists were killed as they performed their jobs, and another 118 were imprisoned.


The UNDP report also points to the growing trend towards "info-tainment", the merging of information and entertainment.


Media companies also have a civic role as providers of news and information, but the tensions created by the diversity of content "will never be eliminated", acknowledges the UNDP.

Copyright 2001 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.