MENTAL MUNITION– “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” – Article 19, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
When people talk about human rights, freedom inevitably dominates the conversation. Freedom from being restrained and beaten is a human right. Freedom from toiling under another without just compensation is a human right. So, too, is freedom from being held arbitrarily and indefinitely.
Human empathy makes those rights concrete. Sympathy allows us to understand why it’s important to be safe from beatings and slavery. Yet, there’s another kind of human right which is not understood as well, but is just as important.
In Burma, journalists face death for exposing the cruelty of the military junta, and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under a decades-long house arrest. In Sri Lanka, a news editor is assassinated and reporters receive death threats for uncovering war crimes. A young blogger in Egypt, known for revealing police corruption, is dragged out of an internet café and beaten to death. Iran holds 47 journalists in prisons, while it airs coerced confessions daily on state television. At last count, 136 journalists remain in jail across the globe. These actions block the flow of information and ideas and constitute a desecration of human rights.
Problems aren’t limited to the East. In the West, organizations can’t purchase equal time on the ostensibly public Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to air messages that challenge consumerism. Front-groups for major corporations manufacture propaganda to tilt elections. Media barons threaten to dismantle the beleaguered media system in the United States, cutting staff from already bare-bones newsrooms, pursuing maximum profit at the expense of public awareness. Public media is woefully underfunded and must routinely “pass the hat” to keep the lights on. And amidst a communications revolution, a handful of telecommunications giants plot to limit people’s access to information based on the contents of their wallets.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most widely translated document in the world and is the basis for international law on human rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, who spearheaded the creation of the Declaration and later chaired the UN Human Rights Commission, in a speech following the vote that adopted the Declaration, said: “This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere. We hope its proclamation by the General Assembly will be an event comparable to the proclamation of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man by the French people in 1789, the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the people of the United States, and the adoption of comparable declarations at different times in other countries.”
There are 30 articles that make up the Declaration. The first two articles form the basis for the rest, that human rights are equal to all people because of a shared humanity, and that these rights are endowed from birth. The Declaration has articles for the former kind of rights, relating to immediate, physical safety. It also has articles about the latter: the rights necessary for a fully-evolved, long-term, humanitarian civilization. Article 19 is of the second stripe; it recognizes the freedom to impart and obtain information as a necessary component of civilized life.
In his 2007 book “Communication
Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media,” media
critical theorist Dr. Robert McChesney declared the world was entering a
critical juncture, or “a period in which the old institutions and mores
are collapsing,” a time in which the decisions we make “establish
institutions and rules that likely put us on a course that will be
difficult to change in any fundamental sense for decades or
This current communications revolution, brought about by a combination of technology that undermines existing systems, a crisis in journalism, economic upheaval and political strife, has tremendous stakes. “If fifteen or twenty years from now, the result of the communication revolution is merely technological wizardry or a testament to enhanced market opportunities for the world’s most privileged people, it will have been a failure,” McChesney wrote. “If in a generation social inequality has not begun to be dramatically reversed, democratic institutions are not considerably more vibrant, militarism and chauvinism have not been dealt a mighty blow, the environment has not been significantly repaired, then we will have had an unfulfilled communication revolution.”
Given that the right to communicate is inseparable from other human rights, and that the success of our critical moment hinges on the ability to communicate, a communication revolution requires a human rights revolution. That’s where CommunicationIsYourRight.org comes in.
CommunicationIsYourRight.org is a new initiative to call attention to Article 19, and educate the public about the importance of the right to communicate. It is an active, online petition to lobby the UN to bring the right to communicate to a debate. It is an initiative to pursue issues concerning the right to communicate, and to bring legislators, activists and citizens together to enact policies that strengthen the right to communicate. It also is a forum where people can exercise their right to communicate, by submitting all kinds of media, giving them an opportunity to express their perspective.
The freedom to communicate means the freedom to be part of a global conversation. It means giving the disenfranchised, the censored and the ignored equal footing in this ongoing communication revolution. It means giving all sides of an issue an even chance in the ecosystem of ideas. It means that even if all other human rights are stripped, the oppressed have the opportunity to declare “I am here, I am human.” Most importantly, it means giving people a role in the things that matter to them.
Written by Matthew Schroyer