The right to information as an ethical civil right

Tsunami, ethics and information:

Can global ethical codes be developed without the concept of martyrdom?

The development of globalisation is calling for the development process of internationally shared library ethical codes, says Hannele Koivunen, presently setting up a project at a national level involving the ethics of culture. The ethical question presented in this article is whether the proactive enlightenment role of the library has been transformed into media-reactivity.

Knowledge that saves
Some positive news arose from amidst the disaster in Asia; it related how a ten-year-old British schoolgirl saved approximately one hundred tourists. The girl had recently learned about earthquakes and tidal waves in her geography lesson at school, i.e. their typical characteristics, where they occur, and the tensions which occur between the continental sheets.When the ocean on that fateful morning receded from the shore, the girl was immediately able to apply into practice what she had recently learned in school. She regarded her senses as being meaningful and interpreted them correctly. Her mother and other adults believed the girl’s interpretation and were able to escape from the shore in time.

The people who had grown up in an information society were for the most part unable to interpret the signs they saw in their surroundings. The decay of knowledge of the human species is well demonstrated by the fact that elephants and other animals were able to anticipate the danger and retreat to higher ground in time.

Humans also need theoretical information to support the interpretation of their observations. Knowledge is important for the well-being of human life. Our example illustrates how knowledge can save our lives.

The evolution of the human species involves cooperation between the senses and the brain. The history of humans can be examined from the viewpoint of conceptualism. Humans have learned to give significance to the phenomena which occur in nature. In this way, humans create their own order into the chaos of unawareness which surrounds them.

The tidal wave disaster has been described as complete chaos, as a breaking down of order. However, in view of our theoretical knowledge, a tidal wave is not about chaos, instead it is ruled by the clear laws of nature.We know how the continental sheets have moved during the course of millions of years. We know where the active areas are at the moment in relation to tectonics. We know that tension in these areas will inevitably discharge within a certain time span and will follow the laws of physics precisely. This clear order of nature is chaos only from the point of view of the immaturity, ignorance and poor anticipation of the human species.

On the other hand, the knowledge needed to prevent the disaster and save lives existed, the risks were well acknowledged. The activity of this region, as well as the danger of possible tsunamis, was acknowledged. The necessary technical competence needed for a warning system existed. The vastness of the destruction correlates to the fact that the paradise beaches of the tourist resorts are built as densely as possible to attract mass tourism. The tourists want to be as close to the beach as possible and to avoid strenuous long distances.

At the moment, the global ethics of the white man is the ethics of the market economy. From the standpoint of such ethics, densely built profitable beaches and money traps represent a beautiful order of things. It is a question of maximising profits. It is a question of the will of those making the decisions. It is a question of the right to information, e.g. the availability of information as a base for decision-making and democracy. It is a question of the rights of humans and other creatures. It was a question of how the available information was utilised.

Media tidal wave
The tsunami was followed by another enormous tidal wave: the tidal wave of the media. The first media tidal wave held its breath; how immense would the disaster be? The extent to which people suffer is the number-one, unwritten criterion for news stories. The vastness of the destruction silenced even the media into a quiet deference, which replaced the ordinary crave for sensational news. The growing numbers of casualties made sure that this would be an excellent source of news for a long time.

For a short moment the sorrow was universally humane, international and multicultural. This soon changed. The memorial service held in Finland was advertised as a common event for all religions, but only tree Christian churches took part in it. As a matter of fact, perhaps only three to five per cent of the victims came from countries in which the Christian church is predominant. Most of the victims are Indonesian Muslims.

The first reaction of the media emphasised the family, tribes and residency. Were there relatives, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and colleagues among those involved? Was there anyone from this city or village? Were there Finns, Swedes, Norwegians or Danes? Were there Europeans? Americans?

So far the number of those who have perished in the disaster is estimated at 290,000. The greatest losses have been suffered in Indonesia. The news media has concentrated for the most part on Thailand, since it is a holiday destination for Scandinavian tourists. This is a white man’s tragedy, and that is why we hear so much about it.

The next tidal wave of the media involved the search for culprits. In an infantile reaction we wished for a fairytale king who would within a few hours of the disaster come to the rescue of his own subjects thousands of kilometres away, bringing along a fully equipped hospital as well. Governments have been accused of not anticipating a natural disaster which occurs once in a couple of hundred years, and for being unable to obtain information from the other side of the world from the middle of a situation in which all roads and communications were cut off.

A revolting trend has been the fact that many celebrities and politicians have wanted to appear alongside the piles of corpses. In the latest media surge, celebrities compete over who has given the most. Paradoxically, the same people have loudly criticised taxation and development aid, with the help of which permanent facilities and readiness for crisis situations could be created. The actions of the local people, the infrastructure, and local readiness were of crucial importance in providing first-aid.

