World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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Patricia Made

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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Communication, Civil Society's Standing Debt

By Mario Lubetkin

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Jan 29 (IPS) - Civil society has a pending debt: an in-depth debate about communication, agree specialists in the sector participating in the World Social Forum, underway in this southern Brazilian city.

Regina Festa, a Brazilian professor at the school of communications at Sao Paulo University, expressed her surprise at the ''absence of discussion on the power of communication'' during the six-day Forum.

Festa, speaking at the conference that ends Tuesday, said it is ''very serious'' that civil society does not perceive the need to regulate the communications media, and stressed the difficulty in developing alternative proposals to the current media superpowers.

Many of the world's media moguls can be found at the World Economic Forum, an event running concurrently in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos, where corporate executives, financiers and government leaders are discussing globalisation strategies.

The World Social Forum, meanwhile, which has brought thousands of delegates from 123 countries to Brazil, is a gathering of primarily left-leaning academics and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and is serving as a counterbalance to the meeting in Davos.

US communications analyst Norman Salomon agreed with the Brazilian professor that there are a limited number of initiatives to fight the internationalisation of values driven by big media.

''When they ask me about concrete routes toward building powerful tools of alternative communication, I say we need divine intervention,'' the expert said.

For Salomon, the key lies in achieving ''the freedom to be heard'' and that to do so means breaking down the current logic behind the communications media.

Aruna Roy, of India, recipient of the ''Magasausay'' award for actions benefiting information for rural groups, stated that when civil society's activities are covered by the media, ''they are no longer marginal.''

Festa pointed out that, ''according to current standards,'' that which is not found in the media ''does not exist.''

The communication specialists agreed at the Porto Alegre conference on the diagnosis of the relation between the mass media and civil society, criticising the lack of space, the information vacuum, created around social matters by today's major media.

They increasingly cover issues related to trade, entertainment and consumption, said Festa, while they bury news about important matters and people from poorer regions.

Brazilian sociologist Emir Sader stated that ''there is no democracy without truly open spaces for communication, (which means) we can say that there is currently no true democracy anywhere in the world.''

Sader asserted that today the world is experiencing the hegemony of the US-based media, ''which condition and serve as a model for the world.''

The president of the IPS Executive Board, Roberto Savio, of Italy, stressed that 39 percent of the world's communications media are concentrated in the United States, and 44 percent of all television signals originate in that country.

Savio characterised communication as ''indispensable'' for overseeing the globalisation process.

In that sense, Roy indicated that the right to know is directly related to the right to live, pointing to the campaigns in India for access to public documents, because ''without information there is no control over our governments.''

Salomon, in another intervention in the discussion, insisted that the commercial side of communications creates dependence in editorial decision-making, and cautioned that the leading advertising agencies are already globalising.

That vision was seconded by Brazilian cartoonist Ziraldo, author of numerous children's books, who criticised the subjugation of the communications media to ''the economic dictatorship of advertising.''

Ziraldo also denounced the impact of the media on the public, ''which is less and less accustomed to reading and reflecting.''

Meanwhile, Timothy Ney, representing the US-based Free Software Foundation, affirmed that it is necessary ''to tear down the digital walls'' in order to improve conditions for mass access to the Internet.

Various studies indicate that some 150 million people in the United States have Internet access, as do 100 million Europeans, and nearly 100 million people in the Asia-Pacific region. But just 13 million Latin Americans, three million Africans and less than two million residents of the Middle East enjoy such access.

Salomon asserts that the problem of building democracy cannot be resolved by the Internet, though Festa believes that the worldwide network permits a deepening of pluralistic attitudes.

Savio reminded the participants that even though the question of the Internet triggers a great deal of controversy, it was the use of this powerful tool ''that made the rapid organisation of this World Social Forum possible, with broad and diverse participation.'' (END/IPS/tra-so/ml/dm/ld/01)

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