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[Nettime-nl] Biodiversiteit en videokunst

Confronting cultural rights
Cees J. Hamelink

Languages are today being killed at a much faster rate than ever before in
human history and linguistic diversity disappears more rapidly than
biological diversity. Yet, linguistic diversity is as necessary for the
sustainability of our planet as is biological diversity. There is an
interesting correlation: the areas in the world with the highest
biodiversity also have more linguistic density and the loss of language also
implies the loss of environmental knowledge.

The killing of languages is today in particular reinforced by the global
spread of the free market system and the neo-liberal process of
globalisation-from-above. The United Nations has recognised the existence of
linguistic genocide already in 1948; prohibiting the use of the language of
the group in daily intercourse or in schools, or the printing of
publications in the language of the group. This is today practised
throughout the world.

The First International Public Hearing on Violations of the Charter
(supported by the WACC) took place in early May 1999 at the Hague in The
Netherlands. The theme of the Hearing ‘Languages and Human Rights’ focused
on Article 9 of the PCC, which claims the people's right to a diversity of
languages. The Hearing was organised in response to the prediction made by
language experts that 90% of the world's languages are in danger of dying
out within a century. Control over someone's language has become one of the
primary means of exerting power over other aspects of people's life. At the
end of the 20th century, the world's languages are disappearing faster than
ever before in human history.

During the Hearing, a panel of five independent judges heard witnesses who
made cases in support of Creole language, Kurdish language, Sign languages,
Bilingual education in California, and Berber language. Among their
recommendations and opinions the judges stated that, ‘There is an urgent
need for international bodies and national governments to be more energetic
in guaranteeing that clauses in international covenants and in the PCC
relating to language rights, to elaborate strategies for monitoring
violations and for preventive diplomacy.’

Recommendations of the Public Hearing were presented to intergovernmental
bodies such as UNESCO and to the national governments involved in the five
cases examined by the judges. All the details on the hearing can be found in
Media Development 4/1999.

I would today like to put the issue of language rights in the broader
context of cultural rights. An essential component in the international
human rights regime, often overlooked, little known and with even weaker
enforcement mechanisms than other human rights. What are these rights?
The right to cultural identity [recognition of need to promote and preserve
cultural diversity; recognition of different sense-making systems to enable
communication and creativity and shaping who we are and want to be]
The right to freely participate in the cultural life of one’s community
[recognition that a society’s democratic quality is not merely defined by
civil and political institutions but also by the possibility for people to
shape their cultural identity; the need to realise the potential of local
cultural life; the right to practise cultural traditions]
The right to enjoy the arts and the benefits of scientific progress and its
applications [recognition of the public nature of arts and science].
The right to protection of moral and material interests of works of culture
[recognition of the moral dimension of IPR].
ð The right to the protection of national and international cultural
property and heritage [particularly relevant in times of armed conflict; but
also the recognition of the intellectual property of indigenous people].
The right to creativity [recognition of the essential significance of
artistic, literary and academic independence].
The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
The right to freedom of expression.
The right to use one’s language in private and public [recognition of the
need to implement the equality principle].
The right of minorities and indigenous people to education and to establish
their own media.
These cultural rights are seriously threatened by the process of media
globalisation and although that process is complex and broad, it can be
reduced to three essential dimensions.
The global spread of multimedia conglomerates
First of all, media globalisation refers to the world-wide expansion of
media production and distribution companies that trade on the emerging
global media market. This expansion is evidently facilitated not only by
technological developments but largely through the pressures on countries to
open their domestic markets to foreign suppliers and the concomitant
neo-liberal claim that cultural products should not be exempt from trade
rules. Effective operating on the global market is possible only for
large-scale, integrated companies: conglomerates that combine several
sectors of the media industry. These conglomerates are presently involved in
a process of global consolidation which results in a strong degree of

Media globalisation is, therefore, primarily the global proliferation of a
small number of media conglomerates. The neo-liberal globalisation agenda
that is prevalent in world politics supports consolidation, concentration
and conglomeration. This commercial agenda has a strong interest in creating
business links (acquisitions, mergers, joint ventures) with partners in
order to consolidate controlling positions on the world market and wants to
create a sufficiently large regulatory vacuum in order to act freely.

In an economic environment where mega mergers are almost natural and are
loudly acclaimed by financiers and industrialists, the tendency towards
public control is likely to be minimal.

The spread of the Billboard Society
Secondly, the primary messages of the global conglomerates are of a
commercial nature; they are the key vehicles in creating a Billboard Society
in which people world-wide are better informed about consumer goods and
where to fun-shop than about the environmental consequences of the global
rate of consumption. As a result media globalisation is to a large degree
the world-wide proliferation of messages that propagate global consumerism.

World-wide advertising has become ubiquitous. In many countries there are
hardly any advertising-free zones left. In spite of all political
declarations on the Knowledge Society it seems more realistic to expect a
Global Billboard Society!

Whatever its local variation, advertising proclaims to the world a single
cultural standard for its audiences: consumption fulfils people's basic
aspirations, fun shopping is an essential cultural activity. It subjects the
world's cultural differences to the dominance of a consumption-oriented
life-style. People's fundamental cultural identity is to be a consumer.
Advertising teaches children around the world the values of materialism and
the practices of consumerism. The neo-liberal commercial agenda has strong
interest in the expansion of global advertising. This implies among others
more commercial space in media (mass media and internet), new target groups
(especially children), more sponsorships (films, orchestras, exhibitions)
and more places to advertise (the ubiquitous Billboards).

