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Global Justice and Global Media. The Long Way Ahead

Cees J. Hamelink

The aspiration toward just social arrangements has kept thinkers and activists busy for much of recorded human history. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we must conclude that all our philosophical and political deliberations have not delivered a just global system.

Yet after the Second World War, the international community made a serious attempt to break through this unsatisfactory state of humanity: through the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it solemnly pledged that the twentieth century’s unprecedented barbarism would never happen again. This did constitute a crucial moment in contemporary history since the Declaration embodied fundamental principles of morality that from 1948 onward would guide the “human family” in its treatment of all the members of the human race.

The most essential notion in the Declaration was “everyone”: nobody was to be excluded from the rights and freedoms in the Declaration. In its (often forgotten) Article 28, the Declaration provided for the right of everyone to a “social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” In these words, the drafters of the Declaration gave the world a sense of what global social justice could mean: a global society in which all people would matter and enjoy protection of their dignity, equality, freedom, and security. Global social justice could now be defined as a global human rights culture: a world where no one would be humiliated, discriminated, disempowered, or unwillingly harmed. If we take this vision as point of departure, the key questions for an essay on media and social justice become the following: Can (global) media contribute to the realization of the entitlement Article 28 proposes? Can media assist humanity in learning the values that underpin a human rights culture, cooperation, compassion, communality and nonviolence?

Consulting the literature on media studies that has developed over past decades, the tentative answer to this question is not very encouraging. Most certainly one can conclude that the contribution of media to human rights awareness and human rights activism has been wanting. If one takes a fundamental human rights value such as human cooperation, it is striking that modern mediascapes are significantly characterized by forms of human competitive strife. In general, competition between human beings is seen to make better news than cooperation. Through polemical debates and myriad forms of contest (from beauty pageants to science quizzes), there is an almost permanent exposure to competitive behavior, which suggests that human life is about winning more than anything else.

Another human rights value is inclusiveness: “all people matter.” This standard does not fare very well when media aggravate human divisions and amplify us versus them constructions. Worldwide, media gave a global podium to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations as a convenient construction that made numerous people believe that the world can be divided into “our” and “their” civilization and that the two are at war.1 Although the thesis was never taken very seriously by scholars in matters of international and intercultural relations, it was generously incorporated into media news discourses after 9/11. Illustrations can be found in influential media such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and the major television networks. For many media organizations around the world, the thesis became the key guide to reporting and interpreting the 9/11 events. The Huntington thesis was also frequently used in Norwegian and Danish newspapers in connection with the controversy around the Mohammed cartoons. The thesis reflects strongly us versus them thinking and suggests that them are dangerous to us.

Human rights and media have not been able to come to a happy marriage. In terms of news reporting, for example, most media are, by and large, ill- equipped to adequately deal with human rights violations. The prevailing style of news reporting emphasizes the sensational and focuses on the sound bite. Evidently, the standard news values that affect news reporting in general also shape human rights reporting. Human rights reporting typically needs background, context, and in-depth analysis. Because most news reporting favors the incidental event, many chronic human rights violations go unreported. Occasionally, violations occur as a sensational event that suits the timing needs of the media, but more often human rights violations involve long-term structural processes. The media’s emphasis on event rather than process tends to hamper a sufficient understanding of what specific violations are really about. As a result, events caused by basic human rights violations (such as in the case of massive poverty) are often presented as “natural” disasters.

There is the additional problem that the victims of human rights violations are often the forgotten social actors because they do not belong to the world’s newsmaking elites. Moreover, as with all other events, media select in biased ways what is newsworthy and what is not. As a result, not all human rights violations are considered equally newsworthy. It should also be realized that serious reporting of human rights violations is hampered in many countries by forms of state censorship, intimidation from fighting factions, and real dangers for journalists.

Another consideration concerns the fact that in most media, the area of human rights is not recognized as a special field of reporting. Few, if any, media have a human rights beat. To this should be added the observation that media themselves may, in their performance, undermine human rights provisions, such as the right to the protection of privacy, or the right of the presumption of innocence. Most seriously, there is the very real possibility that media are party to the public incitement to genocide (like in the Rwandan civil war in the 1990s), and thus become perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

For those of us who have been actively engaged in developing alternative news networks, in setting up people’s communication movements, or in pleading for people’s right to communicate, the perplexing challenge remains: How to realize media structures and contents that mobilize people to resist global injustice? How to overcome the prevailing (near perfect) match between mainstream channels of information and entertainment and the “Disneyfication” of sociopolitical and cultural life?

Unfortunately, such questions have not been a top priority for the global media and communication research community, as assembled in such organizations as the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) and the International Communication Association (ICA). Most of its members are kept occupied by their universities producing peer-reviewed research that will not rock the boat of the epistemological conservatism of those who hand out funds and tenure tracks.

Even so, some academics have refused to be discouraged and have given us insightful critical analyses about the structural shortcomings of the dominant information and entertainment channels in modern societies. Their findings provide strong support for the claim that media need reform. And indeed, the call for a global human rights culture does suggest that societies need alternative structures of media ownership, new conceptions of professionalism, more accessible media, broad participation in the creation of media content, and stronger forms of protection against political and commercial censorship. By and large, however, such valuable proposals have not led to significant changes in the global mediascape.

Other academics have proposed that the fundamental obstacle to radical media reform is not only the supply side but particularly the demand side. Their contention is that since societies receive the media they deserve, prevailing formats of information and entertainment production could only change if their audiences demanded a difference. This school of thought offers proposals for media education in schools, for the participation of children in media production, and for social movements of critical media consumers such as the People’s Communication Charter.2 The realization of such laudable projects has not so far had a deep global impact.

