SECTION of DOCUMENT:
Between finishing the introductory chapter for this reader in July 1997 and this concluding chapter in 1999 there have been two, respectively three events that have put the ethics of journalism back on the global agenda. They are the happenings around the death of Princess Diana in Paris in August 1997 and the call to genocide by the Congolese dictator, Kabila, in August 1998. A third issue, at least in Germany, has become current in the context of television coverage of the war in the Congo: what should television still be allowed to show? Where do you set the limits?
Regardless of whether the paparazzi were to blame for the death of Lady Di, it once again dramatically brought the ethics of journalism under public scrutiny. Nor must it be forgotten that it was also journalists who played up the theme of ethics of journalism, more specifically tabloid journalism. In this case an intensive discussion of the ethics of journalism got going which focused especially on the issue of protecting privacy but also addressed the possibilities of an ethically irreproachable journalism in the commercially organised media.
Things were altogether different in respect to events in the Congo (Kinshasa). When in August 1998 the rebels trying to topple dictator Kabila were advancing, he ordered his state broadcaster to call for the
[page-number of print ed.: 246 ]
murder of Tutsis [ Comparably despicable of human beings was the 1994 call to genocide by the Rwandan broadcaster Radio Milles Collines; cf. Introduction] in a tirade of hatred. Everyone was to bring along machetes, spears, spades, barbed wire and stones to kill (Rwandan) Tutsis with them. Journalists who will write and disseminate such murder calls are war criminals pure and simple in relation to whom discussing ethics is pointless.
The third aspect relates to coverage from the Congo. On 27 August 1998 the Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF, Second German Television), a large public broadcaster, showed the following two scenes in its main 7 p.m. newscast. In the first a howling and gesticulating mob of people surrounded the charred corpse of a young man who had apparently been lynched. In the second two Congolese soldiers threw a desperately struggling young man off a bridge into a river and shot from close range at this human being when he tried to get to land. The footage had been provided by Reuters TV, whose cameraman said the murder in front of the running camera shocked him. As a result of this report the debate rekindled at least in Germany whether it should be allowed to inflict such pictures on viewers or whether one was in fact duty bound to show such horrors of war, for example to put pressure on politicians to take action. On the one hand there is always, of course, the possibility that this murder only happened because the camera was there. The soldiers possibly used the journalists as instruments to put out the message that they used utmost brutality against their enemies.
These three examples make clear the unbroken topicality of the theme of ethics in journalism. As the editor of this reader I have the difficult task of writing the concluding chapter. I am not going to do a summary commenting on the various contributions and thereby implicitly evaluating them because that always raises the danger of imposing the Western view of things as the yardstick. Moreover, the authors have approached the topic from such different perspectives that this would mean an impermissible contraction of the breadth of argumentation. What has also emerged, however, is that in some countries there is no discussion at all about the ethics of journalism. In my view, the most important finding is disappointing: in many countries or regions the issue quite obviously doesn't arise or it arises in a form quite different to what is
[page-number of print ed.: 247 ]
assumed when one presumes ethical behaviour is conditional on freedom of choice and that only those who can freely (co)determine their behaviour are accountable for it and can be judged by ethical criteria. Obviously, this criterion does not obtain in many countries or regions, e.g. Central Asia. Quite obviously, journalists are often treated as instruments for stabilising or practising authoritarian rule and must have no critical function whatsoever. People in power in many parts of the world, many of whom want to be regarded as democrats, take censorship of the media as a given. Quite obviously, what the late Julius K. Nyerere stated in Freedom and Development does not apply: "Freedom and development are as completely linked together as chickens and eggs. Without chickens you get no eggs; and without eggs you soon have no chickens. Similarly, without freedom you get no development and without development you very soon loose your freedom." [ Nyerere, J. K., Freedom and development, O.U.P., Dar es Salaam 1973, p. 60; quoted from: Maganga, M. A., Curriculum for a rural communication, in: Tanzania School of Journalism, Final Report, African Council of Communication Education, 3rd Biennial Meeting, Arusha, Tanzania, 14-19 December 1981.]
The authors of the contributions emphasise the religious, cultural and social differences between the various countries and regions, referring where applicable to the influence of former colonial powers on the perception of journalism. As a common denominator, however, there is a pessimistic bottom line in the sense that although ethics are favoured and demanded for journalism, a deficit between theory and practice is stated. There is state restriction and manipulation of the media. [ The essays published here did not address an aspect that Ruijter (1989) made clear on the findings of a UNESCO study, namely that many "journalists" in developing countries are loyal dogmatists who don't want to practise critical journalism. Many in top journalistic jobs are not journalists. Ruijter stated about Africa 10 year ago: "Only 2% out of 100 persons working in the field of communications were journalists, writers, and media producers; others were technicians, educators, bureaucrats etc." Cf. Ruijter, J. M., State and media in Africa: A quarrelsome though faithful marriage, in: Gazette, 44, 1889.] Or the media's being anchored in capitalist business (news as a commodity) prevents ethically clean journalism because profit maximisation is the dominant motivation. In neither case is journalism the work of intellectuals but means cooperating with the political and/or economic power. So while scholarship represents the critical search for truth and,
[page-number of print ed.: 248 ]
in the famous formulation of the German sociologist, Max Weber, means "the demystification of the world," this form of dependant journalism means the opposite, namely the "mystification" of the world (manipulation) to assert interests. Another complaint is that many journalists have no awareness whatsoever of an ethics of journalism and that in "Third World" countries the tasks of development journalism are not addressed. This lack of a problem awareness is also traced in many cases to ethics being given a minor role in journalism training. It appears that what was stated more than 10 years ago still applies: "A purely technical craft training of journalists which does not promote awareness of the ethical dimension can lead to stabilisation of overtly unjust structures of rule. The then technically improved journalism can be used to manipulate the population and for government propaganda." [ Kunczik, M., Concepts of journalism. North and South, Bonn (Friedrich Ebert Foundation) 1988, p. 234.]
