Introduction: "Global" communications are a Western soliloquy…

The U.N. declared 1983 the Year of Communications. For the world's tribal groups and ethnic minorities, the effects of the new communications age are mixed. While roads, short-wave radios and telephones have improved vital services, such as medical treatment, available to many groups, military communications equipment now allows armies in countries such as Guatemala, Afghanistan and Ethiopia to systematically displace tribal and ethnic groups in unparalleled numbers.

Today "communications" denotes familiar industries - T.V., radio, film, books, newspapers - for passive fans. The concept of "communications" no longer refers to a dialogue. Listeners and viewers have little opportunity to respond to "programming" other than switching it off.

Global "communications" are for the most part a Western soliloquy. The U.S., U.S.S.R. and Japan import fewer than 5% of their T.V. programs, while 50% of programming in most developing countries is foreign. What level of understanding of Third World populations in general and tribal and ethnic groups in particular can thus be expected of the world's major economic and political powers?


Studies have shown that many viewers exposed to Western technology and programming for the first time begin to adopt new roles and values. The effects of satellite broadcasts to three Canadian Inuit communities illustrates this point.

For two and a half years both U.S. police/private investigator programs and programs on the history and environment of Northwest Canada were shown to three Inuit communities. By the end of that period, three American programs were the most popular. Adults ranked the only Inuit language program seventh in popularity; students didn't even rank it. While 80% of the students wanted more non-local programs, 93% of adults wanted more programs with local themes.

After the broadcasts more students wanted to migrate south to cities and towns and for the first time, as a result of viewing National Hockey League games on ABC T.V., there was fighting at local hockey games.

A study of this experiment later concluded that Television may undermine the realization of [educational goals at school] by contributing extraneous models inappropriate to both indigenous culture and environment. Indeed...the medium appears to cut across meaningful adolescent empathy with traditional adult roles.

In 1963 Lucien Pye suggested that "it was the pressure of communications which brought about the downfall of traditional societies." Apologists quickly claimed that if traditional cultures satisfied the needs of their members there would be no consequences from exposure to other cultures or that methods of communication in traditional societies are "inefficient." Others pointed out that many elements now valued as native culture were once imported - some quite controversial only a generation or two before. The debate continues. Some observers believe that as multinational corporations dominate the international communications media indigenous cultures will atrophy. Others feel that new technology can reinforce existing social patterns in a country - such as Japan - rather than change them.

There is a general consensus on one conclusion, however. The authority of older residents decreases as villages become less isolated. Villagers increasingly turn for advice to the young who are more often literate and have more contact with the outside world.

Modernization and change are inevitable, in many cases desirable. There is, however, value for the world to retain cultural diversity. The search for international unity does not require the homogenization of peoples or the obliteration of national and cultural differences that today's international media appear to promote.

By emphasizing violence, sex, or customs so alien to the viewer that they appear impolite or sacrilegious, the media violate many existing cultural taboos. People should have the right to choose what they read or hear. But does the individual, an indigenous nation or a nation-state have the power of censor?


A key question in this controversy is what is called the "free-How of information" by the U.S. or "a question of national sovereignty" by most other countries. The U.S.'s official position is that individuals, not countries, should be able to choose information to which they wish to be exposed. Most government's, however, feel that any country should be able to refuse imported programming. They are quick to point out that the U.S. censors its own T.V., radio, and print industries.

In many cases the "national sovereignty" position is exploited by central governments to operate oppressive censoring practices. Few nation-states are made up of one ethnic group. In both new and old states ethnic groups which are dominant either numerically or militarily attempt to erase long-standing ethnic conflicts by the creation of a "national" culture which they design in their own image. What is often described as a protection of "national" culture is only the protection or reinforcement of the ideology and mythology of the current government.

Tribal groups and ethnic minorities, who often consider themselves nations, rarely have political power within their respective nation-states. The autonomy of ethnic groups is a delicate issue as dominant groups attempt to consolidate their political power without providing the services usually associated with central governments. Subordinate groups, sometimes numerically majorities in their countries, are repressed by the central government to the degree that they attempt to assert their distinctiveness or autonomy.

It is essential to understand the impact of the telecommunications revolution in this context. National cultures undermine tribal groups and ethnic minorities through:

* language - on six of seven continents, empire-building ethnic groups have made theirs the only official language;

* land - on six of seven continents, indigenous peoples' lands have been taken over by dominant ethnic groups. This displacement and colonization process continues to this day; and

* political control - on six of seven continents dominant groups use the military to control other ethnic or tribal groups.

Smoothly functioning communications systems permit dominant ethnic groups to carry out all of these maneuvers more efficiently.


