Calls for journalists to exercise a sense of responsibility are very often code for censorship. Yet unethical journalism can also imperil the press. By Jean-Paul Marthoz
All around the planet, authoritarian rulers and their officials hold forth about the “responsibility of the press.”
Most of the time, their preaching and talk of the need for codes of conduct or ethical guidelines serve to clip the wings of independent journalists and tame the press. Their invocation of lofty notions of patriotism, honor, reputation, and respect for authority are meant to deter investigations and exposés of their abuses of power or ill-acquired wealth.
Ethics are also brandished when the press covers sensitive subjects, such as religion, nationalism, or ethnicity. Under the pretext of protecting minorities against hate speech, or of preventing incitement to violence, governments often strive to censor stories that are in the public interest and should be told.
In authoritarian countries, calls for journalists to exercise a sense of responsibility or decency are mostly code for censorship. In Egypt, after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in July 2013, the new military-backed rulers immediately announced their intention to create a journalistic code of ethics and made its adoption a condition for lifting existing censorship.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has been indulging in media bashing for years, calling journalists “unethical,” “trash-talking,” or “liars.” After his landslide re-election in February 2013, he warned, as reported by CPJ correspondent John Otis, that “one thing that has to be fixed is the press, which totally lacks ethics and scruples.” Correa has since “fixed” the press through a new communications law that severely restricts press freedom by establishing government regulation of editorial content and giving the authorities power to impose arbitrary sanctions on the press.
In June 2013, the Sri Lankan government tried to impose a new code of media ethics in order, according to Keheliya Rambukwella, the minister of mass media and information, “to create a salutary media culture.” Although the protests of national and international journalists associations forced the government to backtrack, some observers fear that the code might resurface. “The media code was part of a sustained campaign to control the media and curtail dissent,” Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told CPJ. “Its vagueness would likely have led to greater self-censorship to avoid government retaliation.” The code prohibited “criticisms affecting foreign relations” and content “that promotes anti-national attitudes.” It also forbade “material against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature” and warned against the publication of content that “offends against expectations of the public morality of the country or tend to lower the standards of public taste and morality.”
In Burundi, “The discussions around the drafting of the new Press Law, which was promulgated in June 2013, constantly referred to the alleged ethical breaches of the press,” Marie-Soleil Frère, a Brussels University researcher and author, told CPJ. “Members of the ruling party repeated ad nauseam that journalists are biased, unfair, and indulge in defamation, lies and insults.”
Authoritarian governments also have a way of playing up alleged ethical breaches when it fits their interests in order to discredit troublesome journalists and even to downplay physical assaults on reporters at work.
If a Mexican or Honduran journalist on the drug beat is murdered, some police use the expression “Por algo sera,” which means, “There must have been a reason”–implying the death was justified by the reporter’s involvement with criminal organizations. That is used as a justification for not seriously investigating the murder and feeds the cycle of impunity.
In fact, the governments that have been the most vocal in calling for “ethical journalism” have often been the first to push their news media to break all journalistic rules and standards. In Egypt, where the new military-civilian authorities have been calling for ethics in journalism, state-owned media have been engaged in ruthless campaigns against dissenting journalistic voices.
“Astonishingly, Egyptian journalists have also participated in the harassment of officially unpopular colleagues,” said Mohamed Khattab, a journalist with the Freedom and Justice newspaper, the official voice of the Muslim Brotherhood, on a July 12, 2013, NPR broadcast. These attacks have not spared international media. “At an army press conference this week,” added BBC reporter Andrew Hosken during the same broadcast, “an Al-Jazeera reporter was ejected by his peers while they chanted ‘Out, out,’ and then applauded when he’d gone.”
In Azerbaijan, pro-government media have shamelessly invaded the privacy of leading opponents and independent journalists and published rumors and lies without consequence. “I have seen countless examples of deliberately unprofessional and unethical behavior from state and pro-government media,” Rebecca Vincent, the advocacy director of the Baku-based Human Rights Club, told CPJ. In August 2013, for instance, Ses newspaper, which is affiliated with the ruling party, published an article attacking Khadija Ismayilova, an award-winning critical journalist working with Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The title was “Khadija’s Armenian Mother Should Die.” In a press release, RFE/RL said: “The article falsely labeled several of Ismayilova’s relatives Armenian. For some Azeris, the reference to ‘Armenian’ ethnicity is code for treason in a country that went to war with Armenia over disputed territory in 1988.”
State media in Ecuador are used as a powerful megaphone to smear journalists who do not toe the official line. Likewise, “in Burundi, Rema FM, a pro-governmental radio [station], spends its time slamming radio stations close to civil society,” Frère said.
In such countries, governments connive with some of the media to violate the most basic ethical norms. The placement of advertising by the state, for instance, is regularly used as a murky tool to secure slavish or toothless coverage. The tactic directly undermines the image of a free press as financially independent and able to avoid conflicts of interest.
