International Workshop Calls for Upholding of Media Accountability

Stanley Leung - Executive Committee member of HKJA

At a time when news media are facing critical challenges and economic downturns, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) organized an international workshop early last December and called on the media to attach more importance to media accountability.

At the three-day workshop on media accountability, held in Bali, Indonesia, more than 20 media and union representatives from 17 countries generally agreed that governments must give top priority to creating conditions "that ensure free media and independent journalism, without any form of legal or political pressure."

A statement summing up the workshop discussions was presented to the 36-country Bali Democracy Forum, sponsored by the Government of Indonesia which concluded at the week end in early December, 2009. The forum was co-chaired by the top leaders of Indonesia and Japan.

The International Federation of Journalists said building public trust in journalism is critical for democracy and development and requires a "new mindset" about media accountability.

The workshop, held in the shadow of the Philippines massacre of 31 journalists and others two weeks earlier, called for government action to protect journalists. It also supported demands for self-rule in journalism and for a new approach to media accountability based upon partnership between journalism and civil society.

"It's time to get away from the idea that media accountability is only about policing the work of journalists," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. "We need a new mindset, one in which partnership between the public and media becomes central. Government must help by supporting principles of self-rule in media and by encouraging more citizens' voice in public affairs."

The conclusions of the media workshop, which was organised within the framework of the IFJ global Ethical Journalism Initiative, were welcomed by the governments meeting at the second Bali Democracy Forum.

Journalists' unions, media experts, and press council representatives from 17 countries attended the workshop which provided a case study on the work of the Indonesian Press Council.

The workshop called on governments to support new forms of co-operation between civil society and media. Participants supported the idea of forms of media accountability that can campaign for press freedom and good governance in media, contribute to media education, and promote citizens' access to information.

"Governments must support this work and self-rule in journalism," said White. "They should avoid the temptation to regulate journalism. Their role is important - to protect and nourish the rights of media and the information rights of citizens and journalists - but they must not interfere in editorial work."

The workshop, held between 9 and 11 of last December, also spent considerable time on discussing operations and problems of press councils in different parts of the world. It also touched on the impact the growing internet media have on traditional media.

Mr White told the conference that traditional media suffer from a loss of audience and circulation as users and advertisers migrate to new Internet platforms. And in the US alone 60,000 media jobs have disappeared in the last two years.

He said participants want to explore and develop one of the four key ethics of journalism – accountability. The three others are truth-telling, independence and responsibility to the people we serve.

Traditional media have had their energy entirely drawn to the greedy and unreasonable expectations of the market which has made many of them indifferent to news and therefore to the fundamental purposes served by news and the press, he said. "The consequences of that can now be seen in these hard times – cuts in editorial spending, training, investigative journalism, and employment of trained and skilled reporters."

With more and more amateur "journalists" in internet media, Mr White warned that this growth of unprofessional, unaccountable information increased public cynicism about the role of media in society and encourages yet more governmental interference.

The workshop also discussed problems of press councils, established in many countries to handle complaints against the press. Chairman of Indonesia Press Council Ichlasul Amal briefed the workshop on the operation of the Press Council, which was established in 2000, replacing the old state-sponsored press body. The new council consists of nine members representing journalist organizations, press companies and community leaders. Acting as mediator between society and the press, the Indonesian Press Council had handled and solved at least 3,000 complaints over the last nine years.

He said carrying out the Press Council functions was not an easy job after more than 30 years of authoritarian government during which the Indonesian press was oppressed. In the last 10 years, the press finds itself learning to practice its freedom, learning the hard way to be responsible. "News that was once regulated, measured, counted and controlled is now seen as not under control."

"Perhaps it is not surprising that Indonesia's press, after 10 years of enjoying freedom, generate much more condemnation and complaints than complements," he said, adding that now it is high time for the Indonesian press communities to evaluate and make self assessment on what role the press plays in a working democracy.

The Executive Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Kerr also shared his experience as a member of the Press Council in Australia. The Press Council enjoys no constitutional protection and abides by different laws, including secrecy, information and defamation laws. Facing financial problems after the financial tsunami, membership of the council has been reduced from 22 to 15, with a significant cut in number of full-time staff. He described the council as a tiger without teeth.