Journalistic ethical considerations are at the core of fostering accountability. Conventions, charters and declarations offer clear guidelines and objectives to journalists, not only in peacetime, but also during times of conflict, when the pursuit of truth and trust in the media are often most threatened. Helping journalists commit to ethical media practices allows for improved self-regulation which, in turn, benefits citizens. Ethical standards can be international, national, regional or organisational. See the Accountable Journalism database for examples of monitored media ethics around the world.
A case of charters and collaboration – The Syrian conflictThe Syrian-Arab magazine Enab Baladi and the Syrian-Kurdish radio station Arta FM have collaborated to demonstrate that ethnic difference doesn’t have to result in ethnic tension. Both organisations are supported by Free Press Unlimited and signatories of the Syrian Media Charter [insertanchorlink]. The Charter successfully brought 40 media organisations together to agree on shared ethical journalistic principles, and the subsequent collaboration between Enab Baladi and Arta FM shows how charters can help spark dialogue between historically peaceful groups. Making space for such dialogue is extremely difficult in conflict situations, but something that can be made easier once ethical standards are adopted. Read more on the story here.
– The Importance of Self Regulation of the Media in Upholding Freedom of Expression (UNESCO)
– Media Councils in the Digital Age: An inquiry into the practices of media self-regulatory bodies in the media landscape of today (Study funded by the European Commission)
For many years, self regulation was deemed the professional responsibility of journalists themselves, and a variety of attempts have been made to codify the responsibility of journalists, often through the medium of their professional associations (e.g. trade unions, federations, press councils). While various existing codes of conduct have some differences, most share common elements – a respect for truth and for the public’s right to truth; the right to fair comment and criticism; factual and objective reporting; the use of fair methods to obtain information; the willingness to correct mistakes; respecting the confidentiality of sources. (Puddephatt 2011).
Regulation has three components (Campbell 1999): (1) legislation, that is, defining appropriate rules; (2) enforcement, such as initiating actions against violators; and (3) adjudication, that is, deciding whether a violation has taken place and imposing an appropriate sanction.
A self-regulatory body is an entity constituted by media organizations to exercise some degree of oversight and regulation over the media industry (or profession). This could be the Ministry of Communications or Telecommunications, National Statistical Organizations, Audiovisual Regulatory Authority or a Press Council.
Goals for media development in conflict situations
- Professional and citizen journalists are able to avoid self-censorship.
- Professional and citizen journalists avoid partisanship: they recognize harmful stereotypes and narratives that feed the conflict and avoid reinforcing these in the way that they report on the conflict.
- CSOs exchange information with media and act on behalf of civilians as a watchdog to hold parties accountable.
- Increased solidarity towards threatened, jailed or tortured colleagues.
The beneficial roles journalists can play in conflict
These are several elements of conflict resolution that good journalism can deliver, automatically, as part of its daily work:
1. Channeling communication: The news media is often the most important channel of communication that exists between sides in a conflict. Sometimes the media is used to broadcast intimidating messages. But other times, the parties speak to each other through the media.
2. Educating: Each side needs to know about the other side’s difficulty in moving towards reconciliation. Journalism which explores each side’s particular difficulties can help educate the other side to avoid demands for simplistic and immediate solutions.
3. Confidence-building: Lack of trust is a major factor contributing to conflict. The media can reduce suspicion by digging into hot issues and revealing them so there are no secrets to fear. Good journalism can also present news that shows resolution is possible by giving examples from other places and by explaining local efforts at reconciliation.
4. Correcting misperceptions: By examining and reporting on the two sides’ misperceptions of each other, the media encourages disputing sides to revise their views and move closer to reducing conflict.
5. Making them human: Getting to know the other side, giving them names and faces, is an essential step. Good journalism also does this by putting real people in the story and describing how the issue affects them.
6. Identifying underlying interests: In a conflict both sides need to understand the bottom-line interests of the other.
7. Emotional outlet: In conflict resolution, there must be outlets for each side to express their grievances or anger. The media can provide important outlets by allowing both sides to speak. Many disputes can be fought out in the media, instead of in the streets, and the conflict can be addressed before it turns violent.
