Media Self-Control, The South's New Option - By Jean Huteau (first published in UNESCO Courier, April 2000)
Since the early 1990s, pluralism and independence have become new watchwords for media in developing countries. Regimes that had been authoritarian, in some cases since independence, have genuinely committed themselves to freedom of the press. Constitutions and laws have been amended, codes of conduct drawn up and press councils established. But these developments have not taken place everywhere, and their results have not always been conclusive. However, a number of countries have managed in the last few years to create a free press in extremely difficult circumstances and set up a model self-regulatory structure. One of them is South Africa.
The symbolic date of change was November 9 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. In central and eastern Europe, the explosion of press freedom was such that in some countries journalists had to pick up the job as they went along because there were not enough professionals to teach them.
An explosion of press freedom
But the shock wave rolled beyond the borders of the former Warsaw Pact countries. Developing countries in Africa and Asia under one-party rule underwent a similar transformation, triggering the same kind of media explosion, albeit in a range of different situations.
The context in Africa is one of civil wars, international conflicts and even genocide, for which some media, such as the notorious "hate radios", bear direct and crushing responsibility. In Rwanda and Burundi, virtually all the media are under government control. Fighting is still going on in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 84 journalists have been imprisoned, media outlets have been taken over or shut down, newspapers burned and their offices looted.
Africa, Asia and Latin America have also seen countless unwarranted libel actions, censorship, harassment, arrests and killings of journalists. Over the last 10 years, 58 journalists have been murdered in Algeria and 44 in Colombia. Ethiopia has jailed more journalists than almost any other country in the world.
But this tragic decade also saw encouraging changes. UNESCO helped to point the way forward in 1988 when it produced a new communications strategy based on independence and pluralism. The collapse of the Soviet bloc deprived developing countries of a point of reference and backing. Since independence, many of these countries had adopted the model of the one-party state, which was seen as the only way to generate the energy needed to tackle economic backwardness.
The 1990 summit of French-speaking states at La Baule, in France, called on the countries of francophone Africa to introduce more democracy. The English-speaking states of the Commonwealth, meeting in Harare (Zimbabwe), the following year, followed suit and resolved to expel countries which did not comply. This was what happened to Nigeria, Africa's biggest country, then under military rule.
In May 1991, the Windhoek Declaration, drawn up after a UNESCO seminar and later approved by UNESCO's Executive Board, said that an "independent, pluralistic and free press" was vital for "democracy and economic development". The death knell had sounded for the notion of the media controlled by a one-party state to promote national development. Similar declarations were made in respect of every continent by conferences in Alma Ata (Kazakhstan), Santiago (Chile), Sana'a (Yemen) and Sofia (Bulgaria).
Laws and constitutions were amended in Benin and Mozambique in 1990, Burkina Faso (1991), Madagascar, Ghana and Kenya (1992), Nigeria (1993), Cameroon and post-apartheid South Africa (1996) and Thailand (1997). In Cameroon, public pressure forced the government to enact press freedom measures in 1991 as a prelude to free elections and the abolition of censorship the following year.
Watchdogs against bias and inaccuracy
In countries that are sometimes having their first taste of freedom, excesses and errors seem almost inevitable, including press violations of privacy, libel and calumny, outrageous behaviour and unwarranted intrusion. Some new journalists lack experience and training. The issue of responsibility, which no free media outlet can dodge, soon arises.
Côte d'Ivoire, which had been marked since independence in 1960 by censorship and self-censorship, is a good example. The explosion of freedom spawned about 80 political parties and a hundred or so newspapers and other publications. Two years later, only a dozen of the 40 daily papers were still appearing and the government-controlled press had the upper hand. But the media had become a forum for debate.
After the media explosion, the press was criticized for "lack of training and professional responsibility, triviality, ill will, over-zealousness, ignorance and political and religious pressure." The press mixed politics with intrusion into private life, sometimes descending into the gutter. This led to a vicious circle whereby the authorities used media excesses as a pretext to strike at the newly-free media by arresting and jailing journalists. Many private individuals sued the press.
