Reasserting the rights and duties of journalists with the IFJ’s new Global Charter of Ethics

Reasserting the rights and duties of journalists with the IFJ's new Global Charter of Ethics

Members of the International Federation of Journalists gathered at their 30th World Congress, in Tunis, on 12 June 2019, voting to adopt a new code of professional ethics for journalists.

(Frédéric Moreau de Bellaing/IFJ)

With the omnipresence of digital media, social media and news blogs, citizens have never had as much access to information. At the same time, however, those same citizens have never been so critical of the media and journalists, with the level of contempt reaching proportions seldom seen.

The latest in-depth annual Digital News Report produced by the Reuters Institute, in collaboration with Oxford University, paints a bleak picture for the profession in this respect. Whilst healthy levels of trust in the media still exist in Nordic countries – Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark – with figures ranging between 55 and 70 per cent, in France, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Poland, they barely exceed the 20 per cent mark, and have seen a sharp fall relative to previous years. Many country-specific explanations can be sought (and found) for this decline, but the fact is that trust in the media is no longer a given. Responses to the transgressions of certain media outlets exist, such as the press councils, which provide the public with a voice and rest on a shared and common text: a code of professional ethics.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the world’s largest organisation representing media workers, with over 600,000 members spread across 146 countries, raised the issue of professional ethics from the moment it was founded in 1926, under the leadership of French reporter Georges Bourdon.

The international organisation’s first president wanted the IFJ to “walk on two feet”, not only developing its trade union footing, of course, defending media workers’ rights, but also an ethical footing, ensuring respect for universal professional principles. Many were those who meditated on the professional principles of journalists during the interwar period, a time when very few laws protected their rights and press councils were a rarity.

It was in 1932 that Albert Londres, a member of France’s national union of journalists, the SNJ, wrote his famous words, of which history would only retain the conclusion. “I remain convinced that a journalist is not a choirboy and his role is not to walk ahead of processions, his hand plunged into a basket of rose petals. Our job is neither to please nor to harm, but to dip the pen into the wound.”

In 1944, in the Combat newspaper, Albert Camus, at the age of just 31, set out his own charter on the press, the guarantor of democracy as long as it is “freed” from money: “Inform well, rather than informing quickly; clarify the meaning of all news with appropriate commentary; instate critical journalism and, never allow politics to prevail over morality, nor morality to descend into moralism.” It says it all, or almost.

It was not until 1954, during its World Congress in Bordeaux, that the IFJ adopted the Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists (also known as the Bordeaux Declaration), the only text recognised by the profession across the world. In 1971, another key text, the Munich Charter, marked the start of a new phase within the profession, establishing the rights and duties of journalists. The latter, however, has its limitations, having only been written by a portion of European trade unions, and largely being a reference in France, Germany and Belgium, but little beyond that.

Establishing duties, but also safeguarding rights

Over recent years, journalists across the world have found themselves increasingly confronted with governments engaging in authoritarian practices, unscrupulous employers and citizens full of contempt. They are also suffering from a lack of protection, especially in war zones. In light of all this, the IFJ decided to supplement the Bordeaux Declaration, which only refers to duties, renaming it the Global Charter of Ethics for Journalists.

Although duties are essential to quality journalism, the IFJ is fighting every day, around the world, to ensure that journalists also have rights. And that those rights are respected. In countries such as Turkey and Hungary, or Egypt, India, Zimbabwe and even Brazil, governments are unashamedly trampling on freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Nasser Abubaker, a journalist for AFP in Ramallah and president of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, struggles with this every day. “In Palestine, we have been calling for recognition as professionals for years. The Israeli government even treats us like terrorists at times, simply for wanting to do our job. The consequences are terrible: we are barred from covering events in Jerusalem!”

Journalists can only suitably fulfil their mission of informing the public if three essential requirements are met: decent pay, good working conditions and a code of ethics.

This is recalled in the preamble of the new Global Charter of Ethics unanimously adopted at the 30th World Congress of the IFJ in Tunis, in June 2019: “Journalism is a profession, which requires time, resources and the means to practise – all of which are essential to its independence.”

Independence is fundamental, as it goes hand in hand with the right, set out under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of everyone “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas”. The Charter’s preamble also recalls that “the journalist’s responsibility towards the public takes precedence over any other responsibility, in particular towards their employers and the public authorities”.

Guillaume Gbato, general secretary of the national union of media professionals in Côte D’Ivoire, the SYNAPPCI, is at the forefront of the debate on the issue of financial independence in west Africa. “The issue of time and resources is a problem we have addressed with employers and the government. The only pay journalists receive is still all too often the ‘per diem’ slipped into press files [provided by government bodies, companies, etc.].

The trade unions are, of course, there to establish a balance of power with employers on matters such as pay, but the Charter of Ethics also contains articles reminding everyone concerned (journalists, employers, politicians, the judiciary and citizens) about other fundamental principles that cannot be ignored, such as the importance of protecting and ensuring the confidentiality of sources, of thorough fact-checking taking precedence over the notion of urgency, and opposition to all forms of discrimination, hate speech, corruption or propaganda (often now referred to as fake news).

The IFJ is well aware that the simple fact of adopting a global ethics charter is not going to resolve all the problems faced by journalists, but this historic document does apply to all newsrooms around the world.

As Mandakhbayar Kharkhuu, president of the Confederation of Mongolian Journalists pointed out, “Our day-to-day work is really hard, but we know that we can confront our employers with the Global Charter of Ethics.”

Over a period of 18 months, the discussions in three languages surrounding the content of the Charter gave members from each country and region of the world an opportunity to present their priorities, based on the local situation. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, journalists were recently confronted with a series of difficulties in covering the presidential election, ranging from security issues to insufficient resources. And in Brazil, members of the national journalists’ federation, FENAJ, are having to deal with increased hostility since the new government came to power. In addition to attacks on the ground, they are faced with intimidation and unfounded accusations on the part of “fascistic” ideologues, now closely tied to the government. Maria-José Braga, president of the FENAJ, insisted on the first article of the Charter expressly including the notion of “facts” rather than “truth”: “In Brazil, Bolsonaro has his own truth; we, as journalists, report ‘true facts’, but the government doesn’t like it.”

With the adoption of this historic charter at the World Congress in Tunis, the IFJ, in keeping with the wish expressed by Georges Bourdon in 1926, now firmly rests on two inseparable footings: trade union development and respect for professional ethics.

This story has been translated from French.