8. Framing the conflict: In a conflict, describing the problem in a different way can reduce tension and launch negotiations. Good journalism can help reframe conflicts for the two sides.
9. Face-saving, consensus-building: When two parties try to resolve a conflict they must calm the fears of their supporters. By reporting what they say, the media allows leaders in a conflict to conduct face-saving and consensus-building.
10. Solution-building: In a conflict, both sides must eventually present specific proposals to respond to grievances. On a daily basis, good reporting does this by asking the disputing parties for their solutions instead of just repeating their rhetoric of grievances.
Incorporate findings from this publication for background/ problem analysis: http://www.mecodem.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Drefs-Thomass-2016_Policy-Brief_Supporting-Journalism-in-Conflict-Societies.pdf
For track record and some examples, see this project: https://wiki.freepressunlimited.org/display/PROMIS/Project+-+Media+Narratives+on+Conflict+and+Humanitarian+Crises+in+Nigeria#attachmentsTab
Case study: the ‘charter of honor’. The Ethical Charter for Syrian Media (ECSM)
Free Press Unlimited worked with Syrian partners for two years to establish this charter. Signed by some forty Syrian media outlets, the final 2015 charter is based on the understanding of the role the media plays in fostering accountability and the complex media processes that arise in conflict.
Since the popular movement broke out in March 2011, many new Syrian media outlets were established. Recognising the absence of media regulation laws in Syria, Free Press Unlimited worked alongside Syrian journalists to create a binding ethical charter, establishing journalistic principles designed to benefit Syrian society.
The ECSM’s principles are based upon the principles of general ethics, as enshrined in international charters, declarations, and conventions. Some of the ECSM’s central principles are:
- Accuracy, truthfulness and credibility of information
- Objectivity and honesty
- Commitment to independent media coverage
- Respect for the truth and freedom of expression
- Maintenance of balance, fairness and pluralism
- Opportunities for the public to respond to or correct published material
The ECSM 2015, in summary:
The ECSM is applicable to all media workers, be they individuals, groups, firms, societies, clubs or publishing assistants. Signatories of the charter must be impartial from government and political organisations. Moreover, these media workers agree on certain obligations to the public; they must:
- Respect the privacy of individuals and groups and their right to information
- Not discriminate on the basis of religion, sect, ethnicity, language, gender, culture or colour
- Respect freedom of thought, belief and expression
- Strengthen participation and communication between the media and the public
For media workers to do their jobs ethically and professionally, they must separate their personal views from the media material. This enables the public to form their own opinions and protects freedom of thought.
Not only are the principles of the charter based upon international conventions, but they factor in principles from Arab conventions too. Under these considerations, media workers must respect human dignity, safeguard the rights of people with special needs and only work with minors and children if adhering to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Media workers committed to the charter should also be aware of the consequences of their profession, and should refrain from publishing material which encourages violence and instead seek to promote peace and justice.
Signatories of the charter should commit to:
- Seeking the truth and conveying facts honestly.
- Professional integrity based on the interests of the public.
- Respecting the privacy of individuals and organisations.
- Making no prejudgments and ensuring accuracy and clarity.
- Not take advantage of the social or economic situation in coverage areas.
- Accurately specifying sources or concealing them when identities need to be protected.
- Refrain from publishing images and video clips that harm the dignity and sanctity of victims (dead or wounded people).
- Respect copyrights and mention the sources when quoted.
- Inform the public when information which has been withheld from them by the authorities could harm their interest.
- Distinguishing between press material and advertisement, publicity, and sponsored material, and refrain from promoting a product, a policy, or an organization by presenting the material as press or news material.
- Avoiding denigration and libel against individuals, groups, establishments, and organizations.
By signing the Charter, media organisations pledge that they will maintain these journalistic principles. As per article 8, an independent committee was founded to monitor the implementation of the Ethical Charter which will see to it that signatories adhere to the principles. The committee therefore facilitate a self-regulatory framework for the Syrian journalists.
Signatories also pledge solidarity to any media workers facing violation or threats, especially if such danger is a result of their commitment to the charter.
ECSM also organises debates for its members about the role of the media and journalistic dilemmas, to keep the discussion of ethical standards going, even in the most testing of environments.