Human Rights in the Information Society: Responsible Behaviour by Key Actors
Council of Europe, September 12th-13th 2005
Comments by Dr Jim McDonnell, President of the European Region of SIGNIS (World Catholic Association for Communication)
A socially just and inclusive information society cannot be built unless all major actors have a fundamental respect for the interests and needs of citizens and a commitment to protecting and enhancing their human rights and freedoms.
These comments are not meant to be inclusive, they are offered simply as a few points that might contribute to a broader discussion.
One responsibility on the information industry is to recognize that technologies are not simply ‘neutral’ tools to be employed but represent, from their inception, assumptions and values about what individuals and societies need and want, and therefore contain assumptions about what kind of information society is being built.
A related responsibility is to take seriously this social and cultural dimension of technology and to participate in constructive dialogue with other actors, especially when concerns are raised about the use to which technologies are being put and their effects on the exercise of human rights.
A major responsibility of governments is to ensure that information technologies are accessible to all citizens. They have a particular responsibility to assist those who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable.
Governments also have a responsibility to maintain viable public spaces within the information society so that knowledge is widely shared. There is abroad public interest in ensuring that as much information as possible is freely available in the public domain. In this respect the importance of public service and non-profit community media should be underlined.
In addition to creating and upholding regulatory regimes that support human rights and freedoms, governments should actively collaborate with other actors to promote and support initiatives that will enable citizens to make better informed decisions and choices. A commitment to comprehensive media literacy is essential.
The media have a very important responsibility as providers of news and information, particularly in providing the ‘contexts’ in which events and actions are presented and evaluated. In so far as media fail to provide the proper context for news events or deliberately or otherwise distort ( for example, by the use of emotive and misleading language) that context (even if the event, for example, is reported straight) they fail to serve their public.
In times of heightened tension and fears and of mistrust of minorities or different groups, the lack of responsible interpretative context can be not only offensive but actually dangerous.
Another vital responsibility is that of scrutinising the actions of the powerful, including the media themselves. Effective scrutiny, however, will not be possible if the media do not allocate sufficient resources to enable journalists to undertake serious investigation.
Civil society organizations have the responsibility to be advocates for the public interest and the common good, but they must be wary of identifying particular sectoral interests with that common good. They have responsibility to inform the citizens and help them through providing resources and tools to voice their views and opinions and so increase participation in the shaping of the information society.
Civil society organizations should have a special interest in advocating policies and programmes that benefit the most marginal in society.
In the area of media and digital literacy, in particular, civil society organizations could do more to pool resources and collaborate effectively.
September 9th 2005