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    Media and Public Credibility: Return to Ethics or Downfall

    Media self-regulation as a Tool for rising Consciousness about Ethics and Responsibility of Media Coverage

     Media and Public Credibility Logo

    Author: Zdravko Čupović

    Straying from professional media ethics are not the only Problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But, if journalism becomes a pillar of shame instead of a pillar of democracy, it will become amongst the biggest problems, if it has not already. However, we must pose the question of how is it possible to be ethical in a society that is abundant in unethicality in almost all spheres? To what extent and why is media self-regulation important and why does the government have to recognize the importance of the Press Council and participate in its expenses?

    Zekerijah Smajić, doyen of BH journalism, with a vast pre-war, post-war and international experience, says that his first personal experience taught him that “professional self-regulation in media life and ethics are the two essential values of journalism, on the same path, which lead to the same goal and that they constitute an irreversible process, out of which professionalism, responsibility and credibility of the public word are formed”. He immediately adds that his second practical discovery was that individual self-regulation and ethical values in a journalist are in direct correlation, and that the formula is as follows: the greater the moral of a media unit - the more efficient the self-regulation, raising the professionalism of the journalist and media.

    “My third and most important discovery was that moral values of media actors make the foundation of every honorable, professional, responsible and credible journalist and journalism as a profession. Profiteers, greed, social and cultural decadence, dishonesty, envy, vindictiveness, belligerence, false patriotism… are all consequences of the global moral narcissism. Such consequences, in today’s ‘global village’ could also not have avoided ‘our’ journalism. Nor will they avoid it in the future. We are all in the same boat and under the same fist of global power-holders,” points Smajić.

    All of the stated leads to the question of how to fight against these monsters that globalization brings? How to develop a personal immunity against the factories of lies? “Such glorious goals can only be reached by moral, honest and self-responsible beings. And you cannot buy moral in the market. Honesty is not acquired at universities. Nor is self-responsibility found in editorial rooms. Morality, respect and self-responsibility are developed already from the embryo, inherited from parents, learned in the family, neighborhood and elementary school. Everything after this is too late for the moral paradigm of those that ‘moralize’ through the media,” states our speaker. 

    For his personal criterion, Smajić says that he is unchangeable since he ‘breathes’ for this, as he calls it, socially most responsible profession, and this criterion is that who wishes to be ‘the speaker’ of the society and time in which he or she operates, must hold above-average morals with emphasis that his or her hypothetical formula is made known to all employees, colleagues, coworkers, students. “All my young colleagues, all my employees, coworkers, students and friends know by heart my hypothetic formula: if, let’s say, the average morality is 100 ethos or moralos (my fictitious units for morality), everyone who intends to pursue journalism or already does so, would have to hold at least 120 of these imaginary unites. That is why the selection procedure for this honorable and socially responsible profession. Instead of accepting into journalism anyone who thinks they can be a journalist, we should go back to psychological exams, exams of common knowledge and human and vocational predispositions,” he says.   

    The second principle which he upholds is that he shall never lie to himself as a journalist in the interest of the editor, media or public, so that when he leaves the newsroom he is in a dilemma of whether someone’s name or last name was, intentionally or accidentally, misused in the media, because he firmly believes that no journalist in the world has the right to play with others’ destinies!

     “Everyone who wishes to know this knows that only completely free journalism can be professional and responsible journalism. This has nothing to do with claims about ‘dependent’ or ‘independent’ journalism. Pondering upon such claims is a waste of time, because dependence and independence as a reality are not the primary factor that decides the credibility and responsibility in journalism and in the public space. I know many European  and world media, especially in France, Belgium and Great Britain which are well known to be close to a certain ideology, but the ideological tendency of which does not in any way determine their objectivity or professionalism in treating events, topics, individuals and social goals,” explains Smajić.

    He admits that he himself often asks the question if self-regulation in journalism is at all possible in countries where the government, society or politics are established on injustice and immorality. Is journalism ethic at all possible if at a global level so many lies are being fabricated, while immorality,  'resourcefulness' and false devotion is being ignored or even rewarded?

     “Not only are both possible, but they are necessary. In the entire history of the world, evil has defeated good in numerous proportions. But, in the entire history of mankind, there always have lived units, examples, groups and entire societies that have resisted evil. And very, very often they have won! Journalism without self-regulation and professional standards, without returning to moral norms and without belief in the possibility of positive change - has no other path except that which leads to facelessness, obedience and newsletter journalism, which, unfortunately, is very present today. Without self-regulation and professional standards - corporate journalism and ever more powerful factories of global lies will, like a cancer in the human body, also eat away the individuals and media that still sacrifice themselves before the gallop of sensationalism, scandal, show business and media illiteracy,” warns  Smajić.