Côte d'Ivoire's government and journalists' trade unions decided to intervene in September 1995 by drawing up a code of conduct and establishing a press council modelled on those in Germany and Quebec; one half of the members are publishers, the other half journalists. This gave birth to the Press Freedom and Professional Ethics Monitor (OLPED). On World Press Freedom Day in 1999, the World Association of Newspapers and the French-based non-governmental organization Reporters Sans Frontières noted that there were "genuinely independent" press organs in Côte d'Ivoire and that journalists could work safely.
Adopting a code of conduct and setting up an independent press council to monitor its application and hear complaints from the public are the first two self-regulatory measures taken in developing countries to head off government intervention and regulation which would bring unforeseeable restrictions. In the developing world, mechanisms of this kind also educate the public and promote press freedom.
A trend is now underway. Press councils were set up in South Korea, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Indonesia in the years after 1960. In the 1990s, a dozen more appeared-in the Philippines and Mozambique in 1991, Ghana (1992), Nigeria (1992 ; revived in 1999), Fiji (1993), Côte d'Ivoire (1994), Senegal (1996), and Peru, Thailand, South Africa and Tanzania (1997).
Indian communications expert K.S. Venkateswaran thinks that "an effective press council can ensure that the reader is not short-changed by unscrupulous or shoddy journalistic practices. The council can give him a platform from which to ventilate his grievances against biased, inaccurate or inadequate reporting on matters of legitimate public interest."
He points out that a council can act more quickly and more cheaply than the courts in cases where "for example, the government or a public sector undertaking is alleged to discriminate unfairly against certain newspapers in, say, the allocation of advertising or newsprint (as often happens in many developing countries)."
When Algeria set up an information council in 1990-an institution that could be criticized on the grounds that half the members were government representatives and the other half journalists-it was an unprecedented step towards freedom of expression in the Arab world. When the country got caught up in a spiral of repression in 1994, the council was dissolved. Nigeria's press council was a casualty of dictatorship but was revived after free elections in 1999.
When Morocco began political reform, a journalistic code of conduct was adopted and there were calls for a press council. But the most liberal example of self-regulation is South Africa, which set up a system in 1997 clearly based on the Swedish model, the oldest and one of the most respected in Europe.
In Asia, a seminar organized in 1996 by the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) in Singapore and Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University revealed that in most Asian countries press councils were not protecting the local media against attacks on press freedom or offering ordinary citizens the means to counter abuses by the media. Since then, however, AMIC has offered many courses and written material about laws and self-regulation mechanisms. A press council has been set up in Thailand and Indonesia's press law was recently amended. A big effort is also being made in this area by the Asia Press Foundation, which includes 15 or so media institutes in the region.
The need for codes of conduct is bound to increase with the world media boom. However wide the North-South gap may be, nothing suggests that the growth of the media in developing countries-though too slow and inadequate-is going to stop. Despite often tragic obstacles, wars and economic inequality, media expansion will continue, even in developing countries. In two big democracies, Brazil and India, the circulation of the daily press grew by 24 per cent and 47 per cent respectively between 1993 and 1997. Such advances involve setting up or strengthening regulatory and self-regulatory mechanisms.
A framework for independence
As soon as a national press achieves a significant level of organization and influence, the issue of its responsibility inevitably arises. Experience has shown that a press like South Africa's, despite the country's colonial past and history of discrimination, has inherited certain structures which were helpful when it came to devise a self-regulatory mechanism. It was the same in India where, taking a cue from the British press, the media played an important part in the achievement of national independence. Pakistan, which turned away from such structures, has had a lot more difficulty establishing an independent press.
In developing countries where structures of this kind exist, journalism has a promising future. A framework for independence and pluralism has now been defined. While it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that great obstacles lie ahead, the encouraging progress made so far must be welcomed.
|Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.
1. Panos Institute, Médias et déontologie en Afrique de l'Ouest, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1996, p.45.
2. Venkateswaran, K.S. (dir). Media Monitors in Asia, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (Amic), Singapore, 1996. p.2.
Jean Huteau is former editor-in-chief of the French news agency Agence France-Presse and co-author, with Henri Pigeat, of a book on media ethics to be published by UNESCO later this year.