Barcelona conference proceedings

By Dr. I. Arul Aram

BARCELONA: The 23rd conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) was held in Barcelona from July 21 to 26, 2002, under the auspices of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. The special theme was ‘intercultural communication’. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a culturally-rich region in Spain. The conference forms part of the programme of preparatory activities for the Universal Forum of Cultures to be held in Barcelona in the year 2004. The conference symbol represents a porró full of letters. The porró is a piece of craftsmanship, expressing the cultural forms of everyday life, always made of glass, that has been used for centuries in Catalonia to drink wine. In the design of this symbol, the inside of the porró is full of letters from different languages, with the sentence ‘intercultural communication’, and it represents the objective of the conference of investigating the co-existence of universal and local cultural forms. In fact, communication is viewed as fundamental in fostering relationship among cultures.

The official languages of the conference were English, Spanish and French, and Catalan as the language proper to Catalonia. Simultaneous translations were offered for the general assembly and plenary sessions. The remaining sessions were mostly in English. Around 800 academics from various parts of the world took part. Sections and working groups organised include audience & reception studies, community communication, communication technology policy, gender & communication, international communication, junior scholars network, political communication and professional education. This article discusses the findings of a few papers presented at the conference.

The political crisis is a fundamental phenomenon in the political life of contemporary societies. Andreu Casero Ripollés (University Pompeu Fabra, Spain) explores the communicative dimensions of the crises that affect the actors of the political system, mainly governments, state institutions and political parties. These periods are key moments in the interaction that settles between journalists and politicians, and, for this reason, they constitute one of the nuclei of political communication. So the analysis of this matter offers one of the best opportunities to examine the relationship between politics and communication. Thus, starting from the general notion of political crisis as a process that evolves in the political sphere, the text describes the mediatic political crisis. Political communication takes place in the mediatic sphere, and the media and the political actors jointly define it.

Paolo Mancini (Università di Perugia, Italy) analyses the print media coverage of Parliament. Over time, there is an increase in the amount of the coverage devoted to “political issues”: government coalitions, debate among parties, leaderships and alliances. At the same, time devoted to Parliament coverage has reduced. Parliament has lost importance in front of a major role played by both party system and government and the media coverage clearly shows this shift. The coverage of Parliament is not anymore based on “hard news” that is reporting what has been decided or what the debate has been but mostly it is focussed on soft news describing atmospheres and characters. This change in the form of democracy is common to most countries. Negotiations no more take place in Parliaments but in secret rooms of parties. So major decisions are not taken in Parliaments. Interestingly, the press too is in the arena where negotiations take place.

Discussing the role of Al-Jazeera in transforming the face of Arab television, Noureddine Bvin (University of Westminster, U.K.) says, since its inception in 1996, the Doha-based channel, Al-Jazeera, has become the most freewheeling station in the Arab world, delighting millions of viewers across the Arab world and elsewhere who were numbed by decades of censored news on state-controlled television. No story is off limits. Recent scoops seem to prove the point: first, it started with an exclusive broadcast of a speech by Osama bin Laden, and second, its exclusive coverage of the early part of the war in Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera came out after the collapse of the partnership between the BBC TV Arabic service, and the Saudi Government. The conflicting approaches to content made this partnership short-lived. But its programmes reflect the notion of public service broadcasting as pioneered by the BBC. The weekly talk shows and discussion programmes are tackling crucial yet taboo subjects such as human rights, women's freedom, banned political groups, polygamy, torture and rival interpretations of Islamic teachings. The Jordanian Government closed down Al-Jazeera's news bureau in Amman after a talk show guest accused the late King Hussein of collaborating with Israel. Tunisia's president called the Emir of Qatar to stop broadcasting a live programme discussing human rights abuse in Tunisia. But Al-Jazeera managed to survive all the criticism from Arab regimes. Also, it has survived the American pressure to tone down its coverage of the war in Afghanistan, though its office in Kabul was turned into rubble by the American bombing.

