Ethics return to the media’s roundtable

Odoobo C. Bichachi

What you need to know:

  • Yes, public editors are important in many ways. They engage the public and take their feedback to the newsrooms. 

This has been an important week for journalism for many reasons but especially because the World Press Freedom Day (May 3) fell in the week. It was the 30th year the world was marking the day.

As expected, journalists across the world were joined by multitudes of others – civil society, governments, diplomatic corps, etc – to reflect upon the state of media freedom, challenges, opportunities, and the future.

In Uganda, an important dialogue was held at Golden Tulip Hotel organised by the Uganda Media Sector Working Group (UMSWG), the highlight of which was honouring two eminent citizens – Mr Edward Baliddawa and Justice Kenneth Kakuru (posthumously) – with awards for their contribution to enabling and protecting journalism in the country.

Mr Baliddawa was one of the early adopters of ICT and saw well ahead the power of the Internet and its centrality to the future of journalism. He enabled The Monitor to be the first newspaper in Africa to go online in 1993 by getting his University of Abilene, Texas (USA) to host it on its servers. He also founded which was the first online forum for Ugandans in the diaspora to get the latest news and interact with each other online.

Congratulations Mr Baliddawa and salutations to the memory of Justice Kakuru whose contribution to defending free expression, and other civil and environmental rights has been well documented, including in one of my previous columns.

The theme for this year’s celebration, “Shaping the future of rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights”, was epic in that it did not focus on journalists as it has done many times in the past. Rather, it focused on the place of journalism in the wider chain of human rights.

Not that journalists no longer face threats to personal security, censorship, etc. Those remain with hundreds of journalists around the world in prison, and others killed in the course of duty. We pay homage to them and continue the fight for free expression!

This year’s theme was, therefore, simply a reaffirmation that journalism is the epitome and enabler of freedom of expression. When journalism does not speak, many are helpless and suffer quietly, which is what abusers of human rights want.

But the important recognition of journalism also comes with huge responsibility. For journalism to play this role well in safe-guarding other human rights, it must be accurate, factual, balanced, trusted, accountable, bold, respectful, ethical, etc. It should afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted, and very importantly, it should always endeavor to minimise harm.

Which brings me to the celebrations of the day by the Media Council of Kenya that, yours truly, was privileged to attend.

Besides the hugely enriching discussions on new media business models and audience mapping and engagement, it was gratifying to see that one of the things being pushed across the board in all the countries was the rolling out of internal content regulatory system, ethical standards, and complaints resolution mechanism through public editors.

Even the Kenya Bloggers Association that represents “new media” and in some ways citizen journalism is trying to establish a public editor to receive and resolve complaints about their stories. Bloggers, especially in our part of the world refuse to submit to any form of regulation, code of ethics or accountability! This is therefore a great step.

Yes, public editors are important in many ways. They engage the public and take their feedback to the newsrooms. They take the newsroom to the public by explaining journalism processes and concepts to them. They also handle complaints and facilitate resolution of personal and public indignation against specific stories. This they do by explaining the facts and decision making that informed the editors, or pointing out editorial lapses and recommending remedial actions to be undertaken.

In an era where the public is increasingly becoming litigious, industry dispute resolution mechanism are seen, and rightly so, as a more sustainable option than the formal courts that may – or may not – deliver justice in the end, and at very big costs.

Happy World Press Freedom Day, comrades!

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