WACC at 50: Communication advances intensify the need for rights

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Participants in the Symposium on “Communication Rights Today” celebrating WACC’s 50th anniversary 
 Photo: Lorenzo Vargas

The World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) marked its 50th anniversary with a symposium on 14 May exploring new challenges in the field of communication for social change.

In her keynote presentation, Dr Ellen Ueberschär, President of the Heinrich-Böll Foundation, explored the communication context in which WACC was founded, and the continuing – and intensive – challenges for WACC now and in the future.

“Preventing manipulation via mass media and anchoring ethical standards in the media was one of the most important founding impulses for the precursors of WACC after World War II,” she stated. “Today, it is apparent that these standards must be transferred to a completely new sphere.”

Highlighting the profound transformation of communication socially and technologically, she traced changes from media monopolies and restrictions to new initiatives in relation to digital values. These have led to a new paradox today.

“Each and every one of us is not just a consumer, but also a producer of news,” she noted, “One would think that this would have led to democratization. Paradoxically, however, the opposite has happened. The dismantling of media monopolies has promoted the emergence of parallel societies in the digital media world.”

Identifying the “echo chambers” people can set up for themselves to shut out information beyond their comfort zones, she continued, “In other words, social media change, and even intensify, the mandate to stand up for communication rights.”

The symposium took place in Hamburg, Germany, following a three-day meeting of WACC’s Board of Directors.

Some 40 participants engaged in a lively programme which explored the legacy of the 1980s MacBride Report and its continuing relevance today, communication rights in relation to Agenda 2030, the importance of media monitoring to advocacy work, and the concept of a communications rights charter.

In his remarks on the MacBride Report, José Luis Aguirre Alvis, WACC’s Vice-President, highlighted the concepts of “access, dialogue and participation” as central to communication.

“Infrastructure alone does not provide communication. We have to promote accessibility. Dialogue is the practice of listening, listening, listening before talking. And participation is not just asking, it is involving,” he said.

In a panel discussion on “Rights and Realities in an Era of Disinformation”, Ralf Peter Reimann, web team leader of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, agreed that “Disinformation is important, but what is more critical is the fragmentation of society” in which people do not seek out or offer to engage with news or people outside their comfort zone.

A new set of communication ethics may also be needed. “In my town,” said Reimann, “we used to have two papers – one on the right and one on the left. They had different views, but they agreed on the facts.” He observed that in social media there are no similar journalistic ethics.

Ramon Bultron, Managing Director of the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, agreed that “we are living in a world of divided views, interests and perspectives.”

Our challenge, he stated, is that “we have to learn about these views ourselves and identify whose interest they serve.”

In this reality of fragmentation, Sheila George, Director of Communication and Marketing for Wesley Theological Seminary in the USA, churches have a special role to play as “one of the few places where people with different views come together.”

WACC as a pioneer

As a pioneer of the communication rights movement since its foundation in 1968, WACC has been among the few global organizations working to advance the communication rights of marginalized communities around the world.

Dr Samuel Meshack, WACC President, highlighted WACC’s role in “giving expression to people who have been silenced.”

“Information is power,” he stated, and “WACC has been instrumental in getting that power into the hands of people.”

Over the past 50 years, WACC has partnered with thousands of grassroots communities, from indigenous groups to women’s groups to youth groups, to advance communication rights in their local contexts. It has also supported changes in communication policies and structures at the national, regional, and international levels.

WACC’s current priorities were highlighted by newly appointed WACC General Secretary Philip Lee against a background in which millions of people on every continent lack ways to address inequality.

“This is a violation of people’s right to express themselves, to be heard by decision-makers, to be represented accurately in the media, and to access the information they need to change their lives,” he said.

As Ueberschär stated, “To see communication as a whole, something that permeates the entire world of life, from the private sphere to communities, societies and states – something that is not distinct from other areas, but which exerts a profound influence on them, is rooted in them and links them to one another, is an essential prerequisite to understanding today’s communication contexts.”

Full text: Keynote Presentation by Dr Ellen Ueberschär.