Table of contents
Part 1
What are ICT and internet policies?
Part 2
The internet, markets and access
Part 3
National ICT and internet policy and regulation
Part 4
Specific issues in internet policy and regulation
Part 5
Organisations active in ICT

  24. Visions of the right to communicate

The notion of human rights is based on the understanding that everyone in society should be free to participate fully in social and political activities and to be protected from attempts to restrict the exercise of this right to citizenship. In various countries it has been extended further, to include cultural and socio-economic rights (such as the right to health care, housing and clean environment), also known as second and third generation rights. Whether we can simply extend the existing set of rights to apply to the realm of the ‘information society’, or need rather to formulate a new set of rights such as communication rights, digital rights, and internet rights – and what would be the content of these rights – are issues addressed in this chapter.

Towards a perspective on the right to communicate

Different rationales have been expressed to support formulation of a new or emerging right to communicate. In a broad sense, its advocates appear to act out of a concern that increasingly, the media are becoming homogenized and minority or dissenting voices are rarely heard.

Globalisation and commercialization of the media is one of the chief concerns: it is argued that in countries around the world, threats from the private sector—such as large media corporations—are as harmful to the right to freedom of expression as traditional state threats. Whilst in many African countries, it is the state which is the problem by imposing restrictive rules and regulations on freedom of expression or by itself dominating the media sector while failing to reflect the diversity that exists within its territory.

The formulation at the international level of a right to communicate, it is said, would remedy both of these problems. Legal recognition of a right to communicate would additionally help bridge the growing digital divide by empowering those currently left behind in the communications revolution.

However, there appears to be little agreement on the precise definition or content of the right to communicate. How is it different from the right to freedom of expression or to what extent such a right or a Declaration would fit in the existing international Bill of Rights (formed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)?

Source: J Barker and P Noorlender, FreePress magazine(April 2003) of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, also available at: resource_details&resource_id=3169&cat_id=2779


Human Rights have been codified in a large number of UN declarations, covenants, treaties and agreements. The clearest and most important expression is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, agreed to by the UN General Assembly in 1948. This was followed in 1966 by the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Subsequent resolutions by the General Assembly or UNESCO have addressed specifically the human rights of women, children, and indigenous peoples, for example, with reference to issues of cultural diversity, science and technology, language, and development, among others. Of particular relevance in out context is the way in which the various UN agreements on human rights refer to science and technology, as discussed by Cees Hamelink in a number of articles.1

Hamelink has called for the specific consideration of communication rights, which are not covered by existing agreements. In his view, communication should be understood as an interactive process, in essence “a process of sharing, making common or creating a community”.2
We do not need ‘information societies’ – implying a flow of information in one direction – but rather ‘communication societies’. Hamelink sees the recognition of a right to communicate as 'essential “if global governance of ‘communication societies’ should be inspired by human rights concerns.”3
In attempting to specify the content of the right to communicate, he lists a large number of human rights, some of which are already covered by existing conventions, and others that are not, such as the right of access to public communication for communities, equitable information exchange or a personal presence on the internet.4
Hamelink's Right to Communicate is thus an extension of existing rights rather than a completely new notion that replaces them.

In its Internet Rights Charter, the Association for Progressive Communications includes a different formulation of the right to communicate, alongside other demands. Under this heading, the Charter lists eight areas in which this right to enjoy the benefits of ICTs can be expressed:

  • Access to ICTs
  • Inclusion of marginalised groups
  • Gender equity
  • Affordability
  • Developmental impact of internet infrastructure
  • Integration with media rights
  • Accessibility of public information
  • Rights in the workplace.

The Charter is an extensive list of demands meant to guarantee that ICTs be used to promote social justice rather than to increase inequalities. Like Hamelink, it draws on previous attempts to formulate similar demands, such as the People's Communications Charter5
and A Global Movement for People's Voices in Media and Communication in the 21st Century6
. In addition to the right to communicate, it refers to other issues such as diversity of content, intellectual property rights, privacy and security, and internet governance.

