Ethical Journalism on the Agenda in Africa

The Ethical Journalism Network’s call for a global campaign to support ethics, good governance and more effective media self-regulation in the Internet era will be at the heart of a discussion at the Global Forum for Media Development and Highway Africa conference in Grahamstown, South Africa, this week.

It is a timely debate. From the north to the far south of the continent media reform is on the policy agenda. Although sanctions against journalists and media have been reduced or decriminalised in many countries there is still work to be done to bring about reforms that will meet international standards.

There is more media independence and pluralism, but problems of media governance remain. In South Africa, for instance, journalists oppose a new law proposed by the ANC-led government. They condemn plans for a Media Appeals Tribunal that they fear will be politically driven.

The Protection of Information Bill currently under discussion would empower government agencies to classify broad categories of information under a dangerously-vague notion of the “national interest.” People who disclose such information could go to jail for 3 to 25 years.

Many journalists in sub-Saharan Africa will admit that there is flawed reporting but they are adamant that government-sponsored reform programmes to remedy a lack of ethics will only constrain press freedom.

Meanwhile, more than 18 months after the Arab Spring inspired enthusiasm for revolutionary change across North Africa plans for media reform in many of the frontline countries has run into the sand.

In Egypt where the press has opened up in a number of ways in the wake of the revolution, reform of the media is an uphill battle. Journalists face government repression and state media still largely acts as a government mouthpiece.

Working with journalists and media leaders the EJN is advising UNESCO on how to launch a new initiative for media self-regulation, and supporting media leaders who want to set up an independent association.

Despite July’s historic election success journalists in Libya face enormous obstacles in their efforts to establish a genuinely pluralist media system. A recent report from the EJN member the Media Diversity Institute says a second revolution will be needed within media to liberate journalism from the legacy of propaganda in support of the regime of Muammar Gadaffi.

In Tunisia the media situation remains uncertain after the body set up to spearhead wholesale reform of the information landscape decided to close down amidst complaints of government censorship. Human rights and press freedom groups say the new government is failing to deliver on promises to protect journalists and to reform the state-dominated audiovisual media.

Meanwhile, the International News Safety Institute reported that of the 70 journalists and media staff killed covering the news between January and June this year 15 died in Syria alone between January and June.

This range of problems makes an urgent and necessary case for an EJN-style campaign for effective self-rule in journalism, not just in Africa, but across the globe. In Grahamstown, speakers will pose a number of questions:

How do we promote self-regulation when everywhere there are moves, driven by government and politics, towards using the law to keep media in check?

Can the law ever make self-regulation more effective? If so, how would it work without handing over editorial power to political people or their appointees?

And, importantly, how do we get more commitment from journalists, media owners and bosses? Don’t we need a commitment to media transparency and good corporate governance as much as newsroom ethics?

Providing answers will be experts like Amadou Mahtar Ba, head of the African Media Initiative (AMI), a pan-African programme that aims to strengthen the continent’s private and independent media sector from an owner perspective. Like the Ethical Journalism Network, AMI says that ethical journalism needs to have commitment from the people at the top of the media pyramid.

Another speaker will be Tempo, Indonesia, and a leader of the Indonesian Press Council, a model that has been promoted across Asia, most recently in India, Pakistan and Burma. He bangs the drum for self-regulation with conviction.

Also flying in is Leonara Reyes, from CEPET, Mexico, who will review the media crisis in Latin America and particularly the growing tension between media and politics, particularly in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Argentina, and the challenge of low professional solidarity inside media, for instance in Mexico, which weakens the movement for editorial independence.

Finally, Chris Elliott, the Readers’ Editor atThe Guardian, will give his take on the phone-hacking scandal at News International in London. The resulting national inquiry into press standards in Britain is expected to report next month. Elliott, who has had a front two seat at this dramatic forensic examination of corruption and media malpractice will summarise the main challenges

Finally, Sandor Orban, the head of SEENPM from Hungary, where government attempts to legislate to control media and journalism caused a storm in the Europe a year ago, will complete the circle with an assessment of how journalists in Europe’s new democracies struggle to shake off a historical legacy of political control of media.