Statement on the Information Highway by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
One thing is clear: Major change is rapidly approaching in the area of commnications, information and entertainment. It will not be long before telephones, television, cable and computers merge into an interactive communications network that will revolutionize our lives.1
The revolution of interactive communications is already under way. One hears about it every day. It has various names, including the information highway, the information superhighway, the electronic highway, the global network and Internet. McLuhan's "global village" is being constructed through the integration of countless invisible networks that will soon crisscross the planet. Information, education, entertainment, social and health services, commercial and financial activities as well as cultural and countless other "products" and services will be available on call and as a means of fostering dialogue among people, societies and nations.
Our country has traditionally been at the forefront of communications technology development. One can only hope that our government will ensure that this latest critical development is managed in a completely democratic fashion. In order to do so, it will mean providing universal access at reasonable prices as well as adequately safeguarding Canada's sovereignty and cultural identity.
The Catholic Church, including the church in Canada, welcomes the advent of the information highway as another important technological innovation that will enhance every aspect of communication among people and societies. New communications technologies have indeed transformed the face of the earth. The information society is bringing about a promised era of social communication as "the increasing number of communications networks transforms the democratic environment."2 Human experience itself has become an "experience of media."3
On the other hand, one is also obliged to take seriously the concerns of critics and researchers, and remain vigilant. There are warnings that the media, including the public sector media, risk becoming the greatest menace to democracy unless their constant tendency to commercialization is properly limited and the common good, in the best sense of the term, becomes their fundamental criterion for evaluation.
For these reasons, the episcopal commissions for social communications (English and French sectors) of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops are interested in the information highway, just as they have been in all the media for some decades. We recognize that the "use of new media ... has given birth to new possibilities for the mission of the church as well as to new pastoral problems."4
From the particular perspective of the church, it is not the details of implementing the information highway or the resulting competition that concern us the most, but rather the contents themselves and the conditions for access, especially as regards human and Christian values.
Dialogue Among People, Societies and Nations
The information highway is a network of interactive communications networks. For the first time, communications can truly be characterized as fully interactive and bi- or multidirectional (question and answer, supply and demand, interface, exchange, dialogue and so on). The term that best expresses the aspects of mutuality, community and user-friendliness involved is certainly dialogue. This term indicates the window of opportunity that is opening up on a host of exciting and enriching new possibilities- although there is also new potential for manipulating social communication, unless safeguards are considered.
It is often said that the media have made the world grow smaller. Because of the advent of the communications society and the era of the global village, interdependence among nations is growing. Public authorities must take appropriate steps to ensure that communications technologies do not concentrate too much power (the media often being regarded as a Fourth Estate) into the hands of an elite few for their own benefit or for the sake of a capitalistic ideology. It is unfortunately true sometimes that "rather than bringing people together, the mass media often isolate or divide them."5
The information highway by its very nature is focused on the user. Thus it has the potential to nourish community spirit, foster worldwide cultural exchange, and promote respect and cooperation among people. It can also transform understanding and knowledge as well as organizations and society itself.
It is not too far-fetched in this respect to speak of the information highway as facilitating dialogue among people, societies and nations. Can there be a better guarantee for peace?
Right to Information and Freedom of Expression
The right to information and freedom of expression are closely related but quite distinct concepts. They must, however, coexist in a dynamic and harmonious relationship, each respecting its particular conditions and limits, if people and the societies they form are to develop and live in peace throughout the world.
The right to information is first and foremost the right to complete and objective information, and thus also the right to have access to information sources. In practical terms, the right to information cannot be exercised unless there is freedom to communicate or, in other words, freedom of expression.
Human beings are social by nature; they need and desire to learn more about "the other"--their counterparts--and to engage in dialogue. From this need and desire is born public opinion, which is certain to be healthier as more people are empowered to participate in the life of society through better means of communications and through an exchange of ideas.
Society can only meet its information needs by taking steps to ensure that its citizens are kept well informed, especially through constant and easy access to a variety of information sources. Pluralistic societies such as our own have recognized the need for legislation that guarantees the public's right to information that is complete, consistent and accurate as well as the right to freedom of expression and an independent media. They have also enacted safeguards to protect the reputations of people and institutions "within the limits set by justice and charity."6
The possibilities of the information highway are almost limitless. For that very reason, there must be particular attention to what is required by the right to information and freedom of expression, especially if public opinion is to be informed, enlightened and analytical.
Protection of Cultural Values
At the dawn of a new era, a vast expansion of human communications is profoundly influencing culture everywhere. Revolutionary technological changes are only part of what is happening.7
More than ever before, ours is a society focused on communication and a civilization centered on images. Philosophers have even said that ultimately society is communication.
Communications technologies have developed audiovisual languages and new forms of rhetoric. The very concept of an audiovisual culture is now commonly accepted.
