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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, June 13, 2011

In Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, who controls the media?

Over the past week, I attended a conference held in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. There were journalists from Moldova, Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia, and it was sponsored by the Council of Europe.

The Council is part of the European Union and its goal to connect the issues around civil society and democracy and especially how media can be part of the process.

Moldova is a landlocked post-Soviet republic, tucked in between Romania and Ukraine. Media and civic society in the region are making valiant efforts to emerge from a journalistic culture which has been deeply intimidated and deformed - first by decades of Soviet repression and now by a rampant commercialism. The urge to move into a better, more democratic place, is there, but how?

Right now, these countries have built informal networks committed to media self-regulation. In effect - independent media. But it comes with real dangers.

The challenge is two fold: how to give governmental regulators more confidence that journalism can be trusted and fewer reasons to return to the bad old days of censorship.

At the same time, the pressure for profits in commercial media is driving a heightened tabloid sensibility that often borders on pornography.

Control is still in the air: In Romania the government recently tried and failed to institute regular psychiatric examinations for all journalists. Fortunately, this idea was rebuffed but the thought itself is chilling and reminiscent of old Soviet techniques of political repression and intimidation.

There are some positive signs as well.

  • In Armenia as in other countries, there is a strong interest in creating ethics guides. 43 media outlets there now have codes.

  • In Azerbaijan, there has been a recent proliferation of media along with a national complaints commission which is entirely independent of government funding or oversight. So successful is this model that it has been adopted but the media in Russia.

  • In Georgia, six media organizations have combined to create a review board for public complaints, again free of government involvement. The board has a large public component which has proven to be more effective than any top-down approach. Training workshops for journalists are being held on a regular basis.

  • In Moldova, a new code of ethics has been implemented over the past year and 88% of all Moldovan journalists now have signed on.

  • In Russia, the enormous presence of media and government make simplicity impossible. Efforts at self-regulation are occurring but always with a long tradition of government oversight. Still there are some encouraging signs including training, public involvement, and a proliferation of journalists associations. The sense of physical danger is constant and the need for a stronger governmental presence makes self-regulatory media more difficult.

  • In Ukraine, as in Russia, journalistic self-regulation cannot be entirely free of governmental oversight. All media groups require the approval of the Ministry of Justice. At the same time, a code of ethics for 16,000 journalists has been created, complete with rules of conduct and reprimands for ethical violations. Throughout the South Caucasus, there is little or no government funding, but a strong NGO presence helps defray costs.

Is there a role here for independent news ombudsmen?

Press councils are now the preferred vehicle, but there is a strong interest in ombudsmen and how they might operate in partnership. The Moldovan public broadcaster is very interested in having an ombudsman as are a number of newspapers to bridge the enormous gaps between citizens and the media that attempt to serve them.

This is a story that is being written even now, and it was a privilege to be among these brave journalists for whom public service is a deep and cherished ideal.

Stay tuned.

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