    The difference between private and public figures

    The practice in BiH is unfortunately different. Attorney from Mostar Nada  Dalipagić, confirmed that their office is filled with a large number of cases due to defamation, where she mainly represents the press and its journalists. “My experience in these cases is vast, and I would like to point out the work of the Press Council, the self-regulatory body, whose mediation precedes the cases brought to the responsible court for compensation for non-material damages brought about by defamation,” says Dalipagić.

    Referring to the rights guaranteed by the articles of the European Convention, she points that the Constitutional Court reminds that the European Court in its practice established certain relevant criteria that need to be taken into account in this regard. “The first criterion regards the contribution of the articles to the debate about public interest, which, according to the practice of the European Court, includes topics such as politics, crime, sports and art, whereby the definition of ‘topics’ that are in the public interest depends on the circumstances of each specific case. Moreover the Constitutional Court emphasizes that the contribution of the articles to public interest is to ensure that the press fulfills its role of ‘guardian of the public interest’, in the contrary the press does not fulfill this role, but servers only to satisfy the curiosity of a certain part of the public. The role and function of the person in question or the character of the activity being written about in the article represent other important criteria that is connected to the one previously mentioned. In this respect we must differentiate between private persons and persons that act in the public context, such as political or other figures,” she points and adds that a private person, who is unknown to the public, can seek special protection of his or her right to private life, while this does not apply in the same way to public figures.

    She explains that the fundamental difference that must be made is between coverage of facts that can contribute to democratic debate about politicians who perform their official functions and coverage on particularities of private life of persons who do not perform such functions. In the first case, the press does indeed perform its role of “guardian of the public” in a democratic land, while not so much in the case.

    The next important criterion that must be taken into account is the manner in which the information was gathered, i.e. was the person in question contacted and was that person given the opportunity to reply to the claims stated. “Thus it can be established whether the journalist acted in good intent, which can be his or her defense from defamation suits even if the information he or she published was false. The European Court, whilst applying this criterion, attributes great importance to the question of whether the local courts analyzed the manner in which the journalists obtained the information, namely, if they tried to verify it with the relevant persons and provided them the opportunity to reply to the statements. Other factors to be taken into account are the previous behavior of the person written about (e.g. if the persons already publicly stated anything), content, form and consequences of the publication, as well as the severity of the imposed sanction. As already indicated by both, the European Court for Human Rights and the Constitutional Court by their previous verdicts in such cases, there is a clear difference between information (fact) and opinion (value judgement), whereby the existence of a fact can be proven, while the value judgments cannot,” explains Nada Dalipagić.

    The European Convention protects both the essence and form

    On the other hand, the press plays an important role in a democratic society. Although it may not cross certain boundaries, especially taking into account the protection of the rights of others and the need for preventing the publication of confidential information, it is the duty of the press, in accordance with its obligations and responsibilities, to provide information about the behavior of governmental officials. Not only is it the duty of the press to provide such information and ideas, but it is also the right of the public to receive such information.  

    “The European Convention protects not only the essence of the ideas and information stated, but also the form in which they are transmitted, while journalistic freedom allows for a certain degree of exaggeration and even provocation. Still, Article 10 does not guarantee unlimited freedom of expression, even in the case of coverage on serious issues of public interest. According to Article 10, paragraph 2, enjoying the freedom of expression includes ‘duties and responsibilities’ that apply to the press as well, and which are especially significant when the reputation of private persons is attacked and when the ‘rights of others’ are diminished. That is why, in view of the facts, journalists can claim the defense that they acted bona fide in their strive to provide the public with accurate and reliable information in accordance with journalism ethics,” explains Dalipagić.

    This in principle means that the defense on the basis of an honest intention is a kind of replacement for proving the truth. When a journalist has a justified goal, when something is important for the public and when considerable effort is invested in proving the facts, the media shall not be deemed responsible even in the case it turns out that such facts are false.

    Ever more complaints are being resolved through self-regulation

    The Press Council in BiH reminds that it, as the self-regulatory body that enables the citizens to submit complaints about articles published in the print and online media, publishes all data on the complaints received on its publically available web site www.vzs.ba. The table for every year contains detailed data on who is complaining and how is every complaint resolved including information about the article, media, time and place of publication.

    “Looking at 2018, until now we received 149 complaints, out of which 39 were successfully resolved through self-regulation, namely through publication of a denial, reaction, correction or removal of comments that contain hate speech, call for violence or discriminate. With regards to the adjudications of the complaints commission of the Press Council, for the most part, the Commission found breach of Article 5 (Accuracy and Fair Reporting), Article 7 (Opportunity to Reply), Article 2 (Editorial Responsibility) and Article 15 (Complaints) of the Press Code of BiH. A large number of breaches was found in relation to the protection of privacy,” illustrates Maida Bahto Kestendžić, Executive Director of the Press Council.

