New York, June 7 2000
A mind-boggling revolution in communication is taking place across the world. Much has changed even in the five years since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action. These changes have huge potential, both negative and positive, for furthering or impeding a more just and equitable gender order. Depending on how they are deployed, they can become a key factor for women's empowerment, or they could drive an irreconcilable wedge between the digitally powerful and the digitally deprived multitude of women and other marginal groups.
Communication is fundamental for achieving the objectives in the Platform for Action. How can women better the development of their communities or play an informed role in public life, without access to pluralistic information, the means of public expression and sharing knowledge? How can women work towards a new geo-political order governed by norms of peace and mutual respect without channels of communication for dialogue and exchange of information?
Yet the booming communications industry --the fastest growing sector of the economy-- is becoming increasingly concentrated in national and transnational monopolies, which are driven overridingly by profit. Information becomes a commodity and the function of media as a public service is swept aside. Under the sway of the mass media, women are portrayed to the public view in a highly selective and disempowering manner, and a majority of the world's women are simply invisible. Their viewpoints and concerns are grossly underrepresented.
Meanwhile, international communications regulation and policy are concentrated in bodies such as the World Trade Organization and International Telecommunications Union, which are dominated by business interests. Women's access to the means of communication is not represented in their decisions and is given little weight.
As codified in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontier." This implies that it is essential for women and marginalized groups to gain access to all means of communication and public expression, including the mass media; noncommercial access to broadcasting spectrum and communications technology; and a say in the direction of technology development.
To guarantee women the fundamental human right to communicate, civil society must be empowered to hold national and international media accountable. Full, gender-balanced participation of civil society in regulatory bodies must be ensured. Codes of ethics must be articulated that respect the vital norms of pluralism, human rights and gender balance. Both gender mainstreaming and special programs are required to create an enabling environment that fosters women's equality in the media professions.
Any serious review of Section J (Women and Media) of the Beijing Platform for Action has to address the emerging scenario at the global, regional, national, and local level. It must recognize the strategic weakness of Section J, which failed to articulate the structural constraints and impediments that women and other marginal groups face due to commercialization and globalization of media and the concomitant decline of public broadcasting media in societies with democratic and pluralistic traditions.
Not only has the Beijing Plus 5 review failed to meet this challenge, but the Outcomes document scarcely refers to media and communications at all. We call upon the United Nations to create the conditions for a broad and inclusive debate on communication issues and their implications for democracy and social justice. We also call for a World Conference on Communication with 50% female participation -- in which women and other marginalized citizens must have an equal voice with governments and the private sector, as a fundamental contribution to gender equality, development and peace.