The Right to Communicate {DRAFT}

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Cees Hamelink
University of Amsterdam

The forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is convened to focus on a contested notion: the Information Society. There is no accepted definition of what the information society is. The meaning of the notion has been seriously challenged and it has even been suggested in the academic literature that the notion bears no relation to current social realities. For some observers it only makes sense to speak in the plural sense about "Information Societies". For others the reference to "society" raises the good old sociological questions of power, profit, and participation: who controls the information society, who benefits from it, who takes part in it? The Information Society means different things to different people: more telephones, or more money, or more regulation, or more empowerment. For all participants in the debate there is the feeling that important social and technical developments confront us with difficult questions and that our societies are struggling to find adequate answers.

The key problem evidently is to establish a relevant framework within which all these issues can be debated and acted upon. This is all the more urgent since the socio-economic and political conditions under which these issues should be addressed are not at all encouraging! As a matter of fact they are less amenable to the solution of the "digital divide" through the development oftelecom- infrastructures or the access to knowledge than the conditions that prevailed during the time of the earlier UN efforts. By way of illustration one can cite the case of global and equitable access to knowledge. This laudable proposition is in the early 21st century seriously hampered by the emergence of a strict regime for the protection of intellectual property rights in recent WTO negotiations.


The essential human rights of a Universal Declaration on the Right to Communication would be:


  • The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
  • The right to hold opinions.
  • The right to express opinions without interference by public or private parties.
  • The right of people to be properly informed about matters of public interest.
  • The right of access to information on matters of public interest (held by public or private sources).
  • The right to access public means of distributing information, ideas and opinions.


  • The right to promote and preserve cultural diversity.
  • The right to freely participate in the cultural life of one’s community.
  • The right to practise cultural traditions.
  • The right to enjoy the arts and the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.
  • The right to the protection of national and international cultural property and heritage.
  • The right to artistic, literary and academic creativity and independence.
  • The right to use one’s language in private and public.
  • The right of minorities and indigenous people to education and to establish their own media.


  • The right of people to be protected against interference with their privacy by the media of mass communication, or by public and private agencies involved with data collections.
  • The protection of people's private communications against interference by public or private parties.
  • The right to respect for the standard of due process in forms of public communication.
  • The right of protection against forms of communication that are discriminatory in terms of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin
  • The right to be protected against misleading and distorted information.
  • The right of protection against the systematic and intentional propagation of the belief that individuals and/or social groups deserve to be eliminated.
  • The right of the protection of the professional independence of employees of public or private communication agencies against the interference by owners and managers of these institutions.


  • The right of access to public communication for communities.
  • The right to the development of communication infrastructures, to the procurement of adequate resources, the sharing of knowledge and skills, the equality of economic opportunities, and the correction of inequalities.
  • The right of recognition that knowledge resources are often a common good owned by a collective.
  • The right of protection of such resources against their private appropriation by knowledge industries.


  • The right to acquire the skills necessary to participate fully in public communication.
  • The right to people’s participation in public decision making on the provision of information, the production of culture or the production and application of knowledge.
  • The right to people’s participation in public decision making on the choice, development and application of communication technology.


There are four things that Civil Society can do:

-First: to lobby effectively for its inclusion in the preparatory process to the UN World Summit. Merely to be consulted is not good enough!

-Secondly: to work towards the adoption of the right to communicate. It is important that is done with the greatest degree of unanimity.

-Thirdly: to ensure that Civil Society positions are representative for civil constituencies and that here is an intensive process of exchange with these constituencies.

-Fourthly: to use the WSIS as a unique opportunity to raise people’s awareness about the urgency of information and communication issues. If future "communication societies" are to become inclusive, open and democratic societies, citizens around the globe should realize that the quality of public communication determines the quality of their common future!

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