Freedom of Communication a Must for Global Governance
Günter Verheugen

Germany's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs

"When developmental co-operation is the core of an interstate relationship, it should be conditioned in order to promote independence of the media," says Günter Verheugen, Deputy Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federal German Parliament. These and the following remarks have assumed greater significance in the wake of Verheugen becoming the Minister of State at the Foreign Office end of
October 1998 after the countrywide election in Germany a month earlier.

Any discussion on information and communication for global governance needs to take into consideration that we are actually dealing with transnational and even global challenges, with the problem of how to make a network of competence and capabilities and last but not least with the processing of politically relevant information. All these are directed towards three ends: Good Governance, peace and sustainable development.

Looking back on the decade behind us, we can take note of a significant global progress as far as democracy, participation and the freedom of expression are concerned. Not only that the time of one-party dictatorships in Middle and Eastern Europe is over - and that the former utopia of an all-Europe partnership for prosperity and security is on the way to become reality. In Latin America, Africa and East Asia political circumstances have changed for the better in a majority of states. The autocrats are on the defensive. But when we look at the preconditions for democratisation it is the region of Southern Africa, where the most remarkable progress has been made. It is most remarkable because civil society and its political structures are comparably least developed in that region of the world.

The end of the East-West conflict has forced numerous dictators to face their own bankruptcy. But this alone is not sufficient to promote a sustainable system change. On the contrary, it is essential that rulers voluntarily relinquish their monopoly on government and communication in order to permit a peaceful transition. Of course, the admission of free media means a blank check to an autocrat's loss of power. Unrestricted reporting and commenting mix the incompetence of an autocratic regime a political issue. From then on the preservation of power will only be achieved by force or by manipulation especially when a dictator can still count on the support of influential elite groups in his country.

To understand the interdependence of democratisation and freedom of the media it is important to take these many in-between -forms into account where some elements of democracy have been introduced but those in power still cling to an employment of unfair methods or even repression.

There are examples on such practices on our own continent. I refer to Croatia, Serbia and to a lesser extend to Slovakia. Belarus has fallen back into a full-blown dictatorship propelled by a pseudo-legitimate misuse of the popular vote on the side of President Lukaschenka.

In all these cases, rulers that were elected by popular vote try to block another peaceful way of government. They may have an overwhelming police force on their side - but the decisive criterion is their sole disposal over the means of communication. Chiefly by the abuse of state-owned television they achieve virtual omnipresence in the whole country including the rural areas where television is the only source of political information. Under that circumstances the opposition has difficulties to deliver their messages beyond urban intellectual communities.

When the government finally crumbles under its economic failure, the successors must bear a nearly exceptional degree of democratic conviction - not to say: they must be saints - in order not to exploit the administrative and media structures for similar methods of power preservation. They would be required to change these structures for their own disadvantage which means to increase the probability of their own demise from power.

I would like to address another phenomena which sins apart from the conflict between state power and social society which makes me think first of all on Russia. The brave new media world in this and several other countries that underwent transformation is essentially a result of tense relation between the freedom of information and the freedom of business. In realm of the media, the rule of the state was replaced by the rule of big money, so that today the media is owned by powerful private interest groups.

These groups and the new tycoons at the top are closely connected with the political establishment. They direct coverage in line with common interests defined primarily as a preservation and documentation of their power positions. Journalists who challenge these interests are frequently threatened with murder and some dozens of them fall victim to this new law of jungle each year.

If genuinely independent media would occupy a dominant position in Russia, then the transformation of political structures and institutions in this brutalised society would have had better progress so far.

Here again, there is a proof for the standard rule that the situation of the media is a reflection of the political conditions in a country as a whole. I would like to continue by addressing briefly the situation in Bosnia, where currently the most important and most fragile process of democratisation in Europe is underway. In Bosnia, an exceptional promotion of independent media is carried out by the international community with significant participation of the European Union and the OSCE .

No doubt, there are very specific conditions in Bosnia. The sovereignty of that war-torn country is restricted and the supreme power was placed into the hands of the High Representative, currently Mr. Carlos Westendorp of Spain. The international community aims to reconstruct political and social institutions so far that Bosnia can make a new start as an independent nation without plunging immediately into an inter-ethnic civil war again.

To rebuild democracy, and especially one that transcends ethnic fault lines, the abolition of state monopolies on the media is a prerequisite. The prospects for success are good as least as far as the press and the radio are concerned. Please note that independence of the media requires not only legal and institutional provisions but as well the economic empowerment of the citizens in order to give media diversity its financial base.