At first, the media simply disseminated the masterpieces of traditional culture, but they soon became adept at producing their own invaluable forms of art. In addition, recent technological developments such as satellites, fiber optics and digital compression, "in a manner that is unique, ... bring artistic and cultural achievements within the orbit of a great part of the human race. And soon, perhaps, they will do the same for the whole of it. This is as authentic a mark of social progress as is the removal of economic and social inequality."8
In this regard, it has been noted by Pope John Paul II that:
The culture of our time particularly seems to be dominated and shaped by the newest and most powerful among the means of communication ...-so much so that at times they seem to assert themselves as ends and not as simple means....
Indeed, the mass media, whether they deal with news or concern themselves with precisely cultural topics, or whether they are used for the purpose of artistic expression and entertainment, always return to a particular concept of man; and it is precisely on the basis of the exactness and completeness of this concept that they will be judged.9
It is on this very point that there is need for vigilance. It is so much taken for granted that the impact of the information highway will be generally positive. However, ongoing research and reflection are needed in order to foresee and counteract the negative results that the information highway may have on information "carriers" such as schools, libraries, newspapers and other forms of publishing.
Cultures are dynamic and, increasingly, in contact with one another. More than any other form of the media, the information highway can promote intercultural communication among people, thereby encouraging the expression and protection of basic cultural values. Accordingly, there must be clear and specific measures to provide steady and easy access to a variety of social and cultural contacts. This is especially true in the case of Canadians, whose cultural diversity and aspirations are so varied and rich, but who live in a North American economic context that strongly encourages the importation of American "products."
The right of each citizen to privacy should be constantly monitored by the federal and provincial governments. In the widest sense, the right to privacy is the right of everyone to "being left alone. It means protecting an individual's personal and private life from intrusion or exposure to the public view."10
Generally speaking, the Canadian as well as the Quebec charters of rights and freedoms and the common law of the other provinces make provision for the right to privacy. There is also specific legislation concerning violations and protection of property as well as several sections of the criminal code dealing with such activities as electronic eavesdropping.
Specifically in regards to communications, some aspects of the right to privacy are governed by the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act. Furthermore, there are the Radiocommunications Act and the 1986 Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission radio regulations.
It is reassuring to note that in its Oct. 11, 1994, referral to the CRTC, the government specified that the fourth principle guiding the development and implementation of a strategy for the information highway was to be the protection of privacy and network security. However, it should be added that such regulation needs to be clear and easily comprehensible.
In an earlier section above, titled "Primary Importance of Right to Information and Freedom of Expression," it was noted that there are limits to the right to information. Particularly in the case of personal reputation, this is a matter of ethics as well as of exercising professional standards with prudence and discretion.
On several previous occasions, the two social communications commissions of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops have presented their views and recommendations regarding the policies and regulations that the CRTC should adopt in the area of religious broadcasting.
As well, on March 13, 1992, the archbishops of Montreal and Quebec City requested the CRTC to ask broadcasters to give reasonable space in their programming to the religious dimension.11
Essentially, the positions that have been put forward by the Canadian church in its various briefs to the CRTC remain relevant. If anything, the communications explosion evidenced by the implementation of the information highway makes our concerns even more pertinent.
The media must present the entire "picture" of the human person. Arising out of the innate human need for transcendence, the religious dimension, like the psychological, ethical and intellectual dimensions, is an integral part of being human. Legislators need to ensure that the religious dimension in the lives of their fellow citizens is accorded its proper place in the information highway.
What Pope John Paul II said in 1988 about the media applies in 1995 to the communication technologies that together constitute the information highway:
It is imperative that the media respect and contribute to that integral development of the person which embraces 'the cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions of man and society.'12
Proper Role of Advertising
Advertising and commercial activities will undoubtedly be central to the functioning of the information highway.
The importance of advertising is steadily on the increase in modem society. It makes its presence felt everywhere; its influence is unavoidable. It offers real benefits to society. It tells buyers of the goods and services available. It thus encourages the widest distribution of products and, in doing this, it helps industry to develop and benefit the population. All this is to the good so long as there is respect for the buyer's liberty of choice, even though in trying to sell some particular objects appeal is made to a person's basic need. Advertising too must respect the truth, taking into account accepted advertising conventions.13
The information highway will not only carry a large amount of advertising but probably also new forms of advertising. It is the needs of those using the network that should be given primary consideration when creating new services, and not market forces alone. Precisely because of this, new forms of advertising should be evaluated and fine-tuned, according to the responsibilities of the various parties involved- including the state as well as broadcasters and those who are at the same time information consumers and producers.
In short, what may be regarded as excessive in media advertising is the emphasis on delivering audiences over to commercial interests, seeing human beings strictly as consumers ant forgetting that they are first and foremost persons ant citizens.
