12th September 2012
By Alexandre Leclercq

African Verdict: Build Trust and Journalism Will Survive



A richness of voices from across four continents produced some thoughtful ideas on ethical journalism in the digital era at the Global Forum for Media Development conference in Grahamstown, South Africa, this week.

The session, which also introduced the Ethical journalism Network to a conference of 400 media support activists from around the world, opened with Amadou Mahtar Ba of the African Media Initiative  calling for a “reboot” of journalism with a stable ethical platform.

It is time to dispense with the notion, he said, that a boy on the street with a smartphone and a journalist in the newsroom are of equal standing in the new world of information.

He called for action in Africa to reinforce the status of journalism amidst growing accusations of media corruption and ethical decline. “Our own house needs to be put in order,” he said.

As a start, 50 African media owners have signed up to a set of guiding principles for transparent and accountable management. This ground-breaking move towards good governance in journalism will be strengthened, he says, if every media house appoints an ethics point person in every newsroom, such as an ombudsman or readers’ editor.

A leading readers’ editor, Chris Elliott, from The Guardian, provided insights into the crisis within the British press in the wake of the phone-hacking and corruption scandals at the News of the World.

The cardinal objective, if journalism is to survive in the digital world, is to build trust, he said.  It is a message that needs to be understood by everyone in media, including boardroom bean counters who too-often focus only on the bottom line.

“This is not simply a moral and ethical issue,” he said. “It is a crucial point to make to proprietors because their business will not survive within the static of the web unless people turn to their brand as a trusted brand.”

An editor and champion of self-regulation in Asia Bambang Harymurti talked about the role of the Press Council in Indonesia in building trust. The council effectively acts as a National Commission for Human Rights with journalists’ rights in mind. It is not just a punishment body, he said, but an active, campaigning defender of media freedom.

 Although the notion of a code of ethics is not widely recognised in online journalism, self–regulation works and he supported Elliott’s focus on building trust. The difference between journalism and acts of journalism committed by some people with tweets and blogs is an attachment to values and standards.

Other speakers, Sandor Orban from Hungary and Leonarda Reyes, from the centre for journalism and public ethics in Mexico, shared this vision, but in their countries, where either the scourge of political interference or the threat of physical violence prevails, converting the ethical aspirations of journalists into meaningful reality remains an ambitious project.

Photo Credit: GFMD