    The fact that the number of complaints resolved through self-regulation is increasing is an encouraging indicator, as this in fact is the primary goal of the work and existence of the Press Council as the self-regulatory body in BiH. “We constantly promote the advantages of mediation as opposed to court proceedings. We are active on a daily basis. Communication with the Council is completely simplified, mediation is free, simple and relatively quick. For any kind of information, the citizens can call us by phone. There is no cost for the complainants, the Press Council does not charge for its services and we are here in every moment for those interested in the complaints procedure and the work of the Council. Mediation achieves much better results in the long run and the purpose of reducing the damage caused by the publication of false content can be achieved much quicker than through long-lasting court proceedings that require much money and patience,” states  Kestendžić.

    Dario Novalić, chair of the Board of Directors of the Press Council reminds about the savings made by the Press Council through the time of its operations: “If we know the number of complaints resolved through the Press Council in one year, and if we take into account that the average value of a court case is around 10 thousand marks, it is completely clear the value of the work we do. We have reduced and are still reducing the number of cases that end up in Court, allowing them time to tackle other violations of the law. On the other hand, the journalists also have the Press Code handy, as a small reminder when creating text. This entitles us to think that the State should finally take notice of the importance of our work, and as such it should participate in part of the expenses incurred by the office of the Press Council.  But we do not wish for the State to have influence in our work in this process. This sounds impossible currently here in BiH, but it is a completely normal thing in many countries in the world, as it is a question of development of democracy,” points Novalić.

    It is worth noting that the Press council acts upon articles published in the print media and on internet portals. When it comes to electronic media, namely radio and television, it is the Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) which is responsible.

     “The fact that an ever increasing number of complaints is resolved through self-regulation indicates that the media in BiH are increasingly ready to accept mediation as a way of resolving eventual disputes. Regarding the complaints themselves, the number that regards online media is constantly increasing, while the number of those that regard the panted media is on the fall,” says  Kestendžić.

    Long time journalist and owner of a TV Station Senad Hadžifejzović says that self-regulation on his Face TV is implied, and that they do not need outside suggestions, rules or advice. Still, he points that it would be great if a group of professionals would gather who would “freshen up” the rules of the profession and standards, and who would “put” on paper the rules of behavior and quality, and that he would  be happy when a professional body could be formed, which would write the rulebook, reminder or code that would help the younger journalists understand what in fact is journalism.   

    “I am not an optimist that such a thing will happen because such processes of standardization are always organized and performed by those from some NGOs, who really do not know what journalism is, and have no experience. Foreigners also know how to additionally complicate such attempts through dull, and literally translated formulations from their language to ours, which lose their essence in the translation. Foreigners elect the wrong people for such processes, who are anonymous. They give big money, write elaborates, conclusions, organize round tables, and? And they finish the beurocratic part of the job,” says Hadžifejzović.

    He adds that on his TV station self-regulation means quality, because, as he claims, in the technical race with more powerful TV stations, which have more money from their owners, sheiks, world corporations, from subscriptions and good connections with marketing agencies, the only thing they have left, and what is key, is quality, accurate information and openness towards the public, dialogue with the public and contact with them. “There is nothing else left but for us to give them accurate information, to bring ever more guests with more perspectives, therefore to do ‘raw’, real journalism. Hence, we have been ‘self-regulated’ for a long time, free from self-censorship, and these are two terms which are often mixed and falsely identified. The only thing left is for all of us to collectively ‘self-regulate’. What are the obstacles for such undertaking, except what is stated? The fact that the media are under control of political parties, the power of which is taken out of their hands by self-regulation. The fact that some journalists, editors and even owners are not in favor of self-regulation, not only because of their egos, but primarily because of interests. Many media cannot be ‘self-regulated’, hence professional, direct and open, while seeking money from the government. That is the thing,” states Hadžifejzović.

    The owner of BiH’s first private TV station Elvir Švrakić places standards of professional journalism, respect for positive legal stipulations in BiH and the world in first plan. He notes that Hayat, since its founding has a permanent editorial policy, its goals and vision, which are founded on the ethics of the profession in which they act.

     “TV as a media uses public resources, it is available to the masses, and that is why we bare great responsibility for our spoken word. Every editor, journalist, host, through his or her education learns about the principles under which information should be edited. We primarily verify the information form several sources, we check if behind the information lies something that can harm a certain group, personality, people and only on the basis of all verifications, the information goes to the public. We receive information and documents on a regular basis, which would achieve high ratings and wake large interest. However, even if such information is completely accurate, even if the documents are original and authentic, often we do not publish them, because their publication would cause great damage to the society,” reveals Švrakić.  

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