The ethical journalism session danced lightly over a range of tricky issues, but none can of them can be ignored.
The session concluded that we can never let governments off the hook for the range of threats that journalists face, but many of the ethical problems in the newsroom are self-inflicted.
The contributions from Khady Cisse, Ziliania Otero and Georges Sadaka were revealing about how media corruption, political bias and incompetent reporting provide a massive global challenge to the media development community.
If we want a journalism fit for democracy we will have to invest in more ethical training and more credible forms of accountability that will build public trust. That will not be easy, but we can make a start through practical co-operation.
On that note it was good to sit with a group after lunch that rolled out some ideas for follow-up work on overturning the recent Hungarian media law which is little more than a charter for political control of journalism.
One idea is to draft a counter-manifesto setting out the case for an independent and credible accountability system that will respect ethics and keep political hands off the controls of media. Given the need to build a culture of responsible journalism in the new world of information it’s an idea that should be taken up across the globe.
On July 1st Hungary hands over the Presidency of European Union and from that moment the Government in Budapest will hope the world will forget all about the shameful media law that has cast a shadow over its six month reign in Europe’s top job.
The law is a shocker. It sets up a politically-driven media council with powers to fine journalists and with instructions to force media to be “balanced.” The Government uses the law to oversee the registration, licensing and sanctioning of all print, broadcasting and online media.
It caused a storm of protest both inside and outside the country and even European Union bureaucrats in Brussels called for changes in the law. They forced the Government of Victor Orban to make some limited amendments.
Now the government will hope that with the Brussels bandwagon moving on to Poland they can retreat into the European shadows, but the law will still be in place.
Press freedom groups and media people at the IFEX meeting in Beirut should not allow that to happen. The campaign against this law needs to be stepped up, not allowed to fade away. There’s a need to develop a fresh strategy, one that will deliver an alternative and more positive approach not only for Hungary, but also for policymakers in many other countries on the EU’s eastern fringe. But how will that be done? There’s a meeting on June 2nd in Beirut that aims to come up with some ideas.
Press freedom groups have an important role to play in shaping the future of journalism – not least by helping to build a media culture of transparency, quality and respect for ethics.
IFEX is always a great place to discuss the threats to journalism from bad law and unscrupulous politicians, but many current problems facing reporters come from inside the newsroom. Part of the discussion in Beirut will be about how we confront the crisis of falling standards in journalism, and not just that caused by government interference, but also as a result of the cocktail of corruption inside media and corporate misbehaviour.
There are major problems, even in the best of democracies. A couple of years ago the Press Council in India exposed a scandalous culture of “journalism for sale” to politicians across the country and recently, the publishers Gannett, owners of the lucrative USATODAY, announced plans to pay “cash for clicks,” — extra payments to reporters whose articles register high numbers of page views and attract online advertising.
Given that it’s gossip and celebrity that drives online journalism, reporters rightly ask who will cover public interest stories about budget deficits, social policy, and political intrigue when unscrupulous politics can buy space at will and when editorial cash prizes go only to the glamour and glitz end of journalism?
Many fear these are more nails in the coffin of quality journalism. Already, in many newsrooms, investigative journalism is virtually extinct, journalists work in precarious conditions and get no training and a “brown envelope” culture of bribes and backhanders greases the wheeling and dealing between journalism and power.
It’s time to get journalism back on track, but how do journalists keep the faith with their profession in an atmosphere of political tension and global crisis?
Whether it’s Arab spring, race hatred, drug-fuelled violence, human rights abuse, war and terrorism, poverty and social dislocation, journalists already have a near impossible job, but if they want to continue to play a pivotal role in shaping norms in society they must reconnect with their ethical base.