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SU-PRO