In Argentina, this arbitrary pressure is applied at the national level, but its impact is particularly strong on smaller, provincial media outlets, “many of whom,” CPJ’s Sara Rafsky wrote in 2012, “are almost completely financially dependent on official advertising and therefore vulnerable to government pressure over their coverage.”
“Brown envelopes” handed to individual journalists serve the same purpose and have the same effect: they gravely undermine the independence and the freedom of the press. In some countries, where selective ad placements and direct payments to reporters are common, this routine is even defended by some inside the profession with the argument that official ads and personal tips are essential to protect media incomes and journalists’ jobs.
Media owners in some countries are also constrained by their business links with the state and therefore are susceptible to the latter’s capacity to cajole or punish. In the worst such cases, the vulnerability to state pressure occurs when a media company owns other businesses whose prosperity depends on public works tenders or government licenses.
In Turkey, during the protests in Taksim Square and Gezi Park in May and June of 2013, major privately-owned news organizations acted as proxy state censors in several ways, including abstaining from covering the events, stigmatizing the protesters, and adopting the government’s line. To the continuing amusement of many, CNN Türk TV aired a documentary on penguins rather than provide coverage of the demonstrations, turning penguins into a national symbol of self-censorship.
“They have acted proactively, not waiting for memos from the state to censor their journalists,” said Aidan White, founder of the Ethical Journalism Initiative and former general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists.
“The country’s journalists are enslaved in newsrooms run by greedy and ruthless media proprietors, whose economic interests make them submissive to” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, wrote Yavuz Baydar, a leading Turkish columnist who was fired in July 2013 from his post as ombudsman of the daily Sabah after writing articles critical of the government’s handling of the Taksim Square/Gezi Park movements. “Direct criticism of government policies on the Kurds, Syria, or corruption, has led to many columnists being fired or ‘boycotted.’ The scope of democratic debate and dissemination of opinion has narrowed severely,” he wrote.
The stakes are high. The history of attacks against the press tells us that journalists like El Espectador director Guillermo Cano in Colombia, Novaya Gazeta’s Anna Politkovskaya in Russia and Agos editor Hrant Dink in Turkey were killed because the ethical vision of their work led them to confront thuggish groups or corrupt power elites. “Journalists who are committed to their work are killed precisely because they refuse to be corrupted and to submit to criminal gangs,” a leading Mexican editor, who asked not to be named because of the security risks, told CPJ.
Yet, unethical journalism can also trigger attacks against the press by inviting crippling defamation suits or even violence as radical political groups or criminal organizations retaliate against journalists who publish unsubstantiated accusations or take sides. “I firmly believe that the best security measure a journalist can take is to be honest, objective, ethically responsible, and really independent,” a Latin American journalist told the authors of “Killing the Messenger,” a 2007 report by the International News Safety Institute.
Unethical journalists also weaken solidarity and therefore contribute to the cycle of violence and impunity. “As some murdered journalists are associates of criminal organizations, the gangs and even the police may more easily dismiss our denunciations and blur their own responsibility in these attacks against the press,” the Mexican editor told CPJ. “And the profession appears uncomfortable and divided on how to respond.”
Likewise, ethical breaches undermine public support for the media and provide an opportunity, even in established democracies, for governments to adopt tougher statutory regulations. In countries like Venezuela and Russia, when the media came under state pressure the public was not moved, as if all journalists were identified with their unethical colleagues.
The News of the World scandal–the hacking of the voicemails of celebrities and ordinary citizens by the British Sunday tabloid–is one of the most glaring examples of the negative impact of ruffian journalism on freedom of the press in a democracy.
The scandal has rocked the U.K. media scene ever since it was exposed in 2010. It led to a public inquiry and to such a popular outcry that politicians felt obliged to act–or at least to appear to act–against press barons whom many of them, until then, had greatly feared and assiduously courted. By doing so, they took the risk of adopting ill-considered and hasty regulations that might chill press freedom under the cover of punishing a crime.
The link between journalists’ real or alleged failings and state overreaction is evident. “In South Africa, the ANC introduced in 2010–but failed to enforce–a project aimed at setting up a Media Appeals Tribunal that would curtail the power of the [self-regulatory] Press Council, arguing that the ombudsmen system was expensive and ineffectual to correct the journalists’ shortcomings,” Frère, the Brussels University researcher, told CPJ.
South Africa is not the only country where journalists have adopted press codes or set up press councils in order to ward off government regulation. The Press Complaints Commission in Britain was set up in 1991 by a committee of editors to avoid the creation of a statutory council, according to the U.K.-based free expression group Article 19. Likewise, the creation of a Conseil de déontologie journalistique, or journalist ethics council, in Belgium in 2009 came on the heels of pressure from political parties to act after some Belgian media were accused of crossing red lines in covering a series of child abductions and pedophilia cases.
The tension between press freedom and ethics means “balancing rights and duties,” Belgian academic and author Benoît Grevisse told CPJ. This exercise largely depends on the doctrine of journalism to which one adheres. The school of public interest journalism has made its attachment to ethics an essential element of the exercise of press freedom. All quality media consider the respect of high standards as a lever and not as an impediment to press freedom. “A democratic society needs a genuinely free, independent, and responsible, press to dig deep and then dig even deeper,” Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame wrote in Newsweek in 2011 in an essay on the News of the World hacking scandal.