But there is also the criticism that the public has no ethics. Gunewardena notes "the absence of a public ethic based on a concept of morality and respect for human rights." Overall, the authors unanimously find a contradiction between the encoded noble norms and the actual behaviour of journalists. For example, Joe S. M. Kadhi: "It is striking how often ... most African journalists fail to live up to the high standards they prescribe for everyone else in their respective societies." When I was reading some contributions I got the impression that the famous little poem by Humbert Wolfe (1886-1940) reflects the reality of journalism in many regions of the world:
"You cannot hope
[page-number of print ed.: 249 ]
The contributions show that practice very often and in very many countries makes an absurdity of the discussion of ethics. Many journalists are so badly underpaid that even if they tried their hardest, they couldn't practise ethically clean journalism, let alone operate as an independent "fourth estate" like in the democratic societies of the North. The poor financial situation encourages the forming of an "envelopment journalism," meaning journalists having to accept money to survive, [ The German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, put that succinctly in his 1928 "The Three penny Opera:" "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral" (First comes fodder, then comes morality.).] no matter how hard they struggle to practise clean journalism. Carlos Ruótolo observed on journalism in Latin America more than 10 years ago: "Journalists are expected to function as disguised propaganda agents with little prospect of taking a more impartial role." [ Cf. Ruótolo, A. C., Professional orientation among journalists in three Latin American countries, in: Gazette, 40, 1987.] Shafer diagnosed journalism in The Philippines as follows: "The close association between envelopment journalism and development journalism appears to constitute a joke among journalists throughout The Philippines, as if the terms are somehow synonymous." [ Cf. Shafer, R., Greasing the newsgate: The journalist on the take in the Philippines, in: Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 5, 1990.] However, specifically The Philippines also gives grounds for hope because in the contribution on media ethics in Southeast Asia reference is made to the exemplary role of journalism, not only characterised by an intensive ethics discussion, but also achieving in practice the mobilisation of the masses against dictator Marcos. Current developments in Indonesia, insofar as they touch on the ethics of journalism, are also assessed quite posi-
[page-number of print ed.: 250 ]
Because this reader was not able to cover the entire world (e.g. the Arab region, eastern Europe, western Europe, north America, Australia, Japan, China and Russia are missing), it is pointed out here that a conference on "Russian media now" took place in Bonn in September 1998. [ Cf. Markus Wehner, Militanter Despotismus in den Regionen, in: Frankfurter Allge meine Zeitung, 14.9.1998, p. 16.] One finding was that media freedom is in a parlous state in the Russian provinces. There, local political leaders own many radio and television stations. Just up to September 18 in 1998, 18 journalists became victims of capital crimes in Russia, including four murdered. The best-known case is the murder in July 1998 of Larissa Judina of Kalmykien, where she headed the only opposition newspaper. In addition to these violent ways of controlling the press, more subtle ones are widespread in the Russian provinces. With Russian printing works still owned by the state, governors and mayors can stop anything they don't like being printed. Compared to the provinces, this conference found, Moscow is a paradise of press freedom.
I think I can distil from the essays published here three decisive reasons that have prevented ethically irreproachable journalism coming into being or being practised: 1. Inadequate consideration for ethics in journalism training. 2. Political situations in many countries (e.g. Myanmar) or regions (e.g. Central Asia) are such that it is impossible to realise ethically clean journalism. 3. The commercialisation of the media and the predominance of the profit motivation that entails are pushing back aspects of ethics. Connected to that, reference is made to the lack of security of journalists (hire and fire), lacking internal press freedom and above all the indifference of owners to ethical issues.
Whereas other areas of ethics, such as medical ethics, have become well established disciplines [ Cf. e.g. Robert Zussman, Sociological Perspectives on Medical Ethics and Decision-Making, in: Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 1997, 171-189.], that is not the case with media ethics, although
[page-number of print ed.: 251 ]
since 1986 there has been in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics a periodical specifically addressing the field. The limitation of the validity of journalistic ethics is not uniform. For example, Kadhi also includes the ethics of public relations. But the fundamental question remains: what impact does the discussion of ethics make on journalistic practice? Is the discussion of ethics, put a little flippantly, perhaps only the hobbyhorse of philosophising celebratory speechmakers? Are not most ethics codes just papers dripping with "ethos," with "morality," totally irrelevant to practice? After reading the contributions I think I can assert, despite the many negative assessments, that this is not so. Let me just randomly cite Anglophone Africa.
What should be thought about, however, is whether the abstract ethics codes could be replaced or complemented by pragmatically applicable rules for ethically correct behaviour. Proceeding from the recognition that practitioners regard the various codes (in this case PR codes) as far too distant from and irrelevant to day-to-day work, the German PR practitioner, Horst Avenarius, has suggested developing a self-committing code that is workable in the everyday situation. [ Cf. Horst Avenarius, Die Ethik des Kommunizierens. Praktische Erfahrung mit PR-Kodizes, in: Wolfgang Armbrecht and Ulf Zabel (ed.), Normative Aspekte der Public Relations, Opladen 1994, p. 297 - 307.] As an example of such self-commitments Avenarius names the International Association of Business Communicators which in 1976 reduced the ethics debate to two points of self-commitment: 1. Attaining maximum credibility through honourable communication and honest dissemination of information. 2. Respecting every person's right to privacy and protecting confidential information and sources. Avenarius regards these as rules of behaviour all journalists can follow, given that they live in an environment allowing them to.
