Report read at Tbilisi Media Conference 7 December 2012
Dear friends, when the organizers of the given seminar proposed me to lead the event and to make a report on one of the thematic panels I told about it to one of my closest colleagues in Prague and asked him about his opinion. “Whoever cares about professional ethics today; look what is going on in Georgia and Europe,” my friend sighed and added with a cunning smile, “be careful, don’t become like medieval Christian Scholastikos who, during the moral destruction, tried to find an answer to a question, how many angels can fit on a pin in heaven.”
Anyway, we continued the dispute and finally agreed that discussion of professional behavior norms has sense and especially in our time when during last two years, which were especially turbulent by means of misuse of freedom of speech, violation of professional ethical norms and attempts of legitimation of media-censorship.
This situation took place not only in traditionally non-free countries like Georgia and its neighbors, but in European countries also.
Danger of ‘Putinization’ and “Wikileakization’
World’s main media advocate Freedom House will probably summarize this year in view of freedom of speech. We can just assume if the situation by means of freedom of speech in regions and the world will improve, or worsen; what place will Georgia have in future researches as a country having “partially free” status.
Still, on the verge of two years we should remember that according to 2011 report from the Freedom House, situation by means of freedom of media was the worst during last ten years – only one person from 6 benefited from free media.
The report published by the organization 6 June 2012 was especially critical towards Hungary. The international organization concluded that the EU and NATO member country was the danger of “Putinization” in 2011. (Here it also needs to be stressed that level of democratic reforms drew back in Balkan countries. (2)
Case of Hungary is very remarkable. Drawback from democracy coincided with the time when the country became EU country on duty. After winning majority in Parliament, Fides Party and its Prime Minister Victor Orban resumed censorship of media-organizations, took under strong governmental control the juridical system and the national bank. Governmental control over media strengthened by means of Media Council formed by members of the governing party, which seized license from popular opposition radio Club Radio and gave it to other companies. Hungary changed the disputable decision only after the EU threatened Budapest with European Court, in case if Hungarian government would not make amendments to its legislation, which, as Brussels believed, violated number of base agreements of the European Union. (3)
Still, Hungary was not an exception. Scandal followed restrictions to media freedom by illegitimate methods in other countries of the West also. Background for this was created by the publicizing by Internet-publications of secret letters provided by the so called “whistle blowers” (4). The given term stands for an official working for a State body that provide secret-containing or sensitive information to other state bodies, or public groups. It is not necessary for the doing it for material compensation. For example, 18 January 2011 one of former Swiss bankers gave to scandalous Wikileaks some banking data only to let know the public about “wealthy businessmen and legislators, who avoid paying taxes.” (5)
There is ocean of information about Wikileaks and Julian Assange in Internet and social networks, so there is no point in listing it all here, although it is a fact that after publicizing of the Pentagon and US State Department classified letters by Wikileaks, a new impulse appeared in different countries of the world of governmental interference with media activity for revealing “informers.” (6)
Still, western media has its own counterintelligence and several facts have been turned against governments.
11 March last year in Czech Republic, where I am now, masked and armed military intruded the State Television building and held the real “judgment day” there. No, they did not turn off the broadcasting, as it happened in Georgia in November 2007, but they searched the place; confiscated certain documents and computer data. As Czech media wrote, the unexpected raid by the military police was aimed to find the report which in 2007 reasoned serious staff change in Czech military intelligence. If the “leakage” of several clauses of the report resulted in dismissal of military intelligence chief Miroslav Kraichek 5 years ago, the 11 March raid forced the Chief of Military Police, Brigade General Vladimer Lozhek to leave the post. (7)
Defense Minister of Czech Republic Alexander Vondra initiated serious investigation into the case of interference with free media work and apologized for the actions taken by policemen.
Slovaks did the same as Czech authorities, although Bratislava chose a more sophisticated method of searching for the so called “whistle blowers.”