"Media first and foremost are people, rather than technology."14 This single phrase sums up the need for having competent professional communicators as well as the necessity for education to help people make optimum use of the media.
It is no secret that the media have their own language, syntax ant rhetoric; they have indeed developed an audiovisual culture. They have marked contemporary humanity to its very core. Today, just as one learns to read, one must also learn to decode media images and sequences of images.
The media are a parallel school. It is both necessary ant urgent to become more aware of the growing interrelationship between the media and the democratic and social quality of life.15
The challenge is significant. Our society stands on the brink of the 200- or 500-channel universe ant poised to embark on the information highway. In the near future, radio and television programs, films, computer software, video games ant so on will be developed and handled as "products" to be "sold" on the "consumer market." The longer the list of products, the larger the clout of consumer reaction on "supply." It will become more difficult to choose, and people may even become alienated if they feel unable to make free, informed ant voluntary choices.
It is therefore capital to help the public make freer, more responsible choices reflecting its convictions ...; not to be content with an attitude of consumerism but to promote the acquisition of the attitude of responsible citizens. This makes education necessary.
Such education must be one that "makes it possible to acquire a critical distance"16 in relation to the media.
It is to be hoped that public authorities, for their part, will recognize that democracy in Canada is best served by a discerning public that will support current efforts as well as new initiatives to develop media programs in schools ant through continuing education.
Today, only those who have been educated, who have learned to delay their reflexes by means of reflection, will be capable of learning the new forms of communication.17
To this, it should be added that because the information highway is interactive, the consumer is also a producer. Accordingly, users need to be aware of their responsibilities as to what they "send"-in other words, this is an ethical concern.
In order for the information highway to be able to respond fully to the expectations being raised, it is vital:
1. That the objective of universal access at reasonable prices be central to its development, and that this be expressed in a way that is explicit, detailed, clear and simple.
2. That universal access be commonplace-that is, that everyone who wants can be appropriately and easily trained to contribute to the information highway and to profit from the services that should benefit all.
3. That it indeed facilitate dialogue among people, societies and nations.
4. That there be adequate protection to the right to information, freedom of expression, the protection of cultural values and the expression of religious values.
5. That advertising, which will play a most prominent role, be developed and regulated as a service, not a disservice, to people.
6. That in Canada the information highway never be allowed to contribute to a two- tiered society divided between the privileged haves with access to information and the have-nots, who lack access to information.18
In closing, let us recall those significant lines at the beginning of the 1963 decree of the Second Vatican Council in which the church expressed its openness to and acceptance of the means of social communication:
By divine favor, especially in modern times, human genius has produced from natural materials astonishing inventions in the field of technology. Some of these have extraordinary bearing on the human spirit, since they open up new ant highly effective means of communication for all kinds of information, ideas and directives....
[T]he church welcomes and watches such inventions with special concern. Chief among them are those which by their very nature can reach and influence not only individual people, but the masses themselves, even the whole of society.19
1 Claude Marcil, and Lise Ravary, "L'autoroute Electronique Nous Propulse Vers l'An 2000," Presence, June-July 1994, p. 18. Translation.
2 Carolyn Sharp, "Promesse ou Mirage," Relations, November 1994, p. 266. Translation.
3 Pontifical Council for Social Communications, pastoral instruction Aetatis Novae, 2 (1992).
5 Central Committee of the World Association for Catholic Communication, Christian Principles of Communication, 1993, p. 7.
6 John Paul II, address to communications leaders, 3, (Los Angeles, Sept. 15, 1987).
7 Aetatis Novae, 1.
8 Pontifical Commission for Social Communications, Communio et Progressio, 49 (1971).
9 John Paul II, message for 18th World Day of Social Communications (June 3, 1984), 3 and 4.
10 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/ Societe Radio-Canada, Journalistic Standards and Practices, 1993, p. 44.
11 Joint brief by the archbishops of Quebec City and Montreal presented to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, March 13, 1992, No. 28.
12 Aetatis Novae, 7, quoting John Paul II, encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 46.
13 Communio et Progressio, 59.
14 Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, introductory remarks to the plenary assembly of the episcopal conference of France, Lourdes, Oct. 21, 1979 (In Documentation Catholique, No. 1774).
15 Institut Canadien d'Education des Adults, Apprendre a l Age Adulte: Etat de Situation et Nouveaux Defis, Montreal, 1994, p. 28. Translation.
16 Unda-WACC-Europe, report prepared by a working group, (published as "Media Education: A Pastoral and Social Must," Educommunication News, August 1994, No. 28, pp. 2-5).
18 Remarks by Vice President Al Gore, Royce Hall University of California at Los Angeles, Jan. 11 1994.
19 Vatican Council II, Decree on the Means of Social Communication, 1.
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