Not at least because of this, the situation is more difficult in the realm of television. TV in the Balkans is essentially a state-owned affair so that the aforementioned legal provisions must be tight and be supervised tightly to prevent nationalistic indoctrination. What can more easily be implemented in Sarajevo and Banja Luca is much harder to achieve in Zagreb and Belgrade which have high stakes in Bosnia because here the international influence is confined to the limits of inter-states relations.

Let me underline that especially in the Republic Srpska, until recently labelled the black hole of Europe, progress is encouraging. The government led by social democrats has come into office. Concerning Bosnia as a whole, we soon may face the stunning situation that this alleged example of failed nation building will thwart Croatia and Serbia with its degree of democratisation. For the foreseeable future, the international community is requested to limits and nationalistic influence of Zagreb and Belgrade directed at the Croatian and Serbian communities in Bosnia respectively.

Another important ingredient of democratisation is to lift the taboo on criticising heads of states. The penal codes of numerous states provide severe punishments for the so-called insult of the president which is similar to the lèse-magesté of pre-democratic times and is put in a line with treason.

This runs contrary to the relations between the citizen and the public, seen from a democrat's viewpoint. Tolerance of criticism must increase with one's position in public life. The most public person, the president himself, must be subjected to the most intense criticism finding a limit only at his personal sphere unrelated to politics.

I would like to refer now to the relation between media development and international politics. For Germany and the European Union as a whole this should constitute a critical part of their foreign policies. There is no masterplan to cover the whole world but some sound distinctions can be made. When developmental co-operation is a core of an insistent relationship it should be conditioned in order to promote independence of the media. A fraction of the aid allocated to such a country should be reserved for this purpose in any case.

As regards the countries of Europe and East Asia where development is not a priority, it is convenient to make use of these countries' intention to join and to profit from international institutions including financial institutions. The democratic states hold a key to success if they can offer tangible gains for the compliance with democratic rules and procedures. That strategy often proves as the better alternative to sanctions, first because sanctions generally bring hardship for the ordinary people and second, rulers without democratic legitimisation are mostly irresponsive to a moral degradation of the nations in the international scene.

Inside Europe democratic standards are endowed with special legitimacy by multilateral institutions and their normative base. Consistently, these institutions - I refer primarily to the Council of Europe and the OSCE - are empowered to make public statements about the situation of the media and the human rights conditions in the member states. The principle of non-interference does not apply in these areas because all member states have accepted the common standards as binding and have accepted a mutual responsibility for their preservation.

So, violators must accept pressure emanating from other states and eventually a formal condemnation. This may not immediately lead to improvements but it is a sting that permanently hurts, or - to put it more politically - it works as permanent delegitimisation of an intransigent leadership. The chances to steer a repressive regime in a sea of democracy are thus being diminished.

I have been talking broadly about European issues. Now let us go back to our point of departure. Free Communication and Global Governance - speaking as citizens of western industrialised countries - I would like to underline first that we are given here the opportunity of a win-win situation.

The reason is that we essentially rely on the preparedness of the developing countries to co-operate with us for the solution of global problems, worst of all ecological problems.

We have a real vital interest in the preservation of natural resources which are permanently damaged under the present regimes of global economy and global finance. From a social democratic perspective we must have a strong interest in the establishment of civil society in the countries of the South, a civil society that is able to articulate itself and to put the global economic and financial regimes into question.

The decisive issue for the realisation of our common long-term interest is interconnection. We are permitted here - without according undue praise to my own political origin - to point to the so-called North-South Dialogue that was co-ordinated by the European Social Democrats, Willy Brandt and Olof Palme in the 1970s and '80s. Because that dialogue had first created a public awareness for the growing task of global governance.

The great United Nations world conferences earlier in this decade were expected to bring about tangible results after 20 years of laborious preparations and lobbying. But apart from the Vienna Conference on Human Rights they resulted in disappointment. The legacy of Rio de Janeiro was not implemented, so that the damages of natural resources are going on.

The developmental model centred around industrialisation is still dominant and that promising concept of the debt-for-nature-swap still awaits sustainable application....I am ending this introduction with a concluding remark from the perspective of a European Social Democrat.

Our concept of global governance does not primarily demand new institutions but the reconstruction of the global economic and financial regimes in such a way that the preservation of democratic rules and the implementation of ecological standards are promoted and not hindered.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Dezember 1998

Previous Page TOC Next Page