Michael Traber, who died on 25 March 2006, was born and educated in Switzerland. In 1956 he was ordained into the Bethlehem Mission Society from where he went to the USA to study sociology and mass communication at Fordham University and New York University (1956-60). He gained his PhD in mass communication.
The Bethlehem Fathers’ close ties with Southern Africa led Mike to work in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as director of Mambo Press and editor of the critical weekly newspaper Moto (1962-70). As well as producing audiovisuals, Mambo Press published books in English and Shona.
In 1970 Mike founded and managed Imba Verlag, a book-publishing house in Fribourg, Switzerland, before returning to Africa as senior lecturer in journalism at the Africa Literature Centre, Kitwe, Zambia (1973-76). During those years he also did research in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia.
Mike Traber joined the staff of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) in 1976 as director of its fledgling Periodicals Development Programme and editor of its quarterly journal Media Development. For the first year he worked from Switzerland, visiting London for editorial purposes where, by example, he taught me copy-editing and layout (in those days literally cutting and pasting).
With typical generosity he decided that on one of these occasions the arrangement should be reversed. So I travelled to Geneva where we met photographer John Taylor at the World Council of Churches. During our conversation we shared one or two convivial glasses of whisky and then set off to locate our hotel. For some reason it was difficult to find...
One of Mike Traber’s first responsibilities at WACC was to find a way of using the press in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. In the 1970s a number of organizations in South Africa, and several church-related donor agencies, had been considering how to establish a newspaper that would be truly representative of black peoples. In early 1976 WACC had convened a meeting of representatives of various organizations from South Africa to discuss different possibilities and thus the Black Press Fund (BPF) was born.
It was agreed that the Fund would be used to support periodicals that most effectively challenged the apartheid regime and its inhuman policy of separate development and discriminated humanity.’ When the South African Council of Churches (SACC) set up a newspaper in Johannesburg, called The Voice, and sought financial support, it was agreed that the BPF would contribute to its running costs as well as supporting Grassroots, a black community newspaper in Cape Town.
Mike was instrumental in securing support for these publications, which also vindicated WACC’s support for ‘strategic periodicals’.
From NWICO to theological reflections
In 1976 in response to the call of many developing countries for the ‘decolonisation of information’, UNESCO undertook a review of communication problems in contemporary society against the background of technological progress and developments in international relations. It established the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems under the presidency of Seán MacBride. The outcome, published in 1980, was Many Voices, One World: Communication and Society Today and Tomorrow with its slogan ‘Towards a new more just and more efficient world information and communication order’.
In later years international controversy over the call for this new order led to conflict between NWICO supporters (including most Third World countries) and the US government and its Western allies. One outcome was reluctance on the part of UNESCO to republish Many Voices, One World, supplies of which by 1988 had run out. WACC sought and was given permission to republish it.
In 1989 Mike Traber became a founding member of the MacBride Round Table on Communication, which met for the first time in Harare, Zimbabwe, continuing a lifetime’s unwavering support to the NWICO movement, the values espoused by the MacBride Roundtable, and later the concept of communication rights.
- Similarly, he put his intellectual weight behind the push for the systematic study of the connections between theology and communication, a WACC programme that became operational in the early part of 1983. After six years some 48 working papers, 59 course outlines for teaching communication in seminaries and 12 complete syllabi were produced. A book on theology and communication was published in Latin America and an extensive study of courses in every major theological seminary in North America was carried out. Mike’s pioneering work stood him in good stead when he later joined the staff of United Theological Seminary, Bangalore, to teach doctoral students.
- Mike Traber also worked closely with Dr Robert A. White, at that time director of research at the Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture (London) to edit a series of monographs on ‘Communication and Human Values’. The aim of the series was to contribute to the development of social philosophies of communication based on a general conception of human rights and appropriate to particular cultural contexts.
The American publisher Longman brought out the first book in 1983, Cultural Autonomy in Global Communications by Cees J. Hamelink. However, for reasons unconnected with the series, Longman withdrew and a second contract was signed with Sage. From 1986 to the end of the series in 1997, some 30 titles appeared, including the first English translation of Jesús Martín-Barbero’s Communication, Culture and Hegemony (1993), and culminating in Communication Ethics and Universal Values (1997), edited by Clifford G. Christians and Michael Traber.
When Bob White took up a professorship at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, he invited Mike to become a visiting lecturer. Spring in Rome and youthful Frascati wine was a time Mike began to look forward to.