The essential human rights of a Declaration on the Right to Communicate:


-The right to freedom of thought, conscience andreligion

-The right to hold opinions

-The right to express opinions without interference by public or private parties

-The right of people to be properly informed about matters of public interest

-The right of access to information on matters of public interest (held by public or private sources)

-The right to access public means of distributing information, ideas and opinions.


-The right to promote and preserve cultural diversity -The right to freely participate in the cultural life of one's community

-The right to practise cultural traditions

-The right to enjoy the arts and the benefits of scientific progress and its applications

-The right to the protection of national and international cultural property and heritage

-The right to artistic, literary and academic creativity and independence

-The right to use one's language in private and public

-The right of minorities and indigenous people to education and to establish their own media.


-The right of people to be protected against interference with their privacy by the media of mass communication, or by public and private agencies involved with data collection.

-The protection of people's private communications against interference by public or private parties

-The right to respect for the standard of due process in forms of public communication

-The right of protection against forms of communication that are discriminatory in terms of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin

-The right to be protected against misleading and distorted information

-The right of protection against the systematic and intentional propagation of the belief that individuals and/ or social groups deserve to be eliminated

-The right of the protection of the professional independence of employees of public or private communication agencies against the interference by owners and managers of these institutions.


-The right of access to public communication for communities

-The right to the development of communication infrastructures, to the procurement of adequate resources, the sharing of knowledge and skills, the equality of economic opportunities, and the correction of inequalities

-The right of recognition that knowledge resources are often a common good owned by a collective

-The right of protection of such resources against their private appropriation by knowledge industries.


-The right to acquire the skills necessary to participate fully in public communication

-The right to people's participation in public decision making on the provision of information, the production of culture or the production and application of knowledge

-The right to people's participation in public decision making on the choice, development and application of communication technology.

Source: Hamelink, 2002.

The Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) campaign7, a coalition of various groups involved in internet and media activism, has produced a further set of demands8, grouped together as the right to communicate. This is regarded as “a means to enhance human rights and to strengthen the social, economic and cultural lives of people and communities.” The demands are similar to other formulations, and focus on four areas (see box for details):
• Democracy in media and ICTs
• Intellectual property rights
• Civil and political rights
• Equitable and affordable access.

CRIS's Vision of the Right to Communicate

Our vision of the 'Information Society' is grounded in the Right to Communicate, as a means to enhance human rights and to strengthen the social, economic and cultural lives of people and communities. Crucial to this is that civil society organisations come together to help build an information society based on principles of transparency, diversity, participation and social and economic justice, and inspired by equitable gender, cultural and regional perspectives.

The Four CRIS Pillars

A. Creating spaces for democratic environments
The public sphere is where civil society defines and renews its understanding of itself in its diversity, and in which political structures are subjected to scrutiny and debate and ultimately held to account for their actions. Core characteristics of the public sphere include freedom of speech, access to information, a healthy public domain and a free and undistorted media and communication regime. Goals: To reverse trends toward concentration of ownership and control of media - To reclaim the airways and spectrum as public commons and to tax commercial use for public benefit -To promote and sustain alternative, truly independent media and public service media, and advance pluralism against government or private monopoly - To promote freedom of information legislation in public and corporate realms.

B. Reclaiming the use of knowledge and the public domain
Today, copyright is a tool of corporate interests to control ever more of people's knowledge and creativity, including software, denying both creators and society. Globally the WTO and WIPO police the regime with an iron hand, while wealthy countries extract payments from the poor for using knowledge already prised at birth from its creators.
Goals: To secure a full review of copyright globally and nationally, and rebuild it as a flexible and adaptable regime geared to enhancing development and supporting creativity - To nurture and promote 'development-friendly' approaches to intellectual creativity e.g. open source, Copyleft, collective ownership.

C. Reclaiming civil and political rights in the information societyMoves to weaken judicial oversight and accountability, the erosion of long standing data protection principles, legal protections and civil liberties, excessive data retention, surveillance and monitoring of online environments on the pretext of combating 'cyber crime' and 'terrorism', every day diminish our personal freedoms to communicate and deliver ever growing control to governments and corporations.
Goals: To ensure that the 'information society' expands rather than erodes people's rights to privacy, freedom of expression, communication and association.

