Media Autonomy in the Third World

No Win

Spending a day in the Philippine national archives, a Malaysian kampong on the Bruneian ulu, an afternoon with Third World students or an evening in a Trinidadian calypso tent, can make the culturally-sensitive visitor aware of the impact of Western-type mass communications upon Third World peoples. A number of examples show the wide-ranging effects:

* In the early nineteenth century, when a Philippine volcanic eruption buried an area to the height of a church steeple, Manila newspapers nonchalantly continued to report on the intrigues of Europe, virtually ignoring the agony, loss and despair of Filipinos.

* On infants' graves in Zambia parents lay what they deemed their childrens' favorite possessions - dirt-encrusted baby bottles and empty tins of baby formula whose improper use probably starved the children.

* In the ulu of Brunei, where the federal government disturbed centuries-old traditions by bringing in by helicopter color television sets and generators, children have forsaken time-honored games to imitate the hero who adorns their tee-shirts - Kojak.

* In the Caribbean, Philippines and other Third World nations, indigenous creativity has been thwarted by a bombardment of outside messages. Malaysian media students are afraid to write scripts or direct shows that they feel cannot compete with the foreign programs people are accustomed to watching. Philippine movie marquees have blazoned local adaptations of foreign movies with titles such as "Goodfather," "Goldfingernails" or "Dr. Yes," and Barbadian TV featured a quiz show using only questions about the United States. In numerous countries, contestants line up to audition to become a local Elvis or Lennon.

* In some countries, where the price of beef can be astronomical, advertising-created crazes for MacDonald's hamburgers have changed gastronomical habits.

* In Indonesia, while the per capita income was US$120, the government launched one of four domestic satellite systems in the world (contracts of one-half to one billion dollars went to foreign multinationals). The system was designed to spread development messages to rural areas; they in fact provided an efficient communications system for foreign investors exploiting Indonesia's vast natural wealth and aided the Indonesian military and government to maintain national security through a centralization of power.

* In most of the Third-World, many communications enterprises for years were overtly owned by such corporations as King, Thomson, CBS, Rediffusion, J.W. Thompson or McCann-Erickson.

* In many of those regions today, overt outside ownership has been banned, only to be replaced by local "dummy" corporations (especially in advertising and public relations) directly tied to multinationals or indirectly connected with media of semi-periphery countries (especially Singapore) that, in turn, control media in industrialized nations. (For example, Singapore's Straits Times owns part of Dow Jones' Asian Wall Street journal, which, in turn, owns part of Straits Times.)

Foreign media and their messages are omnipresent in the Third World. They have come in through numerous trap doors - with the technology that was adopted, programming packages, training techniques, ownership schemes, or a combination of all of these. They came uninvited in colonial times, but often enthusiastically welcomed in post-independence eras by foreign-educated elites and greedy entrepreneurs, who greeted media as a panacea for their nations' development problems. Although the exporters of these influences to the Third World have received some international attention, the local counterparts responsible for allowing entry - political, military and business leaders - have gone almost unnoticed. Their roles in conspiring with multinational media interests must be scrutinized more closely.

What types of impacts are the foreign media and their messages accused of having upon the Third World? Foreign media, connected to multinationals, have been accused of promoting a homogenization of cultures through programming and advertising, diverting energies to consumption and away from helping people. They have been criticized for ignoring the genuine desires of indigenous people, substituting instead aspirations that might be inappropriate, unobtainable and downright dangerous. Big businesses based in the United States, Japan, England, etc., have rightfully been blamed for promoting the interests of big business, while attempting to dupe the masses into believing they are public servants.

In the 1970s, it appeared that some headway was being made concerning the plight of Third World mass media and their audiences. Two-way flows of information between the Third World and the industrialized nations were called for and partly accommodated by regional news agencies and programming exchanges; the use of traditional media was systematically examined; national communications policies were developed.

Then, something happened very rapidly as the decade ended; the Third World call for a New World and International Information Order, which incorporated remedies for many of the above-mentioned problems, seemed to lose its favored position. At the front now was the industrialized world's "Information Age," an agenda emphasizing high technology. High technology, being almost exclusively in the hands of the industrialized nations, intensifies the dependency that Third World nations have been trying to crawl away from; for, as Indonesia's Palapa satellite demonstrated, the indigenous infrastructure to initiate or maintain telematics independently will not be available for decades.

What is to be done? There are no easy answers, because the answers seem to be controlled by foreign and domestic businesses and governments, each in its own way supporting centralization and monopolization of power and resources. Even well-meaning spokespersons from the Third World have been hoodwinked into believing that to solve their problems, big projects discussed at huge UNESCO or World Administrative Radio Conference meetings were needed. In the complexity and enormity of the dialogue, many of the important issues have been subverted or submerged. Maybe some aspects of the cultural autonomy problem are beyond solution in some places at this time; but that does not mean that a country or region cannot start doing something.

Years ago, this author called for the adaptation of E.F. Schumacher's economic concepts (encouragingly laid out in his book. Small Is Beautiful) to the field of mass communications. Perhaps it is time to renew the call for Third World communications systems to be small, simple, inexpensive and nonviolent. When the topic was fashionable briefly in the 1970s, traditional and small media, used either at the grassroots level or in combination with formal mass media, yielded some interesting success stories. Blackboard newspaper systems in Philippine barrios gave simply-stated, relevant information to people on a daily basis for less than a dime a year; barefoot journalists volunteered their newsgathering services; audio cassettes were used to disseminate development messages; formal media messages were simpler, more relevant and in languages of indigenous peoples; campaigns to stop dangerous media messages, such as those promoting bottle feeding or cigarette smoking, were initiated; indigenous peoples participated in designing the messages used in media. Experiments to blend folk media with formal mass media met with some success; government efforts preserved folk media and employed interpersonal communication channels, such as markets, teahouses and transportation networks to pass messages that were useful to rural peoples.

If worldwide emphasis cannot be switched from high technology to something smaller, simpler and less expensive, perhaps more reliance will have to be placed on national, or better yet, community levels to solve the real communication problems of the Third World.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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