Much space has been devoted to the potential contribution of telecommunications to development, e.g. that the rapid dissemination of knowledge can improve food production, health, sanitation, nutrition and other basic human needs. However, multilateral agencies do not- seem to agree with this assessment - their funding, in constant dollars, for telecommunications projects fell drastically in the 1970s.

Telecommunications is less a means to development than a result of it. For subsistence producers, radios, televisions and telephones divert income from essential goods. And, while new microchip technology often allows peasants to be better informed about prices, they still sell to the same middlemen. Telecommunications devices are consumer goods - regardless of the claim communications industries make about their importance.

The telecommunications industry is reported to generate income through the numerous micro-electronics assembly plants scattered throughout the world. While some leaders, such as those in Sri Lanka, may be quite proud of their "export villages," the returns are not yet in. Third World countries invest heavily in assembly plant infrastructure to attract micro-electronics companies who, it seems, in the end take most of the profits out of the country. These assembly industries cause considerable stress among workers and have, at times, led to mass hysteria. The sight of many workers in these industries is permanently impaired.


This is the age of information. But who controls the information technology and programming and what effect does that have on the rest of the world? Let's examine the question of ownership first.

Publishing Houses - ITT, RCA, CBS and a few other corporations own most of the major American and European publishing houses. RCA, for example, owns Ballentine, Grove Press and Random House, including its subsidiaries Alfred A. Knopf, Pantheon Books and Vintage. CBS owns Holt, Rinehart and Winston and special distribution houses in Brazil and Ecuador.

Textbooks - The ten largest textbook publishers are McGraw Hill, Xerox, CBS, Harcourt, RCA, Prentice-Hall, Scott-Foresman, ITT, Westinghouse and General Learning Corporation; all are American firms. CBS owns one of the largest Spanish language textbook publishing companies in the world. The General Learning Corporation is owned by G.E. along with six radio stations and three T.V. stations.

Films - Universal Pictures is owned by the Music Company of America (MCA); United Artists by Transamerica Corp.; Paramount by Gulf & Western; and Embassy Pictures Corporation is owned by AVCO, an aerospace firm.

Computers - IBM has 62% of the total world sales of main-frame computers. Ten companies produce 85% of all the world's computers.

Telecommunications - ITT has the largest share of the world telecommunications market. INTELSAT handles 60% of the international satellite telecommunications of 102 countries.

Electronics - RCA, GE and various Japanese firms dominate the field.

Records & Tapes - CBS dominates the world market.

In sum, 75% of the world's information and communications software and hardware is controlled by 81 multinational corporations.


What are the implications of this tight control of communications technology and programming on the rest of the world"? Let's examine a few areas of the communications industry to find out.

Advertising. Advertisements are designed to sell products. The companies which produce the products do not care if scarce resources are being diverted from more important needs to buy them. In order to increase purchases, the companies attempt to associate their products with a lifestyle that is appealing - often because of its novelty - to the consumer.

Most advertisements are purchased by multinational corporations. More than 80% of popular radio ads in Mexico were purchased by international firms. Only one of the top ten advertisers in Brazil is a national company. In 1980, of 22 Latin American daily newspapers, 31% of all ad space was bought by multinationals. The influence of multinationals is even greater in setting trends for most ads placed by national firms.

In Peru, companies attempt to sell their products by advertising in Quechua. There is more advertising in Quechua than there is programming.

Computers. A 1957 computer manufactured at a cost of $150,000 can be purchased in 1983 for less than $1,000. This price reduction makes computers readily available for many activities.

In a recent UNHCR publication, computers were said to be useful to the organization in informing them of refugee exodus, assessing their impact on surrounding countries, evaluating supply needs, informing them of illness and malnutrition and common treatments in the host country, and finally, organizing refugee history files to aid in resettlement programs.

Yet, relatively inexpensive computer technology is still not widely used in developing countries and hardly used at all by or for tribal peoples.

How then do computers affect tribal people? Computers aid in the design of sophisticated weapons; the control of vast, previously isolated regions; and the assessment of the floral, faunal, hydroelectric and mineral resources of their regions. Of the two million computer analyses undertaken last year about three-fourths were performed in the U.S.; most by and for private enterprise.

Corporation and governments are already linked globally through computerized networks. If people at the grass-roots level are to have a voice, they, too, must have access to these tools.

Film. The international film industry has perhaps done more to promote racist views of indigenous peoples throughout the world than any other communications medium. Whether creating or merely reinforcing similar views in the Third World, such attitudes are used to justify racist activities of Third World officials.

