Chris Elliott and Aidan White
An organisation with the word “ethical” in its title can expect to face some tricky questions about how worthy aspirations fit with the real-world threats of political pressure, corruption and even physical dangers facing journalists and news media.
What advice does the EJN have for journalists committed to ethical journalism who work in oppressive and dangerous conditions?
Such a question was posed last October at the end of an EJN presentation in Sri Lanka to a distinguished group of journalists at a session boldly entitled ’Ethical Journalism equals Sustainable Journalism’.
In the audience were broadcasters, writers, reporters and editors with many years of experience of an island with a turbulent past and present.
Since the end of the war against the Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009, in which it is estimated that more than 150,000 people were killed, Sri Lanka’s press freedom ranking has improved – up 10 points to 131 in the global listings published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
However, journalists still face serious obstacles and dangers. As RSF says:
“A few months after being sworn in as president in January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena said he wanted to reopen all the investigations into murders of journalists. Some progress has been made in the investigation into Lasantha Wickrematunga’s murder, but almost all the others are still unpunished. The new government also said that journalists no longer had anything to fear because of their political views or their coverage of sensitive subjects such as corruption and human rights violations by the military.
“But attacks on journalist Freddy Gamage in June 2016 and in early 2018 fuelled the doubts of both the public and media freedom defenders. The Tamil media, often the target of attacks and censorship both during the civil war and after its official end in 2009, are still on their guard. In March 2016, the ministry of parliamentary reform and mass media ordered all news websites to register with the government or become illegal.”
Just weeks after the EJN presentation in October, Sri Lanka faced a fresh constitutional crisis when President Sirisena sought to replace prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa accused, among other things of attacks on the media. One person was killed and two were injured after the bodyguards of a Sri Lankan government minister opened fire on a crowd. But, the island’s institutions, especially the judiciary, held firm and prime ministerWickremesinghe was reinstated in December.
Posing the tricky question to the EJN in October was Wijith DeChickera, a journalist and editor, for more than 20 years.
Later he expanded in an email:
“It seems to me that in applying the principles you discern to the practice of ‘sustainable ethics’ in journalism, we are guilty of several errors.
“First, we treat ‘the media’ as some kind of monolith – when, in actual fact, there is a traditional dichotomy between ‘publishers’ and ‘editors’.
“Then, when you add the ‘state’ to the trifecta of journalist first, owner second and politician third, it seems to me that ethics can often be caught between a rock and a hard place – and that’s leaving out the sharp political practice associated with political chicanery.
“So, what advice – drawing from both theory as well as your own experience – can you give Sri Lankan journalists who work daily in a dangerous and compromised milieu?”
DeChickera’s question is apposite, not least because of Sri Lanka’s troubled past and present. But we have also heard similar questions in other troublespots – China and Turkey, for example, which are just two of the other 30 countries in which the EJN has worked since its inception.
Another question is how does the EJN justify working in those countries – and often in partnership – with organisations with links to the state that is to blame for the difficulties that journalists find themselves in.
Put simply, how does the EJN keep the ethical flame alive when working in countries like China and Turkey, two of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, where self-censorship is rife and political mischief is made daily through propaganda and disinformation?
In China, for example, to gain access to mainstream newsrooms and working journalists the EJN works with state media and with institutions that are government-friendly, if not directly part of the state apparatus.
For the past five years we have been working with the All-China Journalists Association, for example, a group with historic links to the Communist Party structure.
We have exchanged delegations, established a sound working relationship and recently we together launched a programme with China’s flagship journalism training institution, the Communications University of China.
Our aim is to work together to develop tools for teaching ethical journalism, to launch a Chinese-language website on the virtues of ethics, good governance and self-regulation in media, and to hold debates with Chinese groups on ethical issues, such as tackling hate speech, reporting migration and reporting on gender issues.
No one is naïve about the challenges here. Whether we are working in China or Turkey, the EJN recognises the threat of a political vision that subordinates journalism to propaganda and governmental influence.
But we take opportunities whenever they arise to talk to journalists at the grassroots; to engage with students and young people; and to debate with state media and policymakers the differences in our approaches to the theory of journalism.
We have no illusions that change will come about quickly or easily, but we understand the value of dialogue between journalists and media leaders and we will always take advantage of the freedom we are given to speak openly and to develop training and information tools on key ethical principles.
Returning to the specific question of our Sri Lankan colleague, when it comes to ethical challenges of individuals working in an oppressive environment the EJN will provide what support it can, but it is not our purpose to encourage journalists into acts of rebellion or to actions that may get them sacked, imprisoned or worse.
People at the EJN have learned to talk with journalists, not at them, sharing knowledge and tools that we hope they may find useful, for instance what the EJN defines as the five core principles of journalism.
Of the five, independence is perhaps the hardest to achieve in oppressive states, either in terms of ownership of the news organisation or nature of the material being demanded.
However, journalists should never be propagandists and it is clear that many reporters and editors have chosen to leave their organisations because of political threats rather than tolerate a working regime too remote from what journalism should be.
The other fundamental EJN core principles – accuracy, impartiality, humanity and accountability – are all values that can be practised, to some extent, in even very tough conditions.
For instance, accuracy is key to anything a journalist writes, whether it is in a challenge to a government or coverage of a charity football fund-raiser.
Authoritarian states are usually worried about challenges to their authority, not the rules about interviewing or identifying children under 16. There is always room for sensible ethical guidelines in the breadth of a news organisation’s coverage: the idea that ethics can obtain in even the simplest human exchange is, within those regimes, subversive in and of itself.
There comes a moment for many journalists when he or she is faced with a decision as to whether to write a story that may put their job, liberty or even life at risk. There is no magic formula to make that decision; it is a decision of conscience, which the EJN would never presume to make or criticise.
Faced with these realities most journalists learn to compromise and survive. They have families to support, they need to earn a living, and so taking a stand on high principle and quitting their job is not a viable option for most.
But there are limits. No journalist, for example, should ever knowingly tell untruths or report in a deliberately deceptive manner.
Sometimes, it will be impossible to carry on, particularly if biased journalism is targeting the rights and lives of others.
Journalists should know where to draw the line and where compromises cannot be made.
In summary, the EJN encourages journalists to do what they can, when they can, where they can, be alert to threats and jealous of our standards: slowly we believe this is the path for a better future for journalism.
Photo by Jovaughn Stephens on Unsplash