Journalists urged to maintain standards

Stabroek News
March 14, 2000

Definitions of a free press and standards in journalism were discussed on the last morning of a ten-day print media course run by the Thomson Foundation.

John Ryan and Ian Nimmo former journalists with 64 years combined experience in the trade are from the Thomson Foundation based in Cardiff Wales which runs programmes for journalists in developing countries. Ryan noted from their ten-day stay that there was considerable press freedom in Guyana and "things were very good here". He said that in countries he has visited where there is not a free press, justice is always in jeopardy. He counted five characteristics of a free press:

No prior restraint on publication or broadcasting; A criterion for objectivity; Plurality of ownership; Distinction between editorial material and advertising; Selection of contents on news values and not propaganda values.

Ryan did say he was intrigued by the number of news stories about presentations of gifts by companies and wondered if there was not some pressure on editors by sponsors to give coverage of what is essentially a free promotion. "There is always a need to decide where the boundary lies between promotion and real news." He also advised that editors are entitled to promote a particular party but that this should be confined to the editorial columns. Ryan was happy to note that there did not seem to be any restraint on publication of news beforehand through a censor or other government body and the healthy number of newspapers and broadcast outlets allowed for a variety of views.

Ryan expressed discomfort at any licensing of newspapers and reporters as there was always the implication that it could be taken away.

With press freedom comes responsibilities and Ryan referred to the words of C.P. Scott former editor of the Manchester Guardian: "The voice of opponents no less than the friends has a right to be heard" in any newspaper. Scott also said that any news organisation, "at the peril of its soul must see that the supply of news is not tainted."

In the United Kingdom there is the Press Complaints Commission which handles some 3,000 complaints a year from citizens about newspaper articles. The commission although run by the newspapers consists of 20 adjudicators, the majority of whom are laymen. Any newspaper found to be at fault is required to print a retraction. The findings of the commission can not however be used in a court of law.

Amongst the standards set out by the commission are: accuracy of reporting; the right of reply--a person mentioned in a newspaper must be able to have his complaint published in the same newspaper; no invasion of a person's privacy and no harassment or persistent pursuit of an individual; newspapers are also restrained from invading on the privacy of a grieving person either in word or with pictures; reporters are not allowed to make connections between relatives and a criminal; they should not talk about persons in terms of their religion, nationality, colour or sexual orientation unless relevant to a story.

But many of these standards can be broken if "the reporter and the editor finds that it is in the public interest." Public interest is defined as the detection or exposure of a crime or serious misdemeanour; protection of the public's health and safety; and the prevention of the public being misled by some statement or action by an individual or organisation."

Minister of Information, Moses Nagamootoo, gave out certificates to the 16 participants in the course on Friday afternoon saying journalists are not "just purveyors of the news but have a duty to protect the nation from itself."