Examining the role of media in democratisation, Patrick J. McConnell and Lee B. Becker (University of Georgia, U.S.) point out that there is at present no consensus on the role the media play in the democratic process and provide an integration of research work already carried out. The process of democratisation does not always move in a single direction. Media tend to be most supportive of democracy in the early, often euphoric, period after the previous regime has fallen, when journalists as well as other citizens enjoy new-found freedom. As the transition process moves toward consolidation, the media as well as the public can become more cynical, particularly in the face of continued political wrangling and the financial pressures of a market economy. The media in a stable democracy are considered the principal institutions from which members of the public can better understand their society. Ideally, the media contribute to public debate by providing citizens with information about their world, by fostering discussion on various issues and by encouraging diverse positions.

Sophia Kaitatzi (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece) concludes that the rhetoric of cyber-democracy is a mythology that produces confusion rather than proposes solutions. Cyberspace cannot be the main site for democratic politics. Although the nature of the Internet is interactive, "open network" and horizontal, and the web empowers individuals in unprecedented ways, these elements are by no means sufficient conditions to provide either for the virtual "public sphere" or much more to be the key terrain for democratic citizen politics and democratic state organisation. Cyberspace is incompatible with democracy for a number of essential reasons both political and technological in nature. Those who set their hopes for the revitalisation of politics and for democratisation to technology understand neither the essence of democratic participation and democratic politics nor the nature of digital and communication technologies.

Sharon Strover (University of Texas, U.S.) says, as the citizens gain more experience with the emerging online tools and information resources from private sector services, a similar level of service is being expected from government entities. In the many states in the U.S., legislatures and state leadership are promoting an electronic government agenda. State efforts typically focus on multiple aspects of an Internet-based model of service delivery such as providing information or allowing people to register or apply for certain permits or licences, often with the intention of simply automating existing services. The results of the Texas effort were not precisely what the state expected or wanted to hear, but by the same token these unexpected findings are what make them so important. A public opinion research project was conceived as a way to assess a variety of issues related to public access necessary to use e-government services as well as public opinion about the proper form and emphasis of those services among the residents of Texas. It found responses varied significantly by age, education, geographic location, and experience with the Internet.

The use of different forms of communications on the Internet is on the rise. This has raised the question of ethical aspects of marketing on the Internet and privacy issues. Michel Walrave Rene (K.U. Leuven, Belgium) says, during those interactive communication processes, personal data are often collected not only in an explicit manner (i.e. using electronic forms), but in an implicit way as well (i.e. using cookies, clickstream analysis, syware, web bugs, webmining). To protect the informational privacy (i.e. data protection) and the relational privacy (i.e. in this domain the right not to be contacted by companies for marketing purposes) legislative initiatives have been taken in the European Union. Different umbrella organisations of businesses that are active on the Internet have also tried to develop and implement ethical guidelines to conduct e-commerce and e-marketing with respect of privacy. From an analysis of 250 Belgian websites it results that the majority, collecting personal data, score largely unsatisfactorily concerning the information towards the consumer, as imposed by the European data protection directive transposed in the Belgian privacy law.

Of convergent technologies in the digital age, Anju Chaudhary (Howard University, U.S.) points out that the availability of high-speed broadband has begun to spawn revolutionary new forms of communication, entertainment and advertising. It is changing all aspects of our lives, from the way we receive news, information and entertainment, and the way we communicate with others around the globe. It has ushered in a new era of convergence between the Internet and television, between the Internet and wireless communication and between the Internet and telephone. Convergence technologies are enabling the Internet companies, media organisations and telecom operators to offer a variety of mind-boggling array of information, products and services to millions of people around the world. Broadband is the wave of the future. Because of wide band of frequencies, information can be multiplexed and sent on different frequencies or channels within the band concurrently.