Defense Ministry Military Intelligence agents for long time listened to several Slovak journalists and their alleged informers from the Defense Ministry, who, as intelligence suspected, gave sensitive information to media and strictly criticized Defense Minister Lubomir Galko. (8)
Information about secret operation by the military intelligence was published by Pravda and Nony Chas newspapers, which was followed by great scandal and resignation of the Defense Minister. An excuse made by Galko that Slovak journalists really did publicize several times information containing State secret, did not do save him. “Agents of national intelligence did not have the right to conduct surveillance activities inside the country even if journalists did violate the law,” Prime Minister of Slovakia Ivetar Adikova stated.
Jeanie that puts others in a bottle
So, we spoke about the facts when journalists were being listened to, but modern technology development allowed journalists themselves to listen to interest individuals; being more creative we can say that the Jeanie who was freed from a bottle, tried to put someone else in that empty bottle.
Rupert Murdock’s media-empire newspaper News of the World case is probably the most well-known and unprecedented so far.
Newspaper journalists listened to hundreds of well-known persons, politicians, rival journalists, SMS’s of a killed teenager.
Rupert Murdock apologized for the media-scandal related activities and stated that for him the actions by News Corp. owned newspaper News of the World were unacceptable so he decided to close down the publication. (9)
The given scandal had a tragic continuation. While Rupert Murdock and his assistants were being questioned in Parliament, former journalist of New of the World Shon Hore was found dead; he was the one who made first accusations against the newspaper. Police claims causes of death not determined.
I am sure the given case of the News Corp. will become just as important topic of discussion for the world media as the war in Vietnam, Mai Lai story, Watergate Scandal, attempt of refined restriction of media by British government during conflict in Falkland Islands, or Wikileaks circulation of classified letters.
All this experience has given birth to knowledge that turned into guiding principle for professional journalists; in our case it is the Code of Conduct of Radio Liberty employees. (10)
The guidelines of ethics worked out by our radio during years provides for not only objective, unbiased, balanced and sincere reporting of news, but it also gives advises and recommendations on how to avoid conflicts, which is not less important at all.
I will not go into too many details, but will outline several important requirements.
- Despite the fact that for all media organizations most important is to report news first, for us, Radio Liberty the main goal is precise reporting of information;
- All materials must be based on factual precision. When there is basis to suspect precision of facts it is necessary to double-check facts with two sources independent from each other;
- We do not publish information based on rumors and/or unchecked information;
- Programs should not include insulting remarks of religious, ethnic, social-economic character to any groups, or individuals;
- It is inadmissible to make any kind of xenophobic statements, or giving air time to individuals with xenophobic ambitions;
- It is inadmissible to circulate information that may result in panic, hostility, or escalate violence;
- Information related to conflicts, or tense situations must be balanced and based on facts;
- International media acts according to the principle of democracy and human rights protection practiced in democratic societies; although, we are not lobbying any legislative act, or political course;
- We support the right of all people on self –determination, based on the Helsinki Conference At of the OSCE. Despite that we should not promote or conduct propaganda of separatist tendencies;
- Same can be said about migration of peoples and free movement of persons, which is recognized by coinciding international norms;
- Programs and publications should not promote fleeing and should not simulate emigration.
And finally, it is necessary to avoid any kind of conflict of interests or not to go into union with any political, commercial, religious, or professional organization which would result in discrimination of a journalist or his employer media-organization.
As I said in the opening speech of our seminar, my senior colleague, former Chief Editor of Radio Liberty John O’Sallivan believes right these kind of principles as the main good in any situation or even irreplaceable in cases when journalists are hasty.
Still the code of conduct of journalists is valuable when there is demand for highly professional, honest journalism. To be more precise, ethical norms are based on the mission of media-organization itself. In case if media-organization objective is to popularize democratic values, strengthen civil society, fight against ethnic and religious intolerance and promoting mutual understanding between peoples – then professional code of ethics can be compared to a grain seed dropped on a fruitful soil. Otherwise we will really look like those medieval Christian Scholastikos, who, during the period of moral destruction, looked for an answer to the question “how many angels would fit on a pin in heaven.”
1. Report read at Tbilisi Media Conference 7 December 2012.
5. whistleblower- person who provides information about alleged fraud, or illegal actions to certain state bodies.
6. It must be stressed here that for example in the USA there is a Law on Whistleblowers, the so called False Claims Act, which sets mechanisms for protection and promotion of informers.