What was the driving argument for the NWICO? Who were the major stakeholders to the NWICO debate?
The demand for global connectivity through various forms of communication was a direct product of imperialism. As empires expanded outward from the seat of power, control through channels of communication was essential for retaining dominance and structure. Empires shifted as modes of communication developed, but there remained a strong correlation between the dominant states and the producers of new communications technology. Throughout the end of the 19th century and into the dawn of the 20th, the British Empire and its European counterparts, but also the New World power, the United States, had predominant control over emerging communications, from the telegraph, to the telephone, to the advent of radio and film. These powers expanded these communication systems rapidly as they developed across their spheres of influence. This created a dynamic where modes of communication were present across the globe, but a small minority was creating and sharing content for the majority. After WWII and with the rise of the Cold War, this minority was divided between the East and West, with both the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies projecting their values and ideology onto the Third World.
This is where the need for a NWICO, or New World Information and Communication Order, came into play. At the height of the Cold War, the Third World did not see itself as part of the East or West in the context of communications, but rather as the South relative to the dominant North. The American and Soviet spheres, as the North, controlled the influx of media into the Third World South. These countries, many newly emancipated, sought economic independence and thus the United Nations established a New International Economic Order (NIEO) in 1974 to aid their cause (Thussu, pgs. 26-27). The NWICO was adopted in 1978 by the United Nations as a related initiative to further the South’s progress (Thussu, pg. 32). It helped ensure that the countries of the South would no longer be dependent on the North for both how media is transmitted in their countries (control of information technologies) and what kind of media is dominant (from a Northern perspective). This lack of agency bore negative economic and social effects upon the people of the South.
The MacBride Commission’s 1980 report furthered the advancement of the goals set into motion by the NWICO. The Commission, which involved parties from both the North and South, examined “four main aspects of global communication: the current state of world communication; the problems surrounding a free and balanced flow of information and how the needs of the developing countries link with the flow; how, in light of the NIEO, an NWICO could be created; and how the media could become the vehicle for educating public opinion about world problems.” (Thussu, pg. 33). The collective research included in the MacBride Report highlighted the communications disadvantage the South faced and put their needs at the forefront of the NWICO debate. Conservatives in the North opposed the advancement of the NWICO, decrying it as supporting “a ‘Soviet-inspired’ Third World design to control the mass media through state regulation.” (Thussu, pg. 35). Despite this, there was still strong support for the order under President Jimmy Carter (Thussu, pg 36) who saw it as a means of dialogue between the North and South. The South rebutted conservative claims that the order was a way to encourage state control and censorship of media, but rather a way to ensure the free flow of communications across sectors.
While the NWICO’s momentum was halted by Reagan, it did set a precedent for how communications and media across borders should be dictated by all involved states. As global communication systems become increasingly privatized, the NWICO’s fundamentals are still a strong basis for how we approach and discuss communications and media today.
Thussu, D. (2006). The Historical Context of International Communication. In International Communication: Continuity and Change. Bloomsbury Academic.