Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development
26 August - 4 September 2002
Journalists around the world believe the Johannesburg world summit 2002 on sustainable development provides an unprecedented opportunity for change, but the lofty aims of the summit will never be achieved unless there is a new global commitment to press freedom and democracy.
The grand design of the organisers to save the environment and eradicate poverty will not be realised unless there is a commitment to involving all citizens - including the world's poorest people - in the debate about change. The media agenda must be pluralist and not dominated by the commercial interests of global corporations. Human rights, democracy and freedom of expression are not on the margins of the struggle for sustainable development. People must be free to speak their minds. They must have access to the information they need to make decisions about the future. These questions are important to the definition and construction of a decent society, as is the need for affordable, equitable and high-quality public services such as people-centred systems of public broadcasting.
In many regions where the toughest challenges exist - Africa, Latin America and the populous countries of Asia - media are not free and journalism is a perilous and high-risk profession. Sustainable development cannot be achieved when people live in the shadow of ignorance, corruption and fear.
Many journalists fear that the Johannesburg summit will be a gigantic talking shop. If it means business, it must confront the crisis of democracy and human rights and ensure that the campaigns for sustainable development, poverty reduction and environmental protection go hand in hand with building democratic and pluralist societies. Press freedom and pluralism must be made priorities for action.
A second threat to the success of the summit lies in the battle of ideas on the future of world trade. It will be a global tragedy if the Johannesburg agenda is hijacked by free market interests. In the era of free markets there are ever larger and more powerful global corporations and valid questions are being raised about how these great institutions are run, who controls them, and to whom they are accountable.
The crisis of confidence caused by recent corporate scandals is only one dimension of the failure to monitor transnational companies that are driving the process of trade globalisation. It is not enough to call for higher accounting standards and a crackdown on corporate misrepresentation; there is an urgent need to tackle the palpable failure of companies to meet their responsibilities to employees, the environment and the local communities around them.
The IFJ supports calls from Global Unions worldwide for new international mechanisms to make global corporations - including media companies - more accountable. Influencing the corporate agenda is essential in an era when private companies, including those with substantial media interests, are gaining ever-greater control over essential public goods and services.
French company Vivendi, for example, is one of the world's largest media companies and is also supplying water - the most essential of all public goods - to 110 million people around the world. It is a company with a troubled past and present.
The IFJ notes media reports that in 2001 a senior Vivendi manager was convicted of bribery in Italy, having paid the president of Milan city council for contracts and in 1997, French Minister Jean-Michel Boucheron was convicted of taking bribes from Compagnie Générale de Eaux (the predecessor of Vivendi). Additionally, Vivendi has been reportedly challenged over its environmental performance in poorer regions. For example, the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority's water supply and sanitation services were privatised to Vivendi's Compania de Agua in 1995. Since then the company has been the subject of two highly critical reports by the Puerto Rico Office of the Comptroller and has been fined a total of more than $6 million for various violations of environmental laws.
Companies who play fast and loose with investors and the political process also neglect their responsibilities to the environment and to their staff. A solution to the problem of corporate governance must be found and this must include new duties on directors and company officers.
The time has come for the creation of a culture of corporate citizenship, which would require company directors to consider the effects of their actions on the environment, on human rights, on local communities and on their workforce.
We need new global institutions to defend rights, to promote development and democracy and to rein in the power of the unelected corporate elite that dominates world trade.
Johannesburg creates an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration and cross-fertilisation of experience and aspiration at a practical level, but if governments who deny people their fundamental rights are not challenged and if global corporations are not reined in, then it will be an opportunity missed.
Brussels, August 19th 2002