Applying press ethics to truth and war in the Middle East


WORLD VIEW:‘PRESS FREEDOM is a responsibility exercised by journalists on behalf of the public.” This is a good definition because it grounds the freedom outside the media’s own self-interest. Journalism can then be seen as a public good serving the public interest, part of the exercise of citizenship in a democratic society.

In a similar spirit, the preamble to the Press Council of Ireland’s code of practice states that “the freedom to publish is vital to the right of the people to be informed”. It goes on to say “the public interest is invoked in relation to a matter capable of affecting the people at large so that they may legitimately be interested in receiving and the press legitimately be interested in providing information about it”.

The first definition was quoted at a recent meeting in Dubai, organised by the Journalists Association of the United Arab Emirates and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on the theme Ethics in the News: Arab Journalists Working for Democracy. It was attended by representatives from 17 states. They agreed to set up a campaign centre in Bahrain with a mandate to expand the scope of media freedoms in the Arab world.

This will be based on the IFJ’s ethical journalism initiative, launched last year after a wide consultative process and several conferences. A book by its secretary general, Aidan White, To Tell You the Truth, deals extensively with the issues involved and gives useful case studies of their application in media practice, and of the difficulties faced by journalists.

Hearing that I was to speak at the Dubai meeting, a doctor acquaintance who has suffered from media distortion of his work expostulated that “ethical journalism” is a contradiction in terms. Lamely, I wondered whether the same can be said about medical ethics.

In fact, the two fields are both committed in principle to evidence-based rational argument in pursuit of the truth, professional independence and attachment to the public interest.

The IFJ initiative is described as a “campaign and programme of activity launched by media professionals and journalists to restore values and mission to their profession; strengthen press freedom, reinforce quality journalism and consolidate editorial independence”.

It sets out to build alliances within media, encourage a public debate on their future, reinforce credible systems of self-regulation and support the public’s right to know. It is deliberately intended to counter the cynical conclusion that media are now simply conduits for private interests and social and political power centres, by addressing the decline in standards associated with such undeniable trends.

It was fascinating to observe the enthusiastic commitment to such values among these journalists. This reflects the explosion of media in the Arab world, including newspapers, magazines, and private and satellite television. It reflects greater dynamism in their civil society and economic development, along with efforts to democratise authoritarian regimes and confrontations with fundamentalist Islamists.

Debates about journalistic standards have become part of this wider process of change.

A Kuwaiti journalist argued that private interests predominate over public ones in this new media. He asked how a more ethical balance between pluralism and fair journalism can be struck, especially when states are so reluctant to relax repressive regulations or seek to introduce new ones. All this needs more analysis, contextualisation and public commentary, alongside more freedom to exchange ideas across the Arab world. A recent proposal by the Arab League to limit the freedom of satellite channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabya to report on domestic affairs of its member states was strongly resisted and has now been effectively sidelined.

While Arab journalists welcome international interest in and scrutiny of their work, they resent being lectured to by westerners who assume superiority and who are unaware of the more sophisticated media scene in the region. As one of them puts it, European and American media tend to assume their Arab counterparts are biased, sentimental, unreliable and not suitable for export.

In fact, they have become more skilled and self-critical.

Such feelings were reinforced by the recent Gaza war, especially because Israel excluded international media correspondents from having access. A Palestinian reporter for an international news agency in Gaza spoke graphically of the difficulties he had reporting on the war.

Media were in fact targeted by Israeli forces, as they were by US forces in Iraq. He also spoke of the difficulties he and other journalists faced from Hamas authorities during the fighting and after the ceasefire.

Control of access to war zones by independent media has become a critical factor in managing the imagery of modern warfare. Whereas states used to encourage access by national media which could be trusted to tell patriotic stories, they now directly control this in an effort to frame their account, taking less responsibility for protecting the public’s need to know about the purposes and effects of their military action. Rules of engagement concerning media are not published. As a result, there has been a sharp increase in the number of journalists killed – 170 in Iraq, for example, compared to 63 in Vietnam, 77 in Algeria’s independence and civil wars, and 49 in Yugoslavia.