Politics and Media Ethics: Is it Dangerous to Work with the UN?

Aidan White

An old argument about the threat of governmental interference in journalism is back on the agenda of the Ethical Journalism Network. Thirty years ago journalists’ groups and some free media campaigners were up in arms over what they saw as attempts by dictators and authoritarian states to grab control of media.

The infamous United Nations debate over the New World Information and Communication Order, as it was called, led to a split at UNESCO and was one of the last great efforts to establish global media policy. It foundered because most of its supporters were corrupt third world dictatorships or countries practicing communist-style censorship. They certainly couldn’t be trusted by journalists and media to build a credible legal landscape that would nourish dissident and independent voices.

Since that time journalists groups have rightly kept governments at bay over matters of media content and governance. There are issues, of course, where governments play a legitimate role — safety of journalists and protecting press freedom, for instance — but in matters of content and regulation they have no role.

That should be left we say to media professionals working in loose partnership with the audience (for instance, through press councils and the like).

The issue comes up following my letter to EJN members in July when I mentioned that the Network is currently working with the UN Alliance of Civilisations over problems of hate-speech in media.

Some people, including some inside the EJN, fear that the Alliance of Civilization program has too many elements of potential government supervision of the media.

The agency web site spells out the mission of the UNAOC and includes a number of key questions:

  1. How can the UNAOC account for and prevent extremism through its various resources, initiatives and modalities?
  2. How can the internal community work together to address the root causes that fuel the forces of extremism in all its forms (intolerance, hate speech, conflict, violence)?
  3. How can the UNAOC contribute to develop strategies that confront intolerance and hate speech in particular?

These are laudable objectives. Who would not want to make the world a better, more tolerant and peaceful place? But if this agenda is applied to the press, I have been asked, will we end up “confronting” media outlets that, in the UN’s view, aren’t being constructive in terms of fighting intolerance?

Does working with the UNAOC, or any other concerned UN agency for that matter, undermine the principle that it’s not the UN’s business to tell journalists what they should or should not be reporting?

It’s a serious question given that many governments, given the chance, will try to do just that. Seven years ago many politicians argued vociferously that media outlets should not have published the infamous Mohammed cartoons.

Some did but most didn’t (for the record, it’s worth noting that where media were free to make the choice themselves more than 95 per cent decided not to publish the cartoons), but importantly the decision was in most cases made by news people not by their political masters.

Media need to be careful when they work with governments or state institutions in judging or assessing what the press should or shouldn’t publish. It could indeed lead to the publication of vague UN guidelines for the press that may be used by repressive governments to target dissident and independent journalists.

Sometimes guidelines are useful – as in the preparation of the UNICEF principles for media reporting on the rights of children – but the EJN and its members must never create the impression that they can be whipped into line in support of UN goals, even when they are worthy and well-meaning.

This is because, as journalists well know, not all members of the United Nations are pious guardians of our human rights. Many countries – like China, Iran and North Korea and many others – are routine rights abusers. And nor are democratic states entirely to be trusted (including, for instance the United States which is currently waging war on whistleblowers and has been exposed for snooping and spying on the rest of the world in ways that are illegal at home).

But let’s be honest, nobody’s perfect. After all, the EJN campaign for higher standards of ethics and governance was launched two years ago precisely because media and journalists often fall short of their professional ideals.

We know how crooked journalism plays into the hands of governments. Political leaders will often point to corrupt and incompetent media in order to justify laws and policies that aim to control and manage media.

This is a particular threat in an age where media-savvy political extremists peddle hatred and violence in support of their own bigoted agenda and when journalism can be often manipulated to foment intolerance between communities. Sometimes media are willing and active partners.

But the answer to hatred in speech is not to create new limits to press freedom. Our strong argument is that when left to themselves – as in the Mohammed cartoons crisis – journalists will tend to do the right thing.

When the EJN and its members work with UN groups, such as UNESCO, the UN Human Rights Commission and its Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the UNAOC, it is not as foot soldiers in a campaign to help the UN network of agencies to control journalism, but to keep state bureaucrats out of the newsroom and to encourage ethical practice at all levels of media.

In this case the EJN works with the UNAOC to help journalists and writers in selected countries to review media coverage of some controversial stories. We hope this will lead to some new ideas for helping journalists to avoid becoming seduced by sensationalism and extremist groups. Our co-operation is to strengthen the voice of media and journalists in debates about media content.

The EJN and its members are not working under UN auspices. This is a programme being developed by media professionals in much the same way as the EJN earlier this year commissioned its own report – Innocent Mistakes – to review global media coverage of the controversial Innocence of Muslims video film which sparked violence and demonstrations in many countries.

We need more such peer review and self-reflection to further convince policymakers and governments that it is not their role to interfere in how media work.

This issue will be discussed at the upcoming meeting of the EJN which takes place in Brussels on September 3rd at the offices of the Association of Commercial television In Europe.