By: George Garneau Press freedom groups welcome decision to kill onerous regulatory program sp.
THE COUNCIL OF Europe's governing committee has rejected a proposed code of journalistic ethics that press freedom groups have condemned as a threat to free expression. The council's Committee of Ministers said the code "might well encourage and enable policy-makers to interfere with media freedom." In an informal response to the proposed code, the ministers particularly opposed the idea of a European media ombudsman and said that because of the importance of editorial independence, they "would caution against legislative solutions." The International Federation of Newspaper Publishers, known by its French acronym FIEJ, which strongly opposed the code, hailed the decision as a victory for press freedom. "Essentially, it's a rather sound drubbing for the proposed code," said K. Prescott Low, FIEJ president and publisher of the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger. The ministers "told their own committee that essentially they didn't agree with them," Low said. "By and large it's a major step in the right direction and we're delighted with their position." FIEJ vigorously lobbied against the code (E&P, Nov. 6, 1993, p. 14), which it labeled "one of the most profound attacks on the freedom and independence of the press in recent years." Low earlier said the code provides "tremendous scope for justifying governmental interference in media affairs." He labeled it "social engineering" and compared it with the totalitarian Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984. The 38-point ethics code called for self-regulation by an ombudsman to monitor accuracy; said rights to information belong to citizens not the media; declared media financial goals "have to be limited by conditions for providing access;" required news organizations to divulge their ownership; required "false or erroneous" news and opinion to be corrected speedily; mandated "a clear distinction" between news and opinions; discouraged sensationalism; required "decent pay" and working conditions for journalists; and required "appropriate professional training" for journalists. While the 32-member council has no power to enforce the code even if it were to adopt it, press groups feared the code was a backdoor attempt to regulate the press. The regulatory policies spelled out in the ethics code, they said, could provide the framework for member nations seeking to enact laws to control the press. FIEJ director general Timothy Balding credited the lobbying by the FIEJ and other groups with scuttling the code. But he warned in a letter to members that while the battle was won, "the 'war' is not yet over and we must remain vigilant ? particularly since the council's intergovernmental Steering Committee on the Mass Media is still pursuing its own initiative in the field of ethics."