Many Third World nations became aware of this phenomenon in the early 1970s. As one Chilean UN delegate testified:

An effort is being made to impose upon us a standard of life, of style, of ideology, that is contrary to our very way of being: the glorification of the cowboy, the slaughter of the Indian and the buffalo, sex, violence, representing the Chinese as dark and evil beings (etc.)…

Racism is not the only value reinforced by films. Frederick Frey's 1966 survey of the effect of cinema and radio on Turkish peasants showed that media exposure caused greater national allegiance and identification without altering a person's general sense of powerlessness in the country.

News. What we think is determined by what we see, hear and read. Thus, the people who create news, whether for the NY Times of the Daily Mirror, have tremendous power in shaping opinions, values and, ultimately, actions of others.

A survey of 14 Latin American newspapers showed that more than 90% of cable news came via AP, UPI or Agence France-Presse. For Latin American newspaper readers in general, 8 of 10 news items have no direct relationship to problems of the region - 6 are from DPI, AP, Reuters or Agence France-Presse.

The flow of information from industrialized countries to developing countries that account for two-thirds of the world's population is estimated to be 100 to 1 - that is, for every 100 news stories from industrialized countries one story comes from some other area of the world. Thus, news and analysis of Third World countries that ends up in other Third World countries is created in the West.

While some regional news agencies have been established in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, it is expensive and difficult to break the hold of multinational corporations. In 1982 the AP had 559 correspondents and more than 2,000 stringers who produced 17 million words daily for 5,720 subscribers. The 18-member Federation of Arab Agencies, by contrast, has only 130 correspondents who produce 200,000 words daily.

The censorship practices of national governments do not improve this situation. Governments often censor a wide range of information in their attempts to strengthen the state. Groups with distinct ethnic, cultural or religious identities are not allowed even to speak their own language. In Peru, where the majority of the people are allowed to speak their native languages, there are still no television or radio programs in Quechua, the language of most indigenous people.

Publishing. In the decade of the seventies, twice as many books were published in the world as in the previous decade. Publishing in the Third World where most paper is imported, however, lags behind the West. The rate of newspaper consumption (1 for every 3 inhabitants) in the West is 10 times higher than in the Third World.

Print content throughout the world is dominated by the West. Readers Digest, the most popular periodical in Latin America, prints 80-90% of the content for its U.S. audience. King Feature, a Hearst Corporation syndicate, sells comic strips in 30 languages to more than 5,000 newspapers in 100 countries. Comic strips are a popular, effective means of diffusing ideology.

Many studies have concluded that media programs arouse an audience to better understand others and to empathize with them. But, of nearly 35,000 books translated in 1967, 44% were originally in English and 38% were in French, German, or Russian. Thus, people with less economic and political power are perhaps coming to empathize with those who attempt to shape international economic and political systems, thus facilitating their domination.

Indigenous peoples and support groups from Latin America, Asia, Oceania, Africa, North America, Australia and Europe, have begun to publish analyses of their situations and to expose violations of their rights. Through hundreds of newsletters, books, magazines, radio programs and news services they provide alternative views on global developments and fill important gaps in the information gathered by international news services and nation-states.

While these efforts are important, the costs of producing, printing and distributing information remains expensive. Most of the technological advances in the communications industry are still not available to indigenous groups or support organizations.

Radio. By the 1960s most countries had radio broadcasting services that covered the majority of the country. Some consider radio a truly popular medium, but who decides the content of the programs? Surely not the listeners.

R.D. Colle writes that "All India Radio...broadcasts programs in 87 tribal dialects aimed at breaking the barriers between isolated peoples and the mainstream of Indian life and integrating them with the rest of the country." Katz also notes this activity, saying that broadcasting contributes to the integration of regional, tribal or ethnic groups, promoting "standardization and secularization of culture."

Participants at the recent UN Development Forum Conference on "The Barefoot Microchip" insisted that only 1-5% of broadcasting time is "rural" in nature. So although a thousand indigenous programs in a wealth of languages might be made, produced and transmitted in Africa, for instance, they represent only a small percentage of the air time or the total number of tribal groups on the continent. In Uganda, for example, the Banyaruanda - the nation's fifth largest ethnic group - with more than 1 million members - have no radio programs or newspapers in their own language. On the other hand, indigenous peoples in Australia, the U.S., Canada, Oceania, Ecuador, and Nicaragua have used radio both as a way of reinforcing their cultures as well as publicizing their situations nationally. National governments are not always happy with these "internal voices" and often invent excuses to silence them.

While some traditional art forms have successfully adapted to mass media, many art forms, including religious art, cannot survive the changes.

