View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The UAE and Journalistic Ethics

The timing was almost perfect. Soon after Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, decreed that UAE journalists would no longer be imprisoned, the board members of the UAE Journalists Association and editors in chief of newspapers released the full text of the UAE Journalism Code of Ethics.

If the UAE government leaders were granting a greater freedom of the press, the editors and journalists were saying that they did not see this announcement as a licence to write and publish anything they wished, as they were bound by some well established principles of good journalistic practice. In a Khaleej Times report Shaikh Mohammed was quoted as welcoming the new move and describing it as “a leverage of confidence between the media and the local community.”

The twenty-six point code of ethics is based on these principles:
* Respect for the truth
* Freedom and integrity
* Fairness to all
* Transparency
* Rightful acquisition of information
* Accuracy in reporting
* Elimination or minimizing harm, especially in relation to children
* Credibility
* Respecting personal privacy
* Confidentiality
* Avoiding the fanning of public feeling
* Refusing to accept bribes and advantage
* Avoiding discrimination
* Innocence until proven guilty
* Impartiality
* Respect for public feeling (especially in regard to reporting and illustrating brutality, use of language and respect for religion)
* Upholding human rights
* Professionalism, especially in relation to plagiarism
* Appropriate acknowledgement of sources
* Avoiding sensationalism

A code of ethics gives safety to journalists and to their readers just as a banister on a flight of stairs or a railing on an apartment balcony determines the safe boundaries. A code does not prevent a writer from breaching ethical standards but it defines the areas of danger and, if signed beforehand, it expresses an agreement to keep within the prescribed limits.

In the new UAE Code of Journalistic Ethics, which pledges to give appropriate acknowledgement of sources, it is surprising to see it published without any declaration as to how it was formulated. Did the drafters of the code start with some of the many journalism codes that exist around the world (see Journalism Ethics and Standards) and adapt these for the UAE or did they start with a blank piece of paper? It would be interesting to know how this document emerged, for like vision and mission statements, codes of ethics have their greatest impact when their signatories have discussed, debated, contributed, understood and owned the document. The less input the signatories have into the development of the code, the more it is likely to sit limply in some filing cabinet or hang on an office wall and have little influence on UAE journalism. The cynics might say that this new code is mere window dressing for its readership and a jumping on the bandwagon to portray to the world that the UAE is serious about the freedom of the press.

It would reassure readers of UAE publications if editors and journalists indicated how such a code will become a living document. Will the code be regularly workshopped for signatories to promote a thorough understanding? How will the code be applied when a journalist writes an article that comes close to the dangerous zone? Who will arbitrate on what is ethical and unethical? The Gulf News, which on 10 October 2007 published its Gulf News Ethics Policy is helpful in its detail but it appears to leave the ethical verdicts completely to its editors. Some publishing companies have also opted for an in-house ombudsman with legal training who is also an arm’s distance from the management. The establishment of an ethics committee comprising editors, journalists and members of the public is another valuable practice.

Having produced a code of ethics for journalists, one of the future tasks will be to evaluate how the code is working. What difference is this code making? Does it help in the tricky and practical matters such as those that led to the recent imprisonment of journalists in the UAE? Will it help discern whether an article is libelous or whether the journalist is writing the truth?

One of the groups that is not mentioned in the new code is the government and it’s UAE Print and Publishing Law that prohibits criticism of government leaders. Does this law involve a restriction of freedom? What does a journalist do when caught in the dilemma between showing respect towards leaders and being ethical in reporting the truth?

The recent adoption of the new UAE Journalism Code of Ethics is a positive step forward particularly if it shapes journalistic writing on a day to day basis. According to the recently released World Press Index 2007, the UAE has made significant improvements and has moved from 77th in 2006 to 65th in the world in 2007. This advance must be recognized and applauded. The questionnaire for constructing this index offers valuable discussion and decision material which must be addressed if the UAE is going to fulfill Shaikh Mohammed’s recently announced goal of being first in the world in all spheres, including freedom of the press and journalistic ethics.

Geoff Pound

Image: A sample of UAE newspapers.