In October 2004, I took part in the first international conference of comparative religion (Religious Harmony: Problems and Practice) that was arranged in a Muslim country, Indonesia. I gave a lecture about my current research topic entitled Competing Images of Martyrs in Global Media. The tsunami made my subject of research frighteningly topical.

In my lecture I raised some questions. Is the productisation of martyrdom the most important news criterion of postmodern media, and does it surpass other approaches? Can global ethical codes be developed without the concept of martyrdom? Does the media bear a responsibility for the emotional epidemics it has produced?

There is a huge contradiction between the ethical codes of journalists and the everyday practices of the media. Martyrdom and suffering used as a means for competing are probably not manifested in any news criteria, although the observation of the media environment proves otherwise.

The tsunami and library ethics
What kind of information is sought from the library after the disaster? People inquire about information concerning tidal waves, tourist resorts, maps, crisis aid, and words and verses for the consolation of the grieving.

The birth of the public library was connected with the general development of democracy and with the emphasis of the rights of an individual. Equal education and access to information are the strong ethical cornerstones of the public library.When choosing material, this has meant that, during the decades of the 20. century, the library’s endeavours to offer enlightening, worthwhile material has diminished and the collections and services of the libraries have changed to reflect what the publishers have to offer and the material ever-increasingly represents commercial demand. The proactive enlightenment role of the library has been transformed into a mediareactive role.

Traditional discussion about library ethics has dealt with the responsibilities of the library concerning the validity of information, its objectivity, censorship, protecting children from brutalising material on the Internet, hackers, or the search for unlawful information using the library.

The ethical question I present is whether the library has swung too far in the direction of media-reactivity? Do alterations need to be made for the library to reflect a more multifarious picture of the world and the universe of information than the influential media does? For example, the relationship of the library towards immaterial rights is a complex ethical question which is linked to the relationship of information of the individual and community, intertextuality, and the transfer of tradition.When speaking of library ethics, intellectual freedom is a term often referred to, but true diversity cannot be realised through the mechanisms of a market economy.

In what way and how quickly did the library take part in the production of background material connected with the tsunami disaster? Did libraries form a network with others who helped? Was the library able to actively offer information packages and help for various sources, or was it only able to answer single questions which were presented?

Communal, public investment in the citizens’ information services can be justified from two perspectives. On the one hand, we want to develop and maintain the diversity that renews the production of signs in society. On the other hand, we want to secure the democracy of the information society by providing citizens with access to information and signs. These two fundamental pillars, diversity and democracy, are the ethical bases of the modern information society. Maintaining the critical, humane, creative capital means that, when producing signs, diversity will become democracy, i.e. access to a diversity of information will be secured for all.
In an increasingly globalised world, the library and information service network extends to everyone and generation of the services requires a global perspective. Societies and users within the network are also international.

Humans are narrative beings, ‘Homo narrans’.Within the macro-paradigms of science, art and faith, we look for the answers to the same questions using different methods.Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why do we suffer? How can we escape from suffering?

The library’s ethical problem, as well as its strength, is the localness of its nature. On the other hand, libraries and information services were networking internationally long before the concept of networking came about in its current meaning. The juxtaposition of global versus local has outlived its usefulness. The global aspect is continually present through the local aspect as a reflection of the whole world. The library is a global actor with global responsibility. The global, ethical task of the library is to ensure the diversity of information and equal access to the information. According to traditional, but always applicable slogans, the library is a universe of information, a memory of humankind, a realm of free speech and free choices.

When a disaster strikes, people are eager to help and to give money. The most important thing, however, is to predict, prevent or minimise the damages of disasters. This requires systems in which people can continually be prepared and take part in caring for those afflicted and in need, and in the upkeep of the level of awareness of citizens and of a common infrastructure.

A goal to set for global library ethics would be that access to world data pools, accessibility to information from all parts of the world and different cultures, would be ensured everywhere in the world ‘mobilely’, online round the clock. Technically, it would be fully viable to achieve this goal during the next twenty or so years. It is simply a question of clarity of vision, ethical will and investment.We must remember that information is not only a product of white men and industrialised nations, but there is necessary information for everyone in all cultures.

Post-modern cannibalism?
Answers to the burning questions cannot be found easily. The results are just new, albeit hopefully more focused, questions:
Will global ethics codes even change with the help of martyrs, or will the media intensify the constantly growing need to obtain new martyrs? Do people need a new martyr story every day in order to live? Does the consumption of martyr products bear a resemblance to post-modern cannibalism?

What is the library’s role in this process? Is the library participating in feeding this cannibalism to obtain high patron numbers in the name of effectiveness and productivity? Is the library just a passive extension of the media and publishers?

The development of globalisation is calling for the development of internationally shared library ethical codes.

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös OY

PhD, Consulting Official at the Finnish Ministry for Education, Sciences and Culture.