I believe I can identify in the international ethics debate two fundamental positions that can't always be kept clearly separate. There is support for an individualistic ethic, rooted in liberalism. And there is the plea for a systemic ethic referring to the overall system as the frame of reference. Both positions have a long tradition in the journalistic
[page-number of print ed.: 252 ]
discussion of ethics. [ Since I am rooted in European culture and don't want to make amateurish interpretations of non-European philosophers, I will refer in the following to the relevant European ones.] In England it was John Milton (1608-1674) who campaigned for press freedom and argued that truth could only be found if one considered it possible that the others might be right, too. Truth could be found in debate. Censorship would make the finding of truth by public argumentation impossible. With that Milton was one of the first to speak out for a culture of democratic dispute in which the principle held that people with equal rights could take and discuss differing positions without the state intervening. Milton saw such a condition adding to society's well-being. Individualism, which emphasises the uniqueness of the human being and states its right to its very own development, and liberalism, which encompasses all movements since the start of the 18th century for freeing the individual from the historically given compulsions and institutions of church and politics, are closely interwoven. Respect for individuality meant respect for the principle that human beings are ends in themselves. They possess autonomy that must be respected. Individualism does not mean disrespect for others; rather, a normative theory of individual accountability has to be developed. Individualism does not mean denial of the bonding of the individual to and the responsibility for the community. Individualism does not mean dissolution of community - that is anarchism. The opposite is the case: individualism means voluntarily taking responsibility for society. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), expressed this as follows in his famous Categorical Imperative: "Behave in such a way that the maxim of your will could at the same time be valid as a principle of a general legislation." Similarly, the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), in On Liberty saw the limits to freedom in the damage that is inflicted on others.
Liberalism began in response to the religious wars in Europe. Ultimately, to regain peace at last, both Catholics and Protestants accepted the separation of church and state. Accordingly, the state has the task of creating a neutral framework in which different perceptions of what is a good life can be put into reality, regardless of the person's view of the world. The former West German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, came to the conclusion in a lecture he gave in 1976 that the guarantees of
[page-number of print ed.: 253 ]
freedom to persons mean that the state has to behave neutrally in religious and world view matters: "This state cannot identify itself with certain religions, with religiously determined ethical convictions, with commitments. A state that guarantees every religious activity, that is to make possible a multiplicity of religious and ethical fundamental attitudes, cannot declare any particular system of values as the solely binding one, to the exclusion of all other systems of values." [ Schmidt, H., Ethos und Recht in Staat und Gesellschaft, in: Gorschenek, G. (ed.), Grundwerte in Staat und Gesellschaft, 3rd edition, Munich 1978, p. 19.]
Believers in liberalism see it as the form of societal organisation appropriate to the pluralism and multiplicity of modern, highly differentiated societies because the rights of the individual are respected. To prevent this system being destroyed by corruption, abuse of power or similar things, there has to be a free press with the task of revealing wrongdoing in state and society. Liberalism, coupled with the related notion of free enterprise, is now the dominant ideology in much of the world. One might comfortably say we're living in the age of markets: "The category of market dominates everyday discourse and political reality." [ John Lie, Sociology of Markets, in: Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 1997, 341.] The 1996 World Development Report had the subtitle, "From plan to market." [ World Bank, World Development Report 1996, New York 1996.] One of the major criticisms made of liberalism is that it's merely a glorification of the market and legitimises the egotistical and ruthless pursuit of self-interests. Nowadays the media giants that grew in capitalism operate worldwide and would prefer not to respect any cultural boundaries. Such players as Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation are not the least bit interested in ethical issues. Under the protective shield of press freedom, their only aim is to maximise profit. [ The political scientist, Carl J. Friedrich, referring to powerful publishers, said tellingly: "The cynic could say, the desperate outcry, ‘Give me freedom or give me death’ had changed into the outcry, ‘Give me freedom and profit!’" Friedrich, Carl J., Pathologie der Politik, Frankfurt 1973, p. 157.]
On the other hand, it's more than legitimate to ask: may one put the individual in first place when one is living in a world of need and misery? The priority of the state, respectively the common good, was already postulated by Plato in the Republic, in which he argued that the life of the individual had to be subordinated to the well governed state.
[page-number of print ed.: 254 ]
Plato even conceded to the ruler the right to lie. He argued from the assumption that not every person was suited to leading. One main reason why the expert (in Plato's scenario the royal philosopher) mustnt tell the people the whole truth [ Benjamin Franklin is purported to have said, "Half the truth is often a great lie."], is that only he can recognise the "truth" and develop possible solutions (e.g. recognise complex contexts and deal with them appropriately). In other words, the people not capable of rational decision-making are "kept quiet" with the aid of lies. That enables the expert to solve problems rationally. In other words, the person not saying the whole truth because the nature of the matter doesn't allow it, at the end of the day is acting truthfully, anyway. According to that line of argument, at least the occasional lying is quite necessary to adequate government for the people's own good. It can also be used to justify the simplifying depiction of complex issues, the use of metaphors and images in the language of politics. As far as I'm aware, these issues have not been discussed in the framework of the tasks of a "development journalism": is it legitimate to spread truth only in development relevant "pedagogically skilful" doses or even to lie? Would it be legitimate - say in the process of nation building - to invent myths? Ernest Renan has summed up European experience in this respect as, "No nation without a falsification of its own history." [ Quoted from Hobsbawn, E. J., Nationen und Nationalismus, Frankfurt on Main 1991, p. 24.]