D. Securing equitable and affordable accessThe majority of the world's people lack access to the infrastructure and tools needed to produce and communicate information and knowledge in the information society. Many initiatives, including the WSIS, aim to address this. They usually rest on assumptions that universal access to ICTs will be achieved through marketdriven solutions and that more widespread access will necessarily contribute to poverty alleviation and the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals. We question these assumptions.
Goals: To lobby for equitable and affordable access to ICTs for all people, specifically the marginalized such as women, the disabled, indigenous people and the urban and rural poor - To promote access as a fundamental right to be realised in the public domain and not dependent on the market forces and profitability - To secure access to information and knowledge as tools for empowerment - To outline and pursue the conditions for securing access not just to ICTs but to information societies as a whole, in a way that is financially, culturally, and ecologically sustainable. In support of these, we, as signatories to this charter, agree to participate in and cooperate with the international CRIS campaign in debating, writing and disseminating information, and to act together in our respective countries and internationally.

There have been many objections to the idea of a right to communicate. It has been described as so broad as to be meaningless, it has been suggested that it would undermine the UDHR, that governments would abuse it, that it would meet so much opposition that it is useless to try to promote it. In a detailed critique of the idea of the right to communicate, the global organisation for freedom of expression, Article 19, claims that this right is not new, but rather a collection of related human rights already expressed in existing conventions.9

In the UN, and especially UNESCO, communication rights have had a stormy history, having been associated with a movement for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). This arose in the 1970s, when many poor and third world political elites, seeking to free themselves of the cultural and political legacy of colonial rule, regarded notions of free press and information flow as a disguise for on-going domination by western capitalist countries, and a form of cultural imperialism.

In this context, the ‘free flow’ of ideas defended by the West was seen as a rationale for a one-way flow of information, from the rich to the poor. Control over information and means of communication were seen as an essential part of the struggle for development and for national and cultural independence. Third World countries called for a balanced flow of information, whereby their own reality could be reflected in the films, news services, TV and other media, and demanded some way of controlling these. They were accused, in turn, of proposing government control over media, and in the process stifling the freedom of speech. The NWICO, coupled with proposals for a New International Economic Order (NIEO), led the USA and the UK to leave UNESCO and withdraw their financial contribution, resulting in a subsequent reduction in its budget and effectiveness.

It is clear that today’s formulations of the right to communicate are very different from those in the 1970s and 1980s10
. For a start, they come not from governments but from civil society. They do not call for restrictions on the freedom of the press, nor for an increased role for governments in regulating the flow of information. The emphasis is on empowering individuals and communities. On the other hand, behind both the new and the old formulations is the belief that global media inequalities are fundamental in perpetuating the gap between the rich and the poor. Whereas such inequalities were regarded as a form of neo-colonialism, or cultural imperialism previously, now it is globalisation that has become the new culprit. In this context, the right to freedom of expression appears to mean little if the structure of the media does not allow individuals to be heard outside the walls of their houses.

The proposals for the recognition of communication rights include the right to access communication infrastructure, such as internet access or community media facilities, as a fundamental human right. In this way it takes into account the new ICTs and places social justice and equality in centre stage. In fact, it may be that only now is it possible to demand real communication rights, because we now have technology that allows access for all, an interactive dialogue instead of a one-way process, and the capacity to connect cheaply and effectively with the rest of world’s citizens. These proposals recognise the close links with, and parallel situations in, traditional forms of media, extending their demands to the written press, radio, TV, etc. They make it clear that the right to communicate is based on existing human rights and in no way contradicts them; in fact it extends them to cover the new forms of media made possible by new technologies.

1 C Hamelink, "The Right to Communicate", paper presented at Prepcomm1, (2002),

2 Hamelink, 2003.

3 op cit

4 op cit; Hamelink, 2002.





9 'Statement on the Right to Communicate',

10 Some of these are documented at

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