In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development took place in Brazil. Known as Rio+20, it agreed to establish an “Open Working Group” of government representatives to make a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A key question was how the SDGs would relate to or advance the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
In August 2014, the Open Working Group reported back to the UN General Assembly, setting out 17 goals for the period 2015 to 2030. Conspicuous by its absence was the essential role played by communications, with barely a mention under Goal 16, “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms”.
This happened despite many UN-related agencies and most civil society organisations having agreed at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS 2003 and 2005) and later at other fora that independent, diverse and pluralistic media, and providing affordable access to information and communication technologies are vital to today’s information and knowledge societies and to sustainable development itself.
Some of the omissions in the SDGs were identified in Fackson Banda’s article “Setting a media agenda in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals” (Media Development 2/2015). They included:
Acknowledging the significance of free expression as both a goal of development and a means to development.
Ensuring press freedom both online and offline, and providing a media system on all platforms which is free, pluralistic and independent as a means to optimise the role of communications and information in development.
Ensuring the existence and implementation of a national law and/or constitutional guarantee on the right to information.
Ensuring the safety of journalists and tackling impunity for crimes against them by highlighting the number of journalists, media personnel and human rights defenders killed, kidnapped or disappeared, unlawfully detained and tortured, as a result of pursuing their legitimate activities.
Strengthening an enabling environment for free, independent and pluralistic media, as a guarantee of media sustainability, including quality journalism education.
Arguably, these provisions do not go far enough and a much broader framework is required, one in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, one that enables, empowers and transforms. One that goes beyond power structures and relationships to guarantee the public voices and genuine participation of everyone – especially poor, marginalized, excluded and dispossessed people and communities. One that stresses justice, equality, democratization, and diversity because of the inalienable value attached to human dignity, mutual respect, and greater understanding.
Such a framework is offered by the concept and practice of communication rights, which call for political and social structures that strengthen the idea behind “Many Voices, One World” – the well-known title of UNESCO’s MacBride Report of 1980 – and the capability of individuals and groups to communicate. They address key questions about:
As such, it is all the more astonishing that communication and media were not made part and parcel of every SDG or subject to an SDG of their own, since none of the SDGs can be achieved unless people are able to communicate their dreams, concerns, and needs – locally, nationally, regionally, globally. The obstacles are many: social, cultural, political, ideological, yet communication can help overcome them all.
Since communication clearly underpins sustainable development and requires equitable access to information and knowledge, to information and communication technologies, as well as plurality and diversity in the media, we have identified the missing UN Sustainable Development Goal 18: Communication for All.
Goal: Expand and strengthen public civic spaces through equitable and affordable access to communication technologies and platforms, media pluralism, and media diversity.
Target 1.1 By 2030, ensure the existence of spaces and resources for men and women, in particular the poor and vulnerable, to engage in transparent, informed, and democratic public dialogue and debate.
Target 1.2 By 2030, ensure the existence of regimes where creative ideas and knowledge are encouraged, can be communicated widely and freely to advance social justice and sustainable development.
Target 1.3 By 2030, ensure protection for the dignity and security of people in relation to communication processes, especially concerning data privacy and freedom from surveillance.
Target 1.4 By 2030, ensure communication spaces for diverse cultures, cultural forms and identities at the individual and social levels.1
The indicators for these four targets remain to be determined. To some extent, they can be found in existing indices of political and social freedoms, such as the Social Progress Index, UNESCO’s Media Development Indicators, Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, and WACC’s Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP).
SDG 18: Communication for All claims spaces and resources in the public sphere for everyone to be able to engage in transparent, informed and democratic debate. It claims unfettered access to the information and knowledge essential to democracy, empowerment, responsible citizenship and mutual accountability. It claims political, social and cultural environments that encourage the free exchange of a diversity of creative ideas, knowledge and cultural products. Last but certainly not least, Communication for All claims equality and justice.
1. These four targets are based on the landmark “Four Pillars” of communication rights identified by the CRIS Campaign in Assessing Communication Rights: A Handbook (2005). While global communications and media have changed dramatically in the intervening period, the values implicit in equality, accessibility, affordability, and diversity remain the same.
Currently WACC Deputy Director of Programmes and editor of the international journal Media Development. Recent publications include Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (ed.) (2008), and Public Memory, Public Media and the Politics of Justice (ed.) (2012).