Nick Couldry (London School of Economics, U.K.) deals with alternative media and the "digital divide". The digital divide debate received urgent attention at the highest policy-making levels, though since 2000 there are signs that they will merge into the less challenging terrain of the 'digital opportunity' (as the World Economic Forum's paper to the G8 2000 summit in Japan put it). The digital divide debate needs to be not weakened, but radicalised to cover inequalities of participation, as well as basic access, with the study of media outside mainstream institutions being essential to that deepened debate. Once we take seriously the principle (from theories of deliberative democracy and elsewhere) that people have a right to some fair share of their society's symbolic resources, then media research must cover the full range of people's attempts (whether successful or thwarted) to take part in the process of mediation.

Reviewing the community radio projects in South Asia, I. Arul Aram (The Hindu newspaper, India) said India too must go in for community-owned radio stations. For long, mainstream radio has been used as an agent of government propaganda and as an entertainment medium in developing countries. It denied the weak a voice. But this is not so with community radio. Community radio stations operate on a small level, involve people’s participation in programming and cater intimately to a small number of listeners. They work with the concept 'by the community and for the community' and so are highly appreciated among target audiences. In developing countries particularly those in South Asia, community radio stations serve mainly the rural agrarian population. Of late, the Indian government has been issuing licences for private (commercial) FM stations on a competitive bidding. But it does not intend to give licences to NGOs under the pretext that activities of NGOs could be subversive! This is despite the fact that the government now depends heavily on NGOs in the implementation of various development programmes.

Peter M. Lewis (London School of Economics, U.K.) has studied the effectiveness of community media. The restricted financial circumstances of most projects have meant that their managements have rarely conducted research on their own behalf, and the application of conventional audience research methods is inappropriate, considering the programming style and limited reach of most community radio and TV stations. There is, moreover, a current lively interest on the part of international agencies and funding bodies in ways to assess the impact of a growing number of projects which aim to bridge the "digital divide", particularly in rural areas of the developing world. A project converging community radio and the Internet in Sri Lanka has been studied to develop a methodology for evaluating small community media projects in rural areas of the developing world. (The Kothmale Community Radio Project in Sri Lanka attempts to provide Internet content through rural radio based on queries from the listeners.) The finding is that experiences of involving academic institutions in the promotion of community media in a rural setting are far from wanting. Academic departments, in general, lack research base, social orientation and commitment to work in a rural setting.

Sofie Van Bauwel (Ghent University, Belgium) has undertaken a reception study of multiple gender identities on MTV and TMF (Flemish Music Television) among young media consumers. In the current western society, gender bending is an increasingly popular articulation of politics. Gender benders manipulate images of men and women to question dichotomous gender representations. Particularly gender benders in popular culture succeed by this nimbleness to gain, retain and even reinforce power over themselves and over others. The academic discourse perceives the bending of gender as an act of resistance with the aim of re-ordering and re-conceptualising gender as a fluid concept. By using different style characteristics, gender benders are described as the bodily hybridisation of masculine and feminine stereotypes. Meanwhile, gender benders have came out of the margins and are now commodified as mainstream and accepted within mainstream popular culture, especially on the target group broadcasters MTV and TMF.

Natalia Fernández (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain) deals with female victims and female aggressors in media discourses. The female victim and the image of her offered by mass media allow us to discern a historical way of perceiving feminity and the role of women, where values such as passivity, subjugation and silence are dominant. The central figure was that one of the (male) agressor constructed according to a historical and ideological model of what a hero means in a society. But the social changes that permitted an increasing relevance of the role of women in social life and at workplace have meant a crisis of some traditional models based in a patriarchal ideology. For that reason we can currently find female agressors in the news; they usually try to revenge a humiliant situation and their biographies seem to be constructed by exploiting myths that potentiate the female perversion and that reduce women to a dualistic nature: virgin or witch, victim or victimiser.