These depressing observations are countered by those academics who expect that the so-called new media will bring about the desired reforms in both media production and media consumption. The advent of new technologies does indeed bring expanded capacities for mobilization and participation as they liberate us from the oligopolistic control by barons of culture—the industrial moguls that gatekeep information and entertainment. There is, however, no guarantee that an expanded and differentiated number of media producers will actively promote the core human rights values. The notion of “new” suggests advances not only in technologies but also in human behavior. This reflects a crude technological determinism that is not supported by human realities. It also has to be asked how far the “new” has really overtaken the “conventional.” It could be argued that the conventional, mainstream media continue today to be the grand players in global communication

Is all of the above reason for despair?

We learned from Darwinian biology that processes of evolution in which species seek more adequate mechanisms to adapt to their environment may take millions of years. As Charles Darwin suggested, his discoveries in human biology promised new insights in human psychology. One of these insights is that human culture, as the nongenetic adaptation to the environment, evolves its strength and diversity over long stretches of time.

Certain thought patterns and behavioral constructs that evolved among our savanna ancestors and that have served human survival and reproduction well may become dysfunctional in other environments, but they may not easily disappear! An example that is instructive for aspirations toward a global human rights culture is the “tribal instinct” that was essential to survival in the Stone Age but that today obstructs global respect for human rights. Tribalism is a powerful force that has shown its devastating potential in recent times in the former Yugoslavia, the Russian Federation, and Rwanda. The “tribal instinct” represents the strong belief that the members of our own clan (which could be our family, our ethnic group, or our national state) deserve the protection of basic rights and freedoms but that these entitlements cannot be equally extended to include the “outsiders.”

Tribalism is only one illustration of how our Stone Age minds and our technological potential do not keep the same pace. Modern technology develops exponentially at a speed that the human mind can only follow if it transcends its biological limitations.3 This means that we have arrived at an essential cultural crossroad where we need to decide to either slow down technological development (but can we?) or upgrade our mental faculties through artificial intelligence (but do we want to?).

There is a story about Australian aboriginals that tells us that whenever they cover great walking distances, they stop before reaching the destination so their souls can catch up with their bodies! Could this be a way to deal with our predicament?

We have developed media of communication that span the globe, offer instant global exposure to local events, and provide unprecedented possibilities for human interaction, but we lack the mental capacity to use them in cooperative, compassionate, and communal ways. Obviously there are small pockets of creative resistance that seem to prove the opposite—but then the resistance movement did not protect us in the West against the commission of crimes against humanity in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor save thousands of small children in those countries from death, physical destruction, or traumatization. All the impressive critical documentaries made by top filmmakers and journalists did not change the bankers’ greed and governments’ compliance with a financial system that took all the benefits and outsourced the costs to society at large.

If we take evolutionary thinking seriously, then we know that our march through history is a slow procession. It has the character of the famous Ech- ternach procession in which the participants take two steps forward and one step backward. Eventually, though, the procession reaches its destination. On the way, we will have time to reflect, acquire patience, and develop the mental capacities needed to realize a global vision for the pursuit of social justice. There is a long way ahead!

Is this a defeatist position? Not necessarily! The “long march ahead” liberates us from overheated expectations of radical social change and the inevitable disappointments of not achieving a just world in our own lifetimes. Does it leave us with inertia and passive waiting for Godot and thus permit the status quo to remain undisturbed?

On the contrary! There is much work to be done during the procession. Let us by all means continue to write and act for media reform. Let us continue to make plans for audience mobilization and global media consumer action. While on the road, let us use the opportunity to engage in reflection about our uncertainty on what to do. Maurice Merleau-Ponty has given us this image:

“We walk together in a thick fog to a destination that we do not know and that may not even be there; and on our way we are uncertain about what to do.”4 Here we encounter what is arguably the most fundamental clash in today’s world: between reflexivity and thoughtlessness. This is a collision of mindsets that is more fundamental than rifts between cultures, ethnic backgrounds, or religions. The reflexive mindset tells us that all claims to validity—be they political, moral, or religious—are open to examination and critique. Reflexive minds are willing to test all ideas in public, listen to those who criticize them, and remain open to the need to revise earlier convictions. The core of the reflexive mindset is the urge to examine life. When Socrates stood before his judges in Athens he admonished the court that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The refusal or incapacity to make time and space for the development of a reflexive mindset makes us act in thoughtless ways; throughout history this has caused more harm than the malicious intentions. As Susan Neiman writes, “Thoughtlessness can be more dangerous than malice; we are often more threatened by self-serving refusal to see the consequences of conventional actions than by defiant desires for destruction. For whether they’re restrained by cowardice or by something nobler, most people refrain from acting those desires out.”5 Ironically, for this essential reflexivity, the mainstream media do provide essential input. Whatever biases and omissions there may be in the global news coverage, the media do confront us with a world we should be thoroughly embarrassed about. Even if media cannot be expected to be the pioneering leaders of a global movement toward global social justice, they do provide their audiences with a strong challenge to reflect about the meaningfulness of the long march. There is not likely to be instant satisfaction in the realization of global justice. However, we do have agency to mobilize all our human communicative talents, all our words and images, and all our media of expression to steer our common procession away from thoughtlessness toward full confrontation with global injustice. To render the long march ahead a meaningful experience we have to expose ourselves—through all the media at hand—to the pain of others lest we remain locked up in eternally dense fog.6


  • 1. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).
  • 2. See People’s Communication Charter Home Page,
  • 3. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking, 2005).
  • 4. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eloge De La Philosophie (Paris: Gallimard, 1965).
  • 5. Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), xii.
  • 6. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).
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