The global regime for the protection of content
Thirdly, the core business of the media conglomerates is content; and
several of the recent mergers are motivated by the desire to gain control
over rights to contents such as are, for example, invested in film libraries
or in collections of musical recordings. Recent developments in digital
technology which open up unprecedented possibilities for free and easy
access to and utilisation of knowledge, have also rendered the professional
production, reproduction and distribution of content vulnerable to grand
scale piracy and made the contents owners very concerned about their
property rights and interested in the creation of a global enforceable legal
regime for their protection.

Media globalisation represents the world-wide protection of proprietary
content through the imposition of a global system of intellectual property
rights (IPR) protection. With the increasing economic significance of
intellectual property, the global system of governance in this domain has
moved away from moral and public interest dimensions and emphasises in its
actual practice mainly the economic interests of the owners of intellectual
property. Today, such owners are by and large no longer individual authors
and composers who create cultural products, but transnational corporate
cultural producers. The individual authors, composers, and performers are
low on the list of trade figures and as a result there is a trend towards
IPR arrangements that favour institutional investment interests over
individual producers.

The recent tendency to include intellectual property rights in global trade
negotiations demonstrates the commercial thrust of the major actors.
Copyright problems have become trade issues and the protection of the author
has conceded place to the interests of traders and investors. This emphasis
on corporate ownership interests implies a threat to the common good
utilisation of intellectual property and seriously upsets the balance
between the private ownership claims of the producer and the claims to
public benefits of the users. The balance between the interests of producers
and users has always been under threat in the development of the IPR
governance system, but it would seem that the currently emerging
arrangements provide benefits neither to the individual creators, nor to the
public at large.

Consequences for cultural rights:
1. The conglomerates pose a serious risk to the diversity of cultural
production and to the independent creativity of cultural workers: the
conflicting interests between independent knowledge production and
conglomerate political or economic interests. Commercial imperatives do not
likely cater to the linguistic needs of ethnic minorities or indigenous
groups. As media become industrial conglomerates they move ever further away
from service to the common good to the service to commercial imperatives
.The essential mission is to produce material that attracts large audiences
which can be sold to advertisers. This sets limits to the independent
creativity of producers.

2. World-wide advertising has become ubiquitous. In many countries there are
hardly any advertising-free zones left. In spite of all political
declarations on the Knowledge Society it seems more realistic to expect a
Global Billboard Society!
Whatever its local variation, advertising proclaims to the world a single
cultural standard for its audiences: consumption fulfils people's basic
aspirations, fun shopping is an essential cultural activity. It subjects the
world's cultural differences to the dominance of a consumption-oriented
life-style. People's fundamental cultural identity is to be a consumer.
Global advertising imposes a standard lifestyle model on the world: the
global fun-shopper.

3. It seems sensible that holders of copyrights want to protect their
interests against theft. Even the most active defenders of neo-liberalism
(the protagonists for withdrawal of the state) will encourage states to act
decisively against the piracy of their properties. Protecting intellectual
property is however not without risks. The protection of intellectual
property also restricts the access to knowledge since it defines knowledge
as private property and tends to facilitate monopolistic practices. The
granting of monopoly control over inventions may restrict their social
utilisation and reduce the potential public benefits. The principle of
exclusive control over the exploitation of works someone has created, can
constitute an effective right to monopoly control which restricts the free
flow of ideas and knowledge.

What can WACC do?
Since 1990 the UN Committee for the International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights has been doing preparatory work on an optional
protocol that would provide an right to complain. The main argument against
is that these rights are not justiciable. They should be progressively
realised and not legally tested or enforced. These are mainly Western
arguments brought forward by governments who do not want the cultural to be
effectively strengthened. WACC could and should be part of the group of NGOs
that put pressure on the United Nations and that supports the UN Commission
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to adopt the protocol. This would
only be the beginning. WACC could actively be involved in the mobilisation
of complaints and the monitoring of the treatment of these complaints.

Another field of action was presented in a report (published by UNESCO) and
entitled Our Creative Diversity.1 It was written by a commission headed by
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. Unfortunately, the international community has
chosen almost totally to ignore this marvellous report. Among its many
recommendations the report suggests that the international community
establishes an independent ombuds office for the enforcement of cultural
rights.2 WACC could and should support the creation of this institution.

There are serious obstacles on the road towards both the Optional Protocol
and the Ombuds Office. Some may even believe that in the current climate of
economic globalisation it is impossible to overcome the roadblocks. Against
all the odds, however, WACC should seek inspiration in the words of the
White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s wonderful novel Through the Looking Glass.
When Alice says to the White Queen, ‘One can’t believe impossible things’,
the White Queen says, ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour
a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before

1. Our Creative Diversity. Report of the World Commission on Culture and
Development. Paris: Unesco Publishing, 1995.
2. ‘The International Law Commission would also consider the possibility of
setting up an International Office of the Ombudsperson for Cultural Rights
and its relationship tp existing mechanisms for the enforcement of human
rights’, in Our Creative Diversity, p. 282.
3. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Penguin, first published in

Cees J. Hamelink is Professor of Media, Religion and Culture at the Vrije
Universiteit in Amsterdam and Professor of International Communication at
the University of Amsterdam. He was President of the International
Association for Media and Communication Research from 1990-1994. He is
presently editor in chief of the international scientific journal Gazette
and board member of the International Communication Association. Among his
many publications are Cultural Autonomy in Global Communications (1983), The
Technology Gamble (1988), The Politics of World Communication (1994) and The
Ethics of Cyberspace (2000).

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