In 1651 the English philosopher of the absolutist state, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), took the view in Leviathan [ Leviathan is a sea monster which "looks down on even the proudest animals; he is king of all wild beasts" (Good News Bible, 1976, Book of Job, Chapter 41, Verse 34).] that in a natural state there would be war by all against all. The striving for power was regarded as the fundamental motive of the human being ("... the desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death"). To maintain the peace the sovereign had to be conceded absolute power because the human being was the wolf of the human being (homo homini lupus est). It was not up to the state to guarantee the freedom of the individual, but the security of all. "The liberty of the subject lieth therefore only in those things which ... the sovereign hath permitted" ("autoritas non veritas facit legem"). Censorship was regarded as given and necessary. Thomas Hobbes said it
[page-number of print ed.: 255 ]
like this: "For I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man's right of dominion, that the three Angles of a Triangle should be equal to two Angles of a Square; that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of Geometry, suppressed, as farre as he whom it concerned was able." In such a concept journalists' only function is to steer society and to preserve the power of the ruler or rulers by manipulation. Regrettably, this kind of journalism, which was characteristic of the Soviet Union and the countries of the former East Bloc, has still not disappeared.
A watered down form of this perception of journalism is the paternalistic variant. This means persons or institutions claiming to be benevolent (whether they are is something undesired critical journalism should examine) believe they have to protect a population they regard as ignorant from "dangerous information" to be good to them, e.g. because they lack understanding of, say, complicated contexts such as development processes. This paternalistic attitude doesn't presuppose consensus with those affected, either. In this case, too, journalism's task is not criticism, but stabilisation of rule.
The current discussion of the so-called civil society also revolves around the notion of a form of society that should turn against the allegedly unbounded individualism. At the same time, however, civil society is supposed to prevent society being permeated by politics. The discussion of American communitarism closely linked with this calls for a return to original democratic values. The short-term aims of the individual had to bow out in favour of the objectives serving the common good. Communitarism regards a top-down imposition of values as inappropriate. Communitarism means commitment to collective values and to public goods. In this scenario journalism would have a double function: to control politics and to make available an adequate dialogue communication culture. Civil society means the part of a society in which democratic practices and values evolve, where, in other words, democracy is lived. This idea of society has been discussed in the English-speaking world particularly since the translation of the ideas of the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas (Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge, Ma. 1989). Habermas' ideal is the 18th century with coffee house, salon and the development of a free press. A. B. Seligman, who places the idea of "civil society" in the context of Scottish
[page-number of print ed.: 256 ]
enlightenment and perceives it as a society in which the private is strictly separated from the public, offers the other concept. [ A. B. Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society, New York 1992. The discussion is summed up by Mabel Berezin, Politics and Culture: A less Fissured Terrain, in: Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 1997, 361-383.]
Democracy is a form of living together which depends to an extremely high degree not on control, but above all on trust - and to bring both about, namely to control the mighty while at the same time generating trust in the political system, is the very difficult task of good journalism. In Two Treatises of Government, an essay anonymously published in 1690, the English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704), in arguing for government by consent and the right to religious dissent, said trust was of decisive importance to consensual government.
Looking at the contributions here, it appears to me that there is no globally valid basis for journalistic ethics - apart from the reference point of human rights, which is not accepted everywhere, either. [ The June/December 1998 issue of the Journal of International Communication is devoted to the theme of human rights.] For example, at the July 1998 conference of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Malaysian prime minister Mahathir suggested rewriting the human rights declaration of the United Nations in the interests of the poor countries. Foreign minister Alatas of Indonesia argued that about 120 new states had come into being since 1948 which had no role in writing the declaration. The foreign minister of Malaysia took the view that emphasis on individual rights of freedom is inappropriate in multi-racial and multi-religious Third World nations like Malaysia; too much freedom could destroy democracy.
In all societies on which this reader reports there appears to be debate of different intensity on issues of public morality. Public morality, like security and public health, has always been one of the "police powers" of government. In recent time there have been massive attacks in some Western societies from the liberal side against this notion where it touches on such areas as pornography, prostitution, homosexuality, gambling, drug consumption and so forth. The idea was to achieve a decriminalisation of crimes with no victims. A discussion conducted in the 60s by two British jurists, Patrick Devlin and H. L. A. Hart, became
[page-number of print ed.: 257 ]
famous in this context. Devlin, who defended the position of "legal moralism," argued that a society is decisively shaped by shared moral precepts and that legal toleration of behaviours deviating from this moral basis carries in it the danger of society disintegrating. Hence society had the right to assert the dominant moral precepts to guarantee stability. Hart's counter argument was that this notion of disintegration was either an empty conceptual thesis, which quite trivially equated society with the values dominant at any given time, or it was an empirically verifiable thesis, which was not, however, borne out by historical experience. [ Cf. H. L. A. Hart, Law, Liberty, and Morality, Stanford, Cal., 1963; Patrick Devlin, The Enforcement of Morals, London 1965.]