Florence Mahoro (AIDS Information Centre, Uganda) analyses the factors affecting active member participation in Post Test Club (PTC)-support group in Uganda. The group offers ongoing psycho-social, care and support to clients who have taken the HIV anti-body test whether infected or not. Recruitment into the club comes after an informed decision at voluntary counselling and testing (VCT). Activities and services in the support group operate on a two-way basis; "give" and "receive". While members receive services and take part in activities, they are in turn expected to provide some services to clients and peers at the VCT centre and in their communities. The rate of new member registration is high in comparison with regular participation in activities and accessing services. Member participation in activities and seeking services is voluntary and determined by need and choice. Participation varies depending on the "pull" factors that interested them to join the club and the "push" factors that are responsible for motivation, facilitation and sustainability. Over time there are declining trends in active participation. Facilitation of club members to "give" services is found to be essential for successful programme implementation.

Mohamad Sahid Ullah (Chittagong University, U.S.) deals with cyclonic disaster warnings and broadcast media in Bangladesh. Cyclone with tidal bore is the major killer in the coastal region of Bangladesh. With increased pressure of population, more and more people are compelled to live in the susceptible coastal areas threatened by cyclonic storms and tidal surges. Disaster management agencies throughout the globe considered mass media particularly radio and television as inseparable in the process of natural disaster mitigation. Media can play a significant role through disseminating warning signals and creating consciousness among people to take proper measures and for taking shelters just before the landfall. Constant dissemination of the warning bulletins during the pre-cyclonic period can limit deaths and losses. It is a myth that in Bangladesh media could not handle cyclonic disaster mitigation properly (as people have less confidence in the media and the absence of enough facilities for media access). Gathering of valuable information that could help in learning the role of broadcast media in cyclonic disaster preparedness could alter the situation.

Robert A. White (Gregorian University, Italy) reviewed the current theory and research on communication for development. For more than 30 years, critics have been warning against the deficiencies and dangers of the modernisation and dependency paradigms. We now realise that the central issue is the concentration of social power and the need for empowerment of lower-status groups at the organisational and individual levels. We have a proliferation of studies of micro-level participation, but these have not been brought together into a broader framework. Most developing countries are experiencing major civil conflict which is discouraging investment and economic development, disrupting education, creating situations in which more flexible civil society is banned and the concentration of political power justified. We need more analysis of how potential conflict is led towards cultural negotiation just as in the case of South Africa.

The International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC)-sponsored studies in Africa and the Middle East focus on participatory communication using “local facilitator” for community development. Thus they go a step further in horizontal communication by insisting that the facilitator of a development venture too should be a local, provided community itself has the necessary development infrastructure and indigenous know-how.

Inaugurating the UNESCO-IAMCR roundtable on Communication and Information Technology Research, Abdul Waheed Khan, Assistant Director-General, Sector for Communication and Information, UNESCO, said the roundtable, with the participation of researchers in communication and information from different parts of the world, formed part of UNESCO’s consultation with NGOs and civil society groups in its preparation for the World Summit on Information Society to be held in Geneva in 2003 and in Tunis in 2005.

A special feature is that the Junior Scholars Network of IAMCR gives opportunity for young scholars to present papers at international conferences and also helps them to publish papers. At this conference, a roundtable of young scholars discussed the problem of communication researchers. The network has a mentorship scheme which identifies eminent scholars who would be willing to provide unofficial guidance for junior scholars. The junior scholar and the mentor can be from different parts of the globe, since the Internet has made communication simple.

Towards the end of the conference, addressing the plenary session, Frank Morgan (University of Newcastle, Australia), newly-elected IAMCR president, said, “Barcelona the place where Christopher Columbus embarked in 1492 and set foot on Americas stands as a wonderful motif in the age of assimilation of cultures. Scholarship, democracy and culture remain the framework of communication. Communication gives us hope, defines human rights and distinguishes human beings from other living beings.”

 Dr. I. Arul Aram is Chief Sub-Editor, The Hindu, Chennai. He is the author of the book Television in Education (Orient Longman 1993). He is a former president of the Madras Press Club. He is a visiting faculty at the University of Madras and Indira Gandhi National Open University. His email ID is

Journalism Online