By way of introduction, let me say that since the IMC embarked on systemic training of journalists across the country four years ago, there has been noticeable improvement in the content of the media. We recognize the role being played by other institutions to complement the work of the IMC, notably the Mass Communication Department at Fourah Bay College and various partners both foreign and local. All of these efforts have contributed to the professional gains made by the media country wide
Complementing this achievement are press freedom and media pluralism which the IMC has been doing all in its power to uphold and which has helped in a significant way to raise the democratic and good governance profile of the government, and for which the government must itself be commended. If one should be true to one’s self, I believe it is fair to say that the Sierra Leone Media enjoys unbridled freedom as long as it operates within the ambit of the IMC Act and the Media Code of Practice.
I must however emphasize that press freedom and media pluralism should be accompanied by a display of maturity and sense of responsibility. It is the observance of the duties and responsibilities of the journalist that makes press freedom meaningful. While we acknowledge that it is the duty of the media to expose the ills of society, unmask corruption and hold the government and people in positions of trust accountable, these functions must be pursued with honesty of purpose and propriety. The Media Code of Practice world-wide demands that journalists must be truthful, accurate, fair, balanced, honest and objective, always striving to give ALL sides of the story and more importantly give the other side the opportunity to reply. If we do all these things in the practice of our profession, we will have a more responsible media and thus increase the respect and honour that the media should enjoy.
This brings me to the focus of today’s symposium on the topic Media Ethics and the Practice of Journalism in Sierra Leone. The discussion aims at distinguishing the ethical principles involved in quality reporting from merely conveying facts and opinion and at encouraging journalists to have a clearer understanding and appreciation of the ethical values that should be applied in the practice of their profession.
A few questions came to mind as I prepared this presentation. They are as follows:
1. Do our journalists, especially the young ones understand the meaning of Ethics?
2. Are they aware of who determines or develops ethics?
3 Do journalists know the genesis of the IMC Media Code of Practice which governs their profession?
4. Could it be that lack of knowledge of the genesis of the Code militates against compliance?
5 .Do journalists really understand the provisions of the Media Code of Practice?
6. If they do, why is there so much contravention of the Code despite the checks and balances meted by the regulatory body, the IMC?
I shall dilate on the topic by attempting to answer these questions. I will thereafter go through the Code and briefly explain the major principles. I shall then pick out examples of several unethical headlines that have appeared in some of our newspapers and point out where the editors went wrong. I shall end by suggesting ways and means by which journalists can report more ethically to make the Sierra Leone media more professional.
What is Ethics?
Ethics is a set of principles, rules, standards and values by which a group of people agree to conduct themselves in the pursuit of their business, profession or trade.
Who determines or develops ethics? Is it Parliament? The Government? The Police? Other authority?
None of these. People in the same group, profession, business, etc. pursuing the same goals come together to develop standards, rules and values that should govern their behaviour. These rules in effect state what is good, decent, fair, acceptable, proper and right in the performance of their tasks and what is unacceptable, wrong, immoral and unjust. The rules and standards are not thrust upon them by anyone outside the group and they regulate themselves by adhering to the rules and regulations agreed upon. For example, the Bar Association developed its Legal Code of Ethics which regulates the practice of the profession; the Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Association has its own Code of Practice developed by medical practitioners and so does the Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers, etc. These Codes are not thrust on any of these groups by the government, parliament, the executive or any other authority.
Do journalists know the genesis of the IMC Media Code of Practice which governs their profession?
For those who do not know the genesis of the IMC Media Code of Practice, let me re-state that the IMC Media Code of Practice which governs the practice of journalism, and related disciplines in this country was not thrust on the media by any authority. Section 7 (2) (h) of the IMC Act mandates the Commission to “ compile and adopt a comprehensive Media Code of Practice, in consultation with SLAJ and any other media practitioners’ association and to monitor the implementation of that Code throughout Sierra Leone”.
Attempts were made by the IMC and SLAJ to develop the Code of Practice as stipulated by the Act at the inception of the Commission, but they never saw it through. When I was appointed Chairperson in 2005, I took up the challenge of developing the Code of Practice with zest. I got in touch with Panos Institute West Africa for support in the form of secondment of an expert to the IMC to guide us and for funds to run workshops that would enable all stakeholders to be part of the process, so that the initial work done by my predecessor on the development of the Code would be finalised. Three such workshops were held with Mr. Amadu Bathily from Panos serving as consultant with the active participation of all the Commissioners of the IMC, SLAJ, public relations officers from various enterprises in the country, advertisers, representatives from civil society and personnel from the then Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
In June 2007, the Media Code of Practice was launched after it had been laid on the Bar of Parliament for the statutory 21 days to give it the force of law. Every journalist in the country should take ownership of the Media Code of Practice as it was developed by media practitioners for self regulation and for use by the IMC in carrying out its regulatory functions enshrined in the IMC Act.
Could it be that lack of knowledge of the genesis of the Code militates against compliance?
Maybe; but suffice it to state that the IMC has discovered that there is a lacuna in the Code of Practice and also in the IMC Act that militates against full compliance. The Commission has recently initiated a review of the IMC Act and the Media Code by representatives of all stakeholders with a view to convening a bigger meeting at the end of the exercise, during which the revised Media Code of Practice and IMC Act will be tabled for discussion and ratification.
Do journalists really understand the principles of the Code of Practice?
After the launch of the Media Code of Practice in 2007, copies were sent to all media houses registered with the IMC. Since then, workshops have been organised by the Commission in various parts of the country each year to popularize the provisions of the Code of Practice and to teach journalists how to use the Code for self regulation. At each workshop, copies were distributed to participants. I will now pick out the major provisions of the Code and speak on them briefly:
– TRUTHFULNESS It is imperative that what is put out by media institutions is true, factual, correct and honest. There is a difference between “composition” which we were all required to write in school and news and information dissemination in the context of journalism. When we were in school, we were asked e.g. to “Pretend we made a trip to Kenema for the long vacation. We were asked to describe the journey in detail and how we spent the holiday”. We imagined all the things that would happen in this scenario and developed an “imaginary” story. This is very different from what is required in journalism. In the composition scenario, it is acceptable to make up stories and pretend that they really happened. This is not so in journalism.
In the practice of the profession, we must distinguish between facts and conjecture and opinion.
– ACCURACY- The accuracy requirement demands that the story must be precise, correct, faultless and factual. The IMC Media Code of Practice states that journalists must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading and distorted materials including pictures. They must make all reasonable effort to check, cross check and re-check the accuracy of their stories before publication.
– FAIRNESS- The fairness doctrine implies that in the practice of our profession, we must be just. We must be impartial, objective, unprejudiced and unbiased. A story is not fair if it deceives the reader or listener.
– OBJECTIVITY- This principle suggests that we must not allow our personal bias or emotions to cloud or distort the truth. We must endeavour to give not only one side of the story, but all sides of it.
– IMPARTIALITY- Like objectivity, impartiality demands that we must not be prejudiced or biased towards a particular side. We must endeavour to be neutral, none discriminating, open minded, unprejudiced and present the facts without fear or favour.
– CONFIDENTIALITY- Journalists must respect an agreement on confidentiality. If information is divulged under an arrangement of “confidentiality” between the journalist and the person passing on the information, that arrangement should be honoured at all cost. Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.
By Bernadette Cole