By: George Garneau
FIEJ fires first shot in what is shaping up as an epic battle over newly proposed European press controls sp.
IN WHAT THE International Federation of Newspaper Publishers calls “one of the most profound attacks on the freedom and independence of the press in recent years,” no journalists died and no newspapers closed.
The publishers’ group, known by the French acronym FIEJ, says the assault is in the form of the Council of Europe’s proposal on journalistic ethics.
The proposal amounts to “a veritable catalogue of inept, misguided and confused statements about the media and how it (sic) should operate in a free society,” FIEJ president K. Prescott Low says in a letter to Catherine Lalumire, the Council of Europe’s secretary general.
The policy provides “tremendous scope for justifying government interference in media affairs” and is “totally unacceptable in all respects,” said Low, publisher of the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger.
The Strasbourg, France-based council, formed in 1949 by Western European governments, has grown with the addition of Eastern European nations to 32 members.
While its resolutions technically are non-binding, the council is asking member nations to pass laws conforming to its press ethics position.
What troubles the FIEJ and other press freedom groups is that the press policy ? coming from one of Europe’s two leading international organizations, the other being the European Community ? will be used as justification for member nations to control the press, a sort of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for leashing the media.
Low suggested that the council’s Eurocrats wanted to muzzle the press because of embarrassing scandals that have rocked governments across the continent recently.
The proposal is especially ironic, he said, because at a time when Eastern European nations are emerging from state domination of the media and seeking models for free expression, the Western-dominated council is setting an example of government control of information.
“This is naive and it’s social engineering,” Low said. ” ‘Big Brother lives’ is essentially the bottom line.”
On a world scale, the proposal parallels the threat to free expression posed by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s proposed New World Information Order. That policy was promulgated more than a decade ago by Third World nations to justify government control of media but eventually was abandon-
ed after fierce opposition from West-
The European press ethics measure was approved by the council’s parliamentary assembly in July and referred to its Committee of Ministers, a group composed of member nations’ foreign ministers. Hearings were scheduled in early November, and FIEJ officials expected to speak on behalf of about 15,000 news organizations that the group represents worldwide.
What’s the fuss about?
The council’s policy represents a sweeping departure from U.S. concepts of freedom of speech. It defines what journalism is and is not, what it can and cannot do, and how. It calls for broad government involvement in the media ? their goals, methods, content, finances and employee relations. It accords few rights to the press, many to citizens, some to media employees. It calls for establishment of a bureaucracy to regulate the media and for national laws to penalize them for errors.
While many European nations protect free speech by constitution and law, none has such absolute protection as the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The recommendation calls for member states to pass laws “to ensure neutrality of information, plurality of opinions and gender balance as well as right of reply;” a European ombudsman, a “self-regulatory” mechanism for “information verification;” and “citizens media associations.”
It also calls for member states to adopt a 38-point ethics package, which says:
? The basic principle of journalistic ethics is that “a clear distinction must be drawn between news and opinions, making it impossible to confuse them.”
? “The media’s work is one of ‘mediation,’ providing an information service.” Instead of the media having rights to information, “the owner of the right is the citizen, who also has the related right to demand that the information supplied by journalists is conveyed truthfully.”
? Journalism exists within a corporate media structure, and journalists are distinct from their employers. “[I]n addition to safeguarding the media, freedom within the media must also be protected and internal pressures guarded against.” Journalists’ freedom of expression must be reinforced, and rules on source confidentiality clarified.
? News organizations are “socioeconomic agencies whose entrepreneurial objectives have to be limited by the conditions for providing access to a fundamental right.”
? News organizations must disclose their ownership.
? To guarantee citizens’ “fundamental” rights to information, media owners’ “ideological orientations is (sic) limited by the absolute requirements on truthful news reporting and ethical opinions.”
? Owners and journalists should not think that they own the news or treat information as a commodity. Instead, it is “a fundamental right of the citizen. To that end, the media should exploit neither the quality nor the substance of the news or opinions for purposes of boosting readership or audience figures in order to increase advertising revenue.”
? Journalism “should not alter truthful, impartial information or honest opinions or exploit them for media purposes in an attempt to create or shape public opinion.”
? “Legitimate investigative journalism is limited by the veracity and honesty of information and opinions and is incompatible with journalistic campaigns conducted on the basis of previously adopted positions and special interests.”
? Journalism “must respect the presumption of innocence” and of privacy, including that of public officials, except when their private life “may” affect their job.
? Journalists must get their information “by legal and ethical means.”
? On request of concerned parties, media “must correct, automatically and speedily . . . any news item or opin-
ion . . . which is false or erroneous.” Monetary penalties and sanctions should be set by law.
? To ensure quality and independence, journalists “must be guaranteed decent pay and proper working conditions and facilities.”
? “In journalism, controversial or sensational items must not be confused with subjects on which it is important to provide information.”
? Journalists “must be required to have appropriate professional training.” They are urged to avoid conflicts of interest and told “not to exploit their job” for prestige and influence. Rules, perhaps administered by editorial boards, should govern relations between owners and journalists.
? In times of conflict, the media “have a moral obligation to defend democratic values” such as human dignity and peace.
? Television programming must avoid “glorifying violence, exploiting sex and consumerism, or using deliberately unsuitable language.”
? The media must “submit” to the principles, administered by “self-regulatory bodies” of publishers, journalists, consumers, academics and judges who will issue resolutions, which the media must agree to report. The regulators, would publish annual guides measuring media credibility.
Council of Europe members should be protecting and expanding freedom of expression, Low writes, not “examining and imposing measures to create what they consider to be ‘ideal,’ well behaved media. The price for freedom and independence of the press indeed includes tolerating some forms of journalism that we might not all appreciate. In our view, there is no alternative.”
He said the proposal is surprising because the council has funded FIEJ to organize training programs for nations seeking to institutionalize press freedom. The council’s proposal is probably just the first shot in what Low expects will be a long battle.
? (The policy provides “tremendous scope for justifying government interference in media affairs” and is “totally unacceptable in all respects.”
? K. Prescott Low, FIEJ president and publisher of the Quincy, Mass., Patriot) [Photo and Caption]