I am unshakeable in my view that journalists who consider themselves intellectuals - and in the ideal case, all of them should - should critically question realities, including existing social conditions. As intellectuals journalists have the duty to expose injustices. The famous open letter by Émile Zola (1840-1902) to the president of the French republic in connection with the Dreyfuss affair, published on 13 January in L'Aurore, carried the programmatic title J'accuse. It is often claimed that intellectuals are powerless. Wrong, as the enraged reactions of many holders of not democratically legitimised power to criticism by intellectuals show. The role of intellectuals in smashing old social structures must not be underestimated. Before revolutions broke out, journalists, poets, dramatists, critical students, artists, essayists and so on withdrew support from the given regimes, condemned them and demanded fundamental reforms. [ Cf. Jack A. Goldstone, The comparative and historical study of revolutions, in: Annual Review of Sociology, 8, 1982, p. 189f.] Revolution and communication are very tightly intertwined. Without communicative preparation revolutions are not possible. Even the storming of the Bastille, which as a political prison was a symbol of absolutism, was prepared communicatively. In fact, especially the French Revolution has shown how important communication is, because revolutions begin by the delegitimisation of the established power structure. Existing social conditions are no longer accepted as given and an alternative view of the world is disseminated. The mobilisation of the masses during the French Revolution was possible because prior to it a resistance and revolution - not a revolt [ King Louis XI was mistaken when, returning from the hunt on 14 July 1789, he heard of the storming of the Bastille and commented, "C'est une révolte!" One of his employees is said to have corrected him with "Non, Sire, c'est une révolution!" (Klaus Imhof and Peter Schulz, introduction - Kommunikation und Revolution, in: (ed.) Kommunikation und Revolution, Zurich 1998, p. 9.] -
[page-number of print ed.: 258 ]
had been legitimised by a new vision of history. Klaus Imhof and Peter Schulz write about Kommunikation und Revolution: "Exemplary seems to be the phenomenon of expansion of the communicators in the form of partisan press ... in the revolutionary Paris of 1789: between February and May 450 clubs and more than 200 journals came into being. Like a magnet attracts iron filings, the fundamental conflict about power and the social order appears to force all communication to come to it." [ Klaus Imhof and Peter Schulz, introduction - Kommunikation und Revolution, in: (ed.), Kommunikation und Revolution, Zurich 1998, p. 11.] The German writer and educator, Joachim Heinrich Campe, hurried to Paris at the time to see the revolution with his own eyes. In his first report of 9 August 1789 he describes masses of people conspicuously crowding around notices hung on walls, especially people of the lowest classes. "Imagine," Campe commented, "how this publicity, this participation in everything must be affecting the development of the powers of the human soul, especially the forming of understanding and sense of people." [ Quoted from Klaus Herding and Rolf Reichardt, Die Bildpublizistik der Französischen Revolution, Frankfurt on Main 1989, p. 7. In addition to written communication, pictorial publicity (copper engravings, etc.) also played a central part and contributed to a massively effective revolutionary mood; cf. ibid. p. 24.]
There is any number of examples of how intellectuals have contributed to changes in values and the resistance to injustice, so that a few will do here. When the colonial power Britain enforced strict censorship in India in the 30s, Indian film directors got around it by developing special pictorial and sound symbols in mythologicals, which the Britons didn't understand. Ever more often symbols of the Indian nation were shown, such as the spinning wheel (chakra), the flag of the INC (Indian National Congress) or a map showing British India and the principalities. [ Cf. Brigitte Schulz, Die Erfindung der geeinten Nation. Der indische Film, in: Rainer Rother (ed.), Mythen der Nationen. Völker im Film, Berlin 1998, p. 118.] Polish
[page-number of print ed.: 259 ]
student theatre was a medium for disseminating dissenting opinion and organising collective resistance against the communist regime. [ Cf. e.g. J. C. Goldfarb, The Persistance of Freedom. The Sociological Implications of Polish Student Theater, Boulder, Co., 1980.]
Hungarian writers also got around censorship, thereby preparing the collapse of the communist system. [ Cf. M. Haraszti, The Velvet Prison. Artists under State Socialism, New York 1987.] Even under the Nazi dictatorship in Germany there were courageous journalists who knew how to criticise the regime. [ Aesopian communication, i.e. communication in a special language, was a widespread form of resistance in Third Reich Germany. Violent rulers of the past and the injustices they perpetrated were criticised and the readers were left to draw their own conclusions. Even in the business sections of some daily newspapers the Nazi ideology was very subtly made a laughing stock, for example by referring to the tomato as the "Nordic" fruit of the south or the Japanese as the "yellow Aryans" ( Frankfurter Zeitung). Before the French Revolution, criticisms of the French court were sometimes camouflaged as discussion of Chinese affairs. Aesop was a legendary author of a collection of Greek fables. Their importance lay not so much in the story told as in the moral derived from it.] In many societies journalists who want to serve the truth not only have to be strong people, but heroes. Bertolt Brecht has something fitting to say about that in a dialogue from The Life of Galileo Galilei (sc. 13).
Andrea: Unglücklich das Land, das keine Helden hat! ... (Unhappy the land that has no heroes!)
Galileo: Nein, unglücklich das Land, das Helden nötig hat. (No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.)
