/ 15 September 2006

Letter from Croatia

These bodies emerged about four years ago out of concern that the General Agreement on Trade in Services being forged at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) would place trade in cultural products on the same plane as, for example, toothpaste. The fear was that if cultural products were allowed similar liberalised access to markets around the world, then it was likely that films, television programmes and music from the United States in particular, would dominate the markets of all countries even more than was already the case.

In Europe about 600 films are produced a year, but US movies have a 74% share of the market. Under liberalised trade agreements it would be possible for the US to demand that countries not provide subsidies to produce movies or magazines or television programmes, as this would ‘distort” the market, by providing unfair competition for products created without subsidy in Hollywood, for example.

While the audiovisual industries of countries like France, Australia and Canada would be greatly threatened by such trade agreements, the implications are far broader.

Cultural products are not only commercial entities that create jobs, generate income and contribute to the local tax base, they also convey values, ideas and world views so that if cultural products emanating from the US were allowed to enter into local markets without protecting local cultural industries and practices, there is a legitimate fear that these will have an homogenising effect, so that US values, ideas and perspectives come to pervade the consciousness of people throughout the world.

If the cultural industries of developed countries are under threat, then the scenario in developing and underdeveloped countries is even bleaker.

Many of these countries have little or no cultural industries and when they do eventually develop the capacity to tell their own stories through film and literature, or when they are able to produce their own music, they face an uphill battle to sell themselves to their own markets which have internalised the values, themes and aesthetics of US products to which they have become accustomed.

Besides, it is cheaper for many developing countries to purchase cultural products from abroad than it is to invest in the development of their own cultural industries. This has direct consequences for local artists who have limited work opportunities as a result of there being limited cultural industries.

The INCP and the INCD have been lobbying for a new international Convention on Cultural Diversity that would govern trade in cultural products and remove the jurisdiction over such trade from the free marketers who dominate the WTO.

In terms of such a convention, countries would be allowed to take measures — like setting local content quotas — to develop and protect their own cultural industries, and to ensure that local markets at least have the choice of local and regional products, alongside the products emanating from the US cultural industries juggernaut, in other words, to promote cultural diversity.

A first victory has been at the General Conference of Unesco, which voted on Monday to endorse such a convention. At its first meeting as a full member of Unesco since its withdrawal 19 years ago, the US voted against the proposal.

Whether the victory will be sustained depends on the how the rest of the world responds to the likely future tactics of the US in delaying, not signing or withdrawing from such a convention as it has done on other issues like the Kyoto accord on the environment and the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Whatever, if we weren’t aware of it before, artists in South Africa now have common cause with the protesters in Cancun. And it is in their interests to engage with the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that our cultural industries are developed and protected, and are not sold out at the WTO.