Journalistic Ethics in Covering Politics: Sri Lankan perspective
Posted on July 15th, 2012

Shenali Waduge

In a country with 20m population a majority populace of close to 15m, Sri Lanka’s media is divided along commercial, ethnic, religious, linguistic lines and difference of opinions relayed by state and private media is making Sri Lanka projected as a nation without press freedom. What exactly is press freedom, what does it mean for the press to be “fearlessly” reporting, how “free” do journalists want the press to be “”…” the questions are many and so too are the questions that revolve around ethics in media and how far journalists themselves hold upto their end of the virtues.

 While freedom of speech and expression is recognized as a human right it does have its limitations and journalists certainly need to understand the dimensions that revolve around the ethics of their profession. Essentially, all journalists apart from those who do not write for money, are employed. The media agency they work for pays them to write and function according to the norms and guidelines of their owners. They have little freedom to work against these guidelines. This applies to both public and private media alike.

 Concern about press freedom must first proceed by who is demanding such freedom and for what reasons. Most of the tabloids in Sri Lanka have had a habit of gaining their status by bribing to publicize people’s secrets in the open. This certainly does not cover the grounds of freedom of press or journalistic ethics. It also questions the exact motives of those asking for greater freedom of expression.

 Many journalists crying foul and projecting a picture of subjugation of press freedom refrain from admitting their links to external factors and are silent over the massive remunerations they are receiving for the public campaigns they are launching at the behest of these external channels. This certainly should raise our own eyebrows that if politicians are corrupt most of these media agencies are no lambs either. It is left for us to identify and form our own judgments. Media has no right to demand that we think the way they want us to think.

 Journalists and Politicians

Would it be wrong to say or would journalists refuse to accept the accusation that political journalists do not report facts and have become pawns to massive smear campaigns? Would it be wrong to say that journalists covering politics prefer to use the power of their pen to gain political and commercial benefits for themselves which invariably turns them into writers paid to slander? Even in the US the Federal Election Commission has revealed hundreds of journalists making campaign contributions which again questions their ethics.

 It is also true that journalists and politicians cannot do without each other “”…” in fact one would not exist without the other. Therefore, so long as both enjoy their comfort zones the news remain unpublicized but no sooner they fall out of favor with each other then comes the dirty linen. Both journalist and politician cannot deny this hometruth. It is why many of the secrets of politicians remain secrets and why only a handful of secrets end up making headlines. So where lies the ethics?

 Essentially it is society that ends up gullible spectators of this love-hate relationship shared between politicians and journalists.

 As elected members not forgetting the dictators too, it is upto them to take action on behalf of the citizens of a country. Journalists on the other hand are there to report what is happening but they are also bound by a code which simply means they are not to manipulate what they relay to the public.

 Reporting itself involves complexities. Any article or news item is bound to be understood in different ways by different people. That is only natural and it is clear in the manner people post comments for articles. The perceptions and views are diverse. This certainly entails journalists to function in a strict code of checks and balances that should not be to deceive the readers or to manipulate their thinking. Unfortunately, journalists are humans themselves and often very few are educated in professional journalism to be able to understand what their exact role is. Simply being able to write does not make a person a journalist. Being able to manipulate and coerce readers also does not make a person a journalist. This is why there are numerous newspapers and agencies that refuse to take a balanced stand and take up the mantle of completely attempting to overthrow governments.

 Nevertheless, as journalists they are expected to cover every bit of detail “”…” but that means opposition and government alike. If they are truth seekers they must be able to highlight the wrongs and rights of both groups without bias. This will not only earn the respect of the readers but also make the writers very credible in the eyes of the readers.

We can’t expect politicians to make decisions that leaves every single citizen happy. That is something impossible to do and something impossible to expect. This is why we look upon the decisions that is in the best interest of the populace. Journalists need to realize that while they are only there to cover the story they cannot expect to become the center of the story. Nevertheless, what we presently see is that journalists appear to want to become heroes and heroines in news items which they are meant to only report.

 When journalists desire to become part of the news they become quick targets for establishing ties not only with politicians but with external forces that have come to realize that using media and journalists is a perfect tool to highlight and ridicule governments that are targeted for regime change.

 Friendly ties with politicians immediately put an end to unbiased coverage and there is no need to elaborate the results of such compromising one’s profession and one’s integrity. This also leads to risks to one’s lives and does open debate for the limits to the extent journalists should rub shoulders with VVIPs when their mission is to remain unbiased reporters.

 The true journalist on the other hand is someone with integrity “”…” that refuses to be bought and is passionate about giving the public information, a person that indulges the mind of the reader to think, to debate and to objectively look at issues and is never out to make readers see only their point of view. Truth is certainly ambiguous. What is true for one may not be true for another. Similarly, whatever is reported is likely to be understood by the public differently. Rape for instance may be a crime for some but others may have different views. Death penalty for rape may be agreeable to some but not to others. Legalizing prostitution is the only answer to curtail prostitution but others are likely to offer different solutions. Invariably discovering what is truth should be left to the readers and journalists have no right to drill into the minds how or what the people should think. This is a mistake most journalists and most media houses commit.

 Is it a surprise that people trust journalists no less than they trust politicians! Though there are journalists of high integrity the one’s that are not gain the limelight!

 National Interests

Journalists will all naturally have their own definition of ethics applicable to his/her profession. Most reporters have faced a stage in their reporting careers when their lives have been more important than the story they report. War reporters especially need to be intelligent on what they should and should not divulge. Freedom of speech and right of expression is one thing but the national security interests of the country certainly comes first. Compromises have to be made when behind the enemy lines and that is what is called self-censorship.