Julien Benda published his famous essay La trahision des clercs in 1927, in which he attacked members of the intelligentsia because they had betrayed the ideals of humanity and democracy. It was the intellectuals' task to criticise to serve certain ideals of humanity - and in that can also be seen the difference to irresponsible journalism, which in contrast to intellectual journalism serves only commerce or politics and accepts a certain ideology without questioning it. That this argument is by no means restricted to Western culture is made plain by an essay by
[page-number of print ed.: 260 ]
the president of Iran, Seyed Mohammad Hatami [ This reference to Hatami, who together with culture minister Mohadsherani has defended the critical press, is by no means intended to imply that there is freedom of the press in Iran. The opposite is the case. In September 1998 the liberal daily newspaper Tus was banned for the third time within four months. The weekly Rah-e nou was also forbidden. The publisher and chief editor of Tus were arrested and are to be tried by a revolutionary court. They are accused of having endangered the security and interests of the country. Revolutionary leader Hameini had previously attacked the liberal press because it allegedly attacked national articles of faith. It was the mouthpiece of the West, he alleged, and was pursuing the cultural invasion of the country. The Iranian Journalists Association in September 1998 was sharply critical of the judiciary, accusing it of trying to destroy the "relative freedom" that had existed for a year.], published on 1 August 1998 by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany's leading daily: Tradition is not eternal, either. [ Sejjed Mohammad Chatami, Auch die Tradition ist nicht ewig, in: Frankfurter Allge meine Zeitung of 1.8.1998, p. 28.] Tradition, modernity and development are characterised as concepts occupying most intellectuals in our time, especially in non-Western countries. At the start of the new, modern civilisation the Western societies also had to break with tradition. The author comes to the conclusion that a society that doesn't think about itself is lost. Hatami not only describes the French Revolution as the most glorious event of modern civilisation, he warns against falling into dogmatism. "When a certain way of understanding and perception has become a habit, it is fundamentally difficult to let go of it. The difficulty is even greater if tradition takes on the colour and scent of religion. When limited human traditions and perceptions take the place of sublimity and holiness, all criticism of them is rejected as heretical innovation, and the fight against heretical innovations in turn is regarded as sublime and holy." Hatami describes a situation of rigid societal and thought structures. What solution does Hatami propose? He demands - without using the term - that intellectuals develop new ways of seeing: "Why should we not, by overcoming the Now (armed with the two critiques, the critique of modernity and the critique of tradition) develop a new relationship to Being, to reach a new way of seeing and with its aid bring forth a new civilisation...?" That is precisely the demand to be made of intellectual journalism: criticism of existing conditions against the background of the ideal of humanity. But Hatami also emphasises another aspect, which also occurs in systemic societal
[page-number of print ed.: 261 ]
and political theories (e.g. Karl W. Deutsch in his Politische Kybernetik). Without effectively linking with the past, with one's own history, the behaviour of a system would be largely determined by outside influences, i.e. the system would drift without orientation. The loss of memory in this sense is tantamount to the loss of will. Applying that thought to journalism means that journalism must not only critically scrutinise givens, but also has to ensure that the historical experience remains in the system, well aware, though, that "the history" does not exist; basically, every new generation writes its own history.
Regardless of the above, the freedom of the individual and freedom of speech must always be a compromise. There is no absolute freedom in the form of an extreme egotistical individualism anywhere. Which raises the question where to draw the lines in journalism and who should be allowed to draw them? I think it should be up to the journalists themselves. If it's left to the politicians to do, that's the end of free, critical journalism. Politicians aren't interested in being criticised, they want praise and highlighting of their outstanding and selfless labours for society. I think the only global consensus is that there cannot be limitless freedom of the press. But there is no consensus on where to set the limits, either. The only way forward can be to keep testing the boundaries in individual societies by intensive and ongoing discussion. It's a tough job and there are no hard and fast rules for doing it. Let me give you an example. In 1969 the photographer Eddie Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for his famous picture of South Vietnamese general, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, shooting a bound Viet Cong prisoner. Without doubt, the picture contributed to strengthening the anti-Vietnam war movement in the US and worldwide. You would think that this photo (which in the opinion of most observers, including myself, showed nothing but a cold-blooded murder) would not have caused the photographer any ethical problems or given him a guilty conscience. Very wrong. In a eulogy published in TIME (July 27, 1998, p. 15) Eddie Adams told how he sees it now; because of their relevance to the ethics debate I reproduce his words in full.
"I won a Pulitzer Prize for a photograph of one man shooting another. Two people died in that photograph, the recipient of the bullet and GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most
[page-number of print ed.: 262 ]
powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half truths. What the photograph didn't say was 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?' General Loan was what you call a real warrior, admired by his troops. I'm not saying what he did was right, but you have to put yourself in his position. The photograph also doesn't say that the general devoted much of his time trying to get hospitals built in Vietnam for war casualties. This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me, if I hadn't taken the picture, someone else would have, but I've felt badly for him and his family for a long time. I kept in contact with him; the last time we spoke was about six months ago when he was very ill. I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and wrote, 'I'm sorry. There are tears in my eyes.'"
A question difficult to answer is whether in certain situations it can be compatible with ethically irreproachable journalism to suppress the truth or explicitly lie. I do seriously believe that there can be such situations. In my view truthful reporting would be unethical in case of a conflict between states, for example, if it inflamed emotions and increased the likelihood of war breaking out. In a case like that journalism should have a conflict dampening function.
It is in fact a question that has to keep being put and answered: what could and should be made public by journalism, and what is no business of the public? Thus the US state of California passed a law against paparazzi in the autumn of 1998. Under this law, which was spawned by the death of the British Princess Diana and the intensive debate of the limits to free reporting it prompted, from 1 January 1999 media can be fined for violating privacy. Governor Pete Wilson said the law was to prevent aggressive reporters harrying their human prey to death. [ Cf. the German business newspaper, Handelsblatt, of 2/3.10.1998.]