Christian principles and Congress
- In 1984 at the suggestion of Hans W. Florin, then WACC’s General Secretary, Mike Traber drafted eight propositions about communication for discussion by its Central Committee. He argued that although information and communication were drastically changing the world, instead of establishing commonality and solidarity, they were tending to reinforce divisions, widen the gap between rich and poor, consolidate oppression, and distort reality. The effect was to maintain systems of domination and subject the silenced masses to media manipulation.
- After honing and polishing during 1985 and formal adoption in 1986, WACC’s Christian Principles of Communication were born. They affirmed that genuine communication creates community; that it is participatory; and that it liberates, supports and develops cultures, and is prophetic. This landmark in the development of WACC provided the rationale and theological basis for its first international Congress (1989). It also laid the foundations for WACC’s first ‘five-year study and action programme’, in which Mike took the lead in elaborating six main areas: communication ethics; the right to communicate; communication and religion; communication, culture and social change; communication education; and women’s perspectives.
Mike Traber retired from WACC – but not from communications – in 1995. A book on The Democratization of Communication was published in his honour, containing contributions from colleagues working in the global field of mass communications. As the introduction emphasized, Michael Traber stood for: ‘…the universal values of humanism, above all peace, democracy, human rights, social progress and national liberation, while respecting the distinctive character, value and dignity of each culture, as well as the right of each people freely to choose and develop its political, social, economic and cultural systems.’
Post-WACC Mike continued to teach for one month each year at the Gregorian University, Rome, until 2004. He also spent six months of the year in India, working with colleagues to build up a master’s and later a doctoral degree course at United Theological College, Bangalore, where he combined his passions for journalism, theology and communication rights.
Awarded honorary life membership of WACC at a ceremony held in Switzerland on 11 March 2006, Mike responded:
‘I consider myself a gift of the Catholic Church to the ecumenical movement. By participating in this movement I was in effect – and happily – under the authority of Protestant Churches. One of my tasks has been to bear witness to the seamless and undivided garment of Christ, or to the ecumenical character of God’s Reign. A second task was not only to bear witness among my Protestant friends, but, equally so among my fellow Catholics. In that sense, I am also a gift of the ecumenical movement to theCatholic Church.
‘This double witness has occasionally caused confusion and misunderstandings, some of which were painful. But that pain has been wiped out by the enthusiasm of my Indian students, both Protestant and Catholic, in the last ten years.
‘I learned early on in my life that public communication, at least in Africa and Asia, ought to be ecumenical in principle. I consider the churches’ public communication not primarily as a service to the churches but, more comprehensively, as an action centred on furthering the Kingdom of God. The church, after all, does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the Kingdom.
‘The values of God’s Reign – such as equality, justice, reconciliation, freedom, harmony, peace and love (‘shalom’) – have inspired my work May these values guide me to the end of my days.
‘In conclusion, I would like to thank all those who have accompanied me in my life’s journey. In particular I like to thank all of you, gathered here for an honour I do not deserve, but for which I am grateful – for the sake of the Kingdom.’
Mike’s wide-ranging interests included music, notably Mozart and Bruckner, and literature, especially Shakespeare, Pinter and Fugard. Painting and indigenous handicrafts – especially Shona carvings and sculptures from Zimbabwe – were another pleasure.
- Some might say that Mike’s greatest gift was his ability to listen and to sympathise. Faced with new ideas, articles, or theses, he always began with praise, even if constructive criticism followed hard on its heels. He liked people, taking great pains to coach and encourage them in the firm belief that knowledge is for sharing, not hoarding.
- Above all, Mike knew that ‘The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools’ (Eccles. 9: 17).
Schweiz - Dritte Welt (Switzerland and the Third World), co-authored with Hans K. Schmocker. Zürich and Fribourg (1971).
Rassismus und weisse Vorherrschaft (Racism and White Dominance). Fribourg and Nuremberg (1972).
Das revolutionäre Afrika (Revolution in Africa). Fribourg and Nuremberg (1972).
The Myth of the Information Revolution (editor). London: Sage Publications (1986).
Few Voices, Many Worlds: Towards a Media Reform Movement, co-edited with Kaarle Nordenstreng. London: WACC (1992).
‘Changes of Communication Needs and Rights in Social Revolutions’, in Communication and Democracy, edited by Slavko Splichal and Janet Wasko. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, (1993).
‘Communication Ethics’, in The Global Media Debate: Its Rise, Fall and Renewal, edited by George Gerbner, Hamid Mowlana and Kaarle Nordenstreng. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, (1993).
Communication Ethics and Universal Values, edited by Clifford Christians and Michael Traber. Thousand Oaks: Sage (1997).
Communication in Theological Education: New Directions, edited by Michael Traber. Delhi: ISPCK (2005).