Satellites. Access to satellite telecommunications systems is not difficult, nor is it cheap. About 150 countries are involved in space communications; the share of satellite communications traffic for developing nations has grown from 0 percent in 1965 to 34% in 1981. Indonesia, for example, has its own satellite system which links 3,000 islands and is used by other ASEAN members as well.

Satellite systems used for data collection are often referred to as "Eye in the sky" or "Spy in the sky." Such systems can detect and map weather patterns, mineral and timber resources, underground water supplies and the world's harvest.

Less than 25 years ago an international scandal developed when an American U-2 spyplane was shot down over the Soviet Union. Today such espionage is taken for granted. LANDSAT 4, the latest satellite data gatherer, can detect bugs on a pecan tree or ears on a stalk of corn.

Infra-red and ultra-violet satellite-based scanners can discern geological strata and reveal mineral wealth. Mining companies, in their negotiations with Third World countries, have negotiated favorable concessions without fully disclosing the extent of the resources of the country involved. Thus, Third World nations, unable to censor satellite probes, have already fallen behind in the race to control their own resources.

Likewise, satellite-gathered data of global harvests give some governments and corporations an edge on global commodity markets which they manipulate to their financial or political ends.

Not all uses of satellite-gathered data are destructive. Peru has used satellite data to study tropical forests, Brazil to assess the feasibility of colonization projects, Bolivia to map previously uncharted areas and Kenya to manage rangeland more efficiently.

In the past, indigenous peoples often retreated to more isolated regions in the face of colonists. Today, with the increased ability to penetrate even the most remote regions, it is no longer possible for these groups to avoid contact; they must find accommodation with the outside world.

Telecommunications. About 2.5 billion people around the world, about 55% of the earth's population, live in areas which lack every form of telecommunication. Residents of North America, Europe, Japan and Australia (20% of the world's population) possess 90% of all telephones. In the U.S., Europe, and Japan, telecommunication services cost 1.5% or more of the GNP/year. In the Netherlands the cost of $128 a year for individual phone services is higher than the average income in the least developed countries.


The telecommunications systems that exist are often costly and highly monopolized. For example, a telegraph from Ruanda to neighboring Uganda goes through Brussels, a call from Kenya to neighboring Tanzania or from Bolivia to neighboring Paraguay must go through London and New York City respectively.

Of the one billion international telephone calls each year, 70% are transmitted by satellite. INTELSAT, the largest telecommunications satellite corporation, transmits 60% of all telecommunications flow (telephone, telegraph, telex, data transmission, etc.) to 102 member states.

Experts suggest that for about $2.5 billion ($1/person) telephones could be placed in all isolated areas. However, multilateral funding of telecommunications projects declined drastically during the 1970s. Perhaps part of the reason is that telephones are a two-way form of communication. They would give a voice to an entirely new constituency and allow them to make greater demands on central governments.

Television. Television has been described as the most influential medium of mass communication, and American exports (and values) dominate Third World programming. U.S. corporations sell 180,000 hours of programming annually to more than 100 countries while British, French and West German companies supply 46,000 hours. In some countries Western T.V. imports account for 90% of all programming.

Imported T.V. Programs (as % of total)

1.2% US


2.5% Japan

50% Latin America

50% Middle East

50% Asia

30% Western Europe

24% Eastern Europe

The cost of Western programs varies tremendously. In 1975, European countries paid up to $3,000/hour for programs, while Iran paid $350 and Nigeria $60. These prices, however, are markedly less than local production costs for the same quality programs. The relatively low prices promote an even greater dependence on Western imports.

Third World officials feel that Western programs, even without advertisements, encourage unrealistic levels of consumption.


While the power of the international communications industries is immense, studies on their impact are sorely lacking. Research has demonstrated the industrialized countries' abilities to substitute Western mythologies for the belief systems of indigenous peoples. Yet, because of the availability of new technology, these same peoples may soon have the opportunity to use the media to reinforce their own values. If the electronics age is going to accommodate cultural diversity then indigenous peoples must recognize the integrity of their belief systems and ways of exchanging information, rather than joining the mass audiences already stagestruck by Western stereotypes. Only through a belief in their own traditions will indigenous peoples be able to project their ideas and values to a global audience and acceptance and respect from other peoples.

The Barefoot Microchip is the provocative title of a conference on "communications for development at the village level," held 23-24 February 1983 in Paris.

The conference, organized by the U.N. Development Forum, was convened to bring together thinkers and speakers on the subject of global communications and their impact or absence in Third World communities.

Panelists addressed a wide range of topics, including:

* the impact of information technology on the development of rural areas

* the use of satellite by villages

* video-use in rural communities

* the telephone as a key to development Proceeds from the conference are available through: Development Forum, Palais des Nations, CH-1211, Geneva 10, Switzerland.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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