Some authors go further. Stephen A. Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, argued in his 2011 book, Ethics and the Media, that the role of a free press and journalism “goes beyond simply exercising its freedom to publish to an ethical concern for how it facilitates public discourse in a pluralistic society.” White of the Ethical Journalism Initiative told CPJ, “Journalism has a public purpose which is to provide, as honestly and as independently as possible, accurate and reliable intelligence for the communities it serves.”
This civic-oriented journalism, however, is just one of many legitimate forms that reflect different criteria and missions, such as commercially-driven or “libertarian” journalism. And, like it or not, bad journalism is also journalism. Unethical methods–not to be confused with criminal acts like phone hacking–are inevitably part of a vibrant and rowdy press scene. Many worry that attempts to eliminate them completely through regulation and sanctions would entail undue risks for everyone in the media.
In his book La Civilización del Espectáculo (the civilization of entertainment), published in 2012, Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, recognized that “scandal-driven journalism is the perverse stepson of the culture of freedom. You cannot suppress it without dealing a deadly blow to freedom of expression.”
One of the strongest advocates of socially responsible journalism, the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, concurs. In its landmark report, “A Free and Responsible Press,” published in 1947, it said: “The attempt to correct abuses of freedom, including press freedom, by resort to legal penalties and controls is the first spontaneous impulse of reform. But the dangers of the cure must be weighed against the dangers of the disease; every definition of an abuse invites abuse of the definition. Hence many a lying, venal, and scoundrelly public expression must continue to find shelter under a ‘freedom of the press’ built for widely different ends. There is a practical presumption against the use of legal action to curb press abuse.”
Self-regulation has become a mantra within many journalists associations. They see it as a key instrument to uphold freedom of expression while deterring state interference. However, even though many democratic countries, especially in Western Europe, have established press councils and adopted codes of ethics that are not seen as chilling the press, the suspicion remains that these media accountability systems might chip away at the audacity that true press freedom allows. For skeptics, the call to be responsible, to limit harm, risks being interpreted in ways that could–ostensibly for the good of the country and the peace of the community–deter journalists and editors from working on sensitive stories related to national security, racial relations, or religious tensions.
“Suppose that in 1971 some code of ethics, official or otherwise, had persuaded Arthur Sulzberger not to publish the top-secret Pentagon Papers. It is doubtful that any code would have urged him to publish the government’s supposed secrets,” Tom Wicker, former associate editor of The New York Times, wrote in his book, On the Record: An Insider’s Guide to Journalism. “There is no substitute for a journalist’s integrity, sense of honor, and desire to be responsible. A specific code of ethics is a poor replacement for any of those attributes. Codes enjoin caution, limit choices, and invoke the conventional wisdom. They do not usually encourage bravery, risk-taking and challenging the status quo.”
To some, journalism is a profession of freebooters. In his 2007 book, Freedom for the Thought We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, Anthony Lewis quoted the London Times columnist Bernard Levin as saying: “The press has no duty to be responsible at all, and it will be an ill day for freedom if it should ever acquire one. We are and must remain vagabonds and outlaws, for only by so remaining shall we be able to keep the faith by which we live, which is the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued and the making of comments that others would prefer unmade.”
Still, even if the virtue police might be more dangerous for a free society than reporters on the loose, the partisans of press freedom cannot wipe their hands and move on. In many cases, as we have seen in some of the examples above, a pervasive culture of ethical failings genuinely compromises journalism and threatens media independence. “Despots love to see a free press behaving badly,” wrote former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller in the wake of the News of the World scandal. “Even more, they love to see a free government reacting badly.”
There is no way to shirk the discussion. “We have been so much engaged in defending journalists, that we become shy sometimes in uncovering or exposing the dark side of our craft,” Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas, said in an interview with Bill Ristow published by the Center for International Media Assistance in 2010.
Press freedom groups should energetically take back the ethical flag from the hands of those–despots and other pseudo-moralists–who hijack it. “Ethics should be upheld in order to avoid the dangerous tendency of state authorities to ask for more control,” Aidan White said.
“Ethics does not only entail duties and prohibitions,” Grevisse, the Belgian author, told CPJ. “It also includes rights so that journalists can assume their particular responsibilities towards the public.” Press freedom in fact is often a precondition to practicing ethical journalism. “The ability to report ethically has an essential characteristic: journalistic independence,” Peter Horrocks, BBC director for global news, said at an African conference in August 2013.
Fighting for high ethical standards in the name of press freedom is a good way to irritate the Robert Mugabes, the Rafael Correas, and the Abdel Fattah el-Sisis of the world and deprive them of an easy alibi to discredit and silence critical journalism.
CPJ Senior Adviser Jean-Paul Marthoz is a Belgian journalist and writer. He is a foreign affairs columnist for Le Soir and journalism professor at the Université catholique de Louvain.