The role of Media in Intercultural Dialogue

Cultural references determine our identity and the ways in which we construct reality; they affect the perception of ourselves, the way we encounter others, and the way we interact with the world. The media greatly influences not only what we think, but also how we act.

Globalization is not only an economic and technological process. Increased interaction among people, the free flow of information, and cultural interdependence are also consequences of our globalizing world. Communicating across cultural differences is a central challenge of the contemporary world. The media, then, has a true “mediating” role to play in encouraging global awareness.

The emergence of a new paradigm in international relations – in part through the launching of the Dialogue Among Civilizations in 2001 – introduced a global agenda in which the concept of dialogue became a priority principle in the relations between civilizations, cultures and peoples. The global agenda sought to elaborate common ethical standards as a means for addressing threats to peace and security (1). This commitment underlined that intercultural dialogue and respect for diversity are necessary for the advancement of human rights (2).

The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity was adopted in 2001, recognizing cultural diversity as a common heritage of humanity as well as the potential of intercultural dialogue. The Convention states in its preamble that: “culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”.

This was complemented in 2005 by the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. Article 2 stresses the interdependence of diversity and the respect for fundamental freedoms: “Cultural diversity can be protected and promoted only if human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression, information and communication, as well as the ability of individuals to choose cultural expressions, are guaranteed.”

With these frameworks in mind, it is important to emphasize that the use of information and communication to ensure that different cultures have the space to freely express themselves – on their own terms – is vital to advancing mutual understanding among peoples and between cultures. The media has the ability to facilitate this intercultural dialogue. By challenging prevailing attitudes and assumptions concerning the many “others” in our world, the media can move beyond scripted stereotypes, stripping away the ignorance that breeds mistrust and suspicion, thus promoting a tolerance and acceptance of difference that values diversity as an opportunity for understanding.

One of the main challenges when advocating for freedom of expression –and a frequent road block in the way of tolerance and understanding – arises from the tension when expression offends or confronts another’s culture or identity. A well-debated recent example of this tension is what has been referred to as the “Danish Cartoons Affair” (2005).

UNESCO gave place for a debate during the 174 Executive Board in which the interrelation and inseparable connection between freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs and symbols was underscored. UNESCO’s Executive Board on that occasion adopted a unanimous decision, “upholding the exercise of freedom of expression in a spirit of mutual respect and mutual understanding” and urged “mutual respect for cultural diversity religious beliefs and religious symbols.” The debate highlighted the role media can play to deepen differences or to create knowledge about others and their history in order to enhance better inter-cultural understanding.

Respecting cultural difference while preserving freedom of expression will always appear as a tension to be debated and negotiated in any democratic society. Frank, even harsh speech is our right unless given with the intention of inciting discrimination, hostility or violence. Any attempt to restrict the right to freedom of expression must be balanced against this criterion. And yet, our rights concerning religion and culture must also be respected. There is no hierarchy between the various human rights. They exist in a nexus relationship and it is exactly this mutual respect for all rights that ensure the single human individual her dignity.

It is crucial to recognize that cultural diversity is enriched by the experience and contributions of all nations, cultures and peoples (3). Cultural diversity promotes universal values and establishes a common ground where no single culture can claim a monopoly. While it is true that diversity can cause division, intolerance and even violence, a media that is free, pluralistic and professional provides a forum for the non-violent negotiation of differences.

(1) - See UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/56/6

(2) - See UN General Assembly Resolution on Cultural diversity and Human Rights 62/155 and UNESCO action in page 43.

(3) - See UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions

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