It is fundamentally important that all information concerning the security and interests of the country remain classified. It is why governments around the world go to great lengths to ensure that freedom of expression and speech arguably has limits. It is nothing for journalists to go up in arms against. While their profession is to be a journalist, they are first and foremost a citizen of that country. As a citizen of a country they are automatically compelled to protect the sovereignty of that nation and its people of whom they are also a party. Should it then be paramount that before any release of information is made journalists first consider the dangers it may pose to the interests of the country at large. By thinking of the country in reporting news or releasing information does not equate to mean one is siding with the government. There are many ways the media and journalists themselves can project where politicians themselves may be compromising the interests of the state. Therein lies the beauty of intelligent reporting.

 It is wrong for politicians to think all media are against them or for journalists and media houses to think their job is to go against the government/politicians at all times “”…” herein lies the crux of the issue. It is certainly unethical when media houses take policy decisions to back politicians at elections and use their media outlets to promote the interest of one aspiring politician by defaming another. Media houses are as informants for the public meant only to provide the news and leave it for the public to decide. Media and journalists are not meant to decide on behalf of the public or take on the mantle of justice giver.

 In the West, most political journalists have been diverted to reporting extensively on foreign nations and governments. With little relevance to their own nations the freedom of expression and speech they enjoy is undoubtedly clear but is it the same in reporting news in their own turf “”…” unfortunately they are gagged in many ways which often is not divulged internationally. Essentially there are no professional journalistic values that apply across all borders.

 In countries like Japan, journalists voluntarily curtail their stories through self-censorship. There are no gags by the government. There is no competition on who delivers the first breaking news. There is hardly any sensationalizing. Compare that with American journalism “”…” it is indeed a fascinating paradox and one that is all about drama and delivering sensationalized stories over and over again.

 We are well aware of the tarnishing campaign funded by LTTE diaspora and the series of videos titled “Killing Fields” relayed over Channel 4. Whilst the lies were obvious it would have been a perfect moment for Sri Lanka’s media outlets to emerge as a unified entity to condemn together the lies and ideally stood behind Sri Lanka and it would definitely not have been taken as a show of approval for the government. That was what the country would have expected and what Sri Lanka’s media should have done at the time. It is not too late but the likelihood of that happening is remote.

 With both politicians and media courting one another the end results are naturally not anything close to the TRUTH that we the public desire or deserve.

 Over the years politicians have enjoyed courting newspaper proprietors and the journalists that work for them. Proprietors and journalists have equally benefited too. This type of courtship is prevalent all over the world and is nothing to be alarmed or surprised over. This relationship whether it is in full bloom or has turned sour is definitely a danger to “democracy” whatever that means. What it does is hide the facts from us the public and questions the levels of TRUST we can actually place upon either politician or journalist alike. Neither can feign to be the victim for at some point in time or perhaps even most of the time both entities remain solely in the pursuit of their own self-interest and show no regard for us the public.

 While, we know about politicians we expected journalists to perform better. Journalists and media need to certainly wake up to shrug off their own hidden desires to become the news and to start only reporting facts without malice or manipulation.

4 Responses to “Journalistic Ethics in Covering Politics: Sri Lankan perspective”

  1. herman Says:

    SL Journalists are actually more “free” than most so called democratic countries in the west and east and this is one good reason why Progress in all fronts are going at snail speed. To expect journalists to report sensibly, reasonably and responsibly are too far fetched and not realistic.

  2. AnuD Says:

    As Sri Lanka is a small population any news in any publication makes a huge impact. In case of Sunday Leader’s article regarding the Defence Secretary is complete balck mail from the Sunday Leader’s side.

    On the other hand, journalists of major media outlets from Western countries are not free. They are controlled by the editor who inturn is answerable to the newspaper owner who is exceptionally political and owns a media conglomerate.

    Some media outlets related to Sri lanka are simply very hostile towards the govt and to the Buddhist – monks etc., particularly when those are sponsored by the Church – backed organizations or when address Tamil – political issues.

  3. mario_perera Says:

    “To expect journalists to report sensibly, reasonably and responsibly are too far fetched and not realistic” (as very succinctly stated by Herman).

    Today’s politics and journalism are two sides of the same coin. Except for die-hard loyalists, just the same as politicians, police, judiciary (name it you have it) journalists too find themselves occupying ‘jumper seats’, their eyes turning right and left like in some Indian dance movements, to spot the empty seat that serves their aspirations.

    Indeed such being the context the ‘kaasiya’ and the ‘waasiya’ hold the roost. Nothing else matters but that. Leaders too engage in similar eye movements to fix them on the ones that suit best their own purposes. So when the eyes of the seekers meet the eyes of the searchers, it is love at first sight!!

    The government’s all encompassing slogan is: he who is not with me is against me. So why not hunt with the fox than run with the hare?

    Mario Perera, Kadawata

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    Japan enjoys loyalty to the country, almost 100%. In that respect, the Japanese are very lucky. Shenali says : “In countries like Japan, journalists voluntarily curtail their stories through self-censorship. There are no gags by the government”.

    In a country like Sri Lanka where the joint Opposition’s only slogan is to ‘topple the Government’ with no real positive plans for the nation, isn’t it high time that Sri Lankans called for an Oath of Allegiance to the Nation ? Our joint Opposition sometimes just wastes time and energy on absurd & cheap Tabloid type journalism practiced in some developed countries.

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