The German sociologist, Heinrich Popitz, has written on the excruciatingly unpleasant notion of a society without secrets, whose people are completely informed about each other. In his essay Über die Präventivwirkung des Nichtwissens (On the preventive effect of not-knowing) he says that a society with total information about the
[page-number of print ed.: 263 ]
behaviour of its members cannot exist because information about deviations from valid norms would also be known. From this derives the demand to journalism to respect the private sphere. Not-knowing is by no means always dysfunctional, on the contrary, it can be enormously important to preserving the social peace in a society. [ Cf. also Moore, W. E. and Tumin, M. M., Some social functions of ignorance, in American Sociological Review, 14, 1949; Popitz, H., op. cit; Schneider, L., The role of category of ignorance in sociological theory, in: American Sociological Review, 27, 1962.] There can certainly be situations where ignorance can have a conflict-diminishing effect and total information would exacerbate conflict. Examples at individual level are easy to find (e.g. between spouses). [ Cf. on this especially Goffman, I., The presentation of self in everyday life, New York 1959.] Organisations can function only because the superiors don't know everything their subordinates do. [ Cf. Coser, R. L., Insulation from observability and types of social conformity, in: American Sociological Review, 26, 1961.]
Even democracies have state secrets (especially military ones), revelation of which could endanger survival of the system. Even votes in parliament can be secret. Elections in democracies are a secret process in any case. The problem lies in defining the limits of control by the public, i.e. journalism. Exposing and criticising wrongdoing is of decisive importance to the functioning of a democracy. In his The Pathology of Politics (New York 1972) the political scientist, Carl J. Friedrich, argues that the legislative needs a certain measure of secrecy to be able to work. Where this was not possible, the location of important decision-making was shifted; e.g. out of plenary session into committees, into party caucuses, etc. Decisions are then made behind closed doors. As an example of this Friedrich cites an incident during Germany's Weimar republic (1919-1933). The communist party had grown strong enough to gain seats in the foreign policy committee. As a result, the foreign minister met with decision makers who did not belong to the party. Afterwards he informed the committee about the things the communists were also allowed to know. But even in public court proceedings, e.g. in the deliberations of a jury, strictest secrecy is maintained in some respects.
[page-number of print ed.: 264 ]
Even if one considers lies to be morally quite reprehensible, it can be very dangerous to want to speak the truth fundamentally and under all circumstances. That applies particularly if one lives in an environment which, to put it guardedly, tends to have a strategic relationship to truth. If one lives as a journalist in a society where expressing the truth can threaten one's existence, the problem of what one can still publish keeps arising. At stake are also survival, self-preservation and the long-term assertion of aims. The core question is: when is the truth useful and when is the lie useful? Cannot a journalist who in times when it was not dangerous to express the truth gained a reputation for credibility, lie particularly successfully (credibly), when it is useful for the common good?
The political theoretician, Hanna Arendt (1906-1975), was a rigorous opponent of the political legitimation of lying under the aspect of usefulness, arguing that lying puts the stability of the political order at risk. People who expected not to be told the truth would turn away from politics in which they had lost trust. Truth in doses is more dangerous over time than confrontation with unpleasant truths. Lying, says the philosopher in Wahrheit und Lüge in der Politik (Truth and Lies in Politics, Munich 1972), is not useful, but highly counter-productive. People didn't need to be protected from the truth. The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), takes much the same position. When Germany was taking its first steps towards democracy again after being defeated in World War II, the journalist Gert H. Theunissen asked him in a radio discussion: "Mr. Sartre, the German youth are confused. You speak of freedom, but what freedom do you mean?" Sartre replied: "Anyone who asks like that has understood nothing about freedom. There is no freedom for this or that, but only freedom in general." [ Vis-á-vis. Deutschland - Frankreich. Exhibition in the House of History, Bonn 1998. Quotation from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 11.8.1998, p. 31. On Sartre's concept of freedom cf. L'etre et le néant; Paris 1943; translated: Being and nothingness, London 1969.]
Perhaps the whole discussion of journalistic ethics is superfluous, given the dramatic changes in the communication sector. Perhaps the Internet will soon make reality of Brecht's 1932 demand to remake broadcasting. Brecht wanted to change broadcasting from a distribution apparatus into a communication apparatus, in which the listener would not just be a
[page-number of print ed.: 265 ]
listener, but also a speaker. Radio should no longer isolate listeners, but organise them as providers of contents in a public, decentralised medium. Perhaps in the foreseeable future there will no longer be a journalism as we now know it, because the Internet has already put in place the technological resources for communication without journalists. But something the Scottish historian and philosopher, Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856), put on the title page of his Discussions on Philosophy, published in 1852, should stay valid forever: "Truth, like a torch, the more it's shook it shines." Dorothy Sayers once said that facts are like cows: If you look them in the face hard enough, they generally run away. This applies even more essentially to the ethical principles of journalism, except that it doesn't deal with slow animals, but shy deer that very often one can't look in the eyes at all, and when one can, they're gone very fast.
In conclusion, I'd like to set out in 12 points my subjective, normative views concerning the ethical aspects and main tasks of journalism in processes of democratisation, which amount to my definition of democratic journalism.
1. My foundation of an ethics of journalism is the idea of freedom of information. The principle of "Free Flow of Information" was declared in 1948 in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 says that "freedom of information" is a fundamental human right: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions... and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." The McBride Commission argued in an evolutionistic way and believed in an inevitable development of human society to democracies: "the right to communication is an extension of the continuing advance toward liberty and democracy." [ McBride, S., Many voices, one world. Communication and society today and to morrow, New York 1980, p. 131.]
2. The starting point for developing ethical foundations for what I call democratic journalism is the following basic assumption: Those in power always try to give the impression that they are representing the interests of the entire population. They claim that the official ideology
[page-number of print ed.: 266 ]
on which the state is based rests on a fundamental harmony of the interests of the entire population.
3. It is obvious that purely affirmative, eulogising reporting, which ritually extols the supposed outstanding achievements of whoever is in power is not democratic journalism. From my point of view journalism always has to take a fundamentally critical position. This is not the same as rejecting one's state, but it is to function as a watchdog.
4. My further argumentation is based on the assumption (which unfortunately is so rarely found in reality) that the governments concerned are interested in having well-informed and self-assured citizens actively cooperating in the process of democratisation, bringing in their views and at the same time having a strong interest in controlling the government to expose and fight abuse of power and corruption; and only free mass media can fulfil this function. Under no circumstances is it the task of democratic journalism to manipulate the population and to support regimes that scorn human rights. (Mobilisation to carry out development measures is not understood as manipulation.) In principle, the so-called "government-say-so journalism" is irreconcilable with an ethically based journalism. But it has to be taken into consideration that the dissemination of decisions by the executive, the legislative and the courts is of central importance to democratic will-building.
5. Participation of the people is most important, since the more widespread a person's participation in collective decision-making and the greater their integration into the communication structure, the higher is the commitment to the nation state (positive effect, loyalty and efforts to realise goals), and the lower is the detachment (e.g. feelings of inability to influence collective actions and policies). Against this background one of the most important tasks of democratic journalism (and probably the least realised) is to help prevent the establishment of oligarchic leadership. For oligarchic leadership, the rule of the few, is fundamentally harmful to development of democracy. Oligarchy produces apathy and alienation among the governed. In this context democratic journalism has the task of clarifying political will-building processes - politics must be made transparent. Democratic journalism then can be considered to be part of mass education by the media. The end of this education is the mediation of qualifications which allow people to cope rationally and self-determined with future situations.
[page-number of print ed.: 267 ]
6. Democratic journalism bases on a philosophy that puts human dignity and human rights at the centre of all things.
7. In development processes, no matter how well the planning has been done, conflicts are normal. There will never be the great harmony of utopia. As a rule states in which the mass media spread the image of a vast harmony of interests are always authoritarian states in which opinions deviating from those of the government are suppressed. In this context democratic journalism has to assume the role of mediator because the views of various interest groups are to be publicly aired. Irreconcilable positions must be made visible if the aim is to find compatible objectives for which various segments of society are to be mobilised and encouraged to cooperate: people must become aware of mutual dependencies.
8. One main task of democratic journalism is trying to demolish feelings of alienation like powerlessness, self-estrangement, isolation, meaninglessness and even normlessness. I think one of the most important of all beliefs one has about oneself is that one has control over one's life. The sense of not being in control of it can diminish the will and motivation actively to tackle problems. Democratic journalism should also give orientation aids to increase possibilities for participation in the world; in a word: sense-conveying.
9. Fulfilling the function of a watchdog and evaluating the performance of politicians means that almost automatically there are going to be conflicts between journalists on the one side and politicians and administrators on the other side. Journalists must be constantly aware that information affects power in society. Democratic journalism can never be a neutral, non-participating factor. Quite the contrary, it must be recognised that journalism is a power factor perceived as a challenger by many politicians and other vested interests. Only in a dictatorship there is no conflict between journalists and government.
10. Democratic journalists should perceive themselves as intellectuals, as members of a profession doing intellectual work. And that involves assuming a fundamental critical perspective when social reality is judged, be it feudalistic, capitalistic or socialistic social reality. To put it more plainly: journalists should not sell their souls to the powerful and only glorify them. They have an extremely important obligation to
[page-number of print ed.: 268 ]
society as a whole, the task of exercising criticism on the basis of fundamental human values, of the ideal of humanity. And journalists must be aware from the start that it is almost the normal thing for such intellectuals to be attacked and calumniated as traitors to the national cause, a riffraff without an ethos and so on.
11. Democratic journalism is by no means hostile to the state. Criticism is not, after all, destructive, it can be very positive. Hence democratic journalism must possess a marked responsibility ethic. It must take into account the possible consequences in society of what it publishes. Here we get to the problem of where to draw the line, which can be a most difficult situation in any given case. But whenever human rights are violated, the journalist must act as an absolute-value ethicist regardless of the consequences. This unequivocal duty to the truth where human rights are scorned is what distinguishes democratic journalism from government-say-so journalism.
The kind of democratic journalism I am pleading for here could be perceived and used as a kind of feedback mechanism in democratic system management, which improves with better information flow. A positively critical stance vis-à-vis the state and politics, control without being in opposition; this turns into absolute resistance should human rights be violated. The unequivocal answer to the question Whose side am I on? must be On the side of humanity. The Nobel-winning author Camilo José Cela put it as follows in an interview (TIME, December 11, 1989, 46): I am not on the side of those who make history but of those who suffer history.
12. Even if the institutional legal and economical security for the implementation of this democratic type of journalism were given, higher moral standards would be demanded of journalists than of the rest of the population. Such journalists are the conscience of the nation. To the everyday work of journalists this means always having at the back of their mind some wise words uttered in 1780 by the German philosopher Georg C. Lichtenberg, which I cite the second time: It is impossible to carry the torch of truth through a crowd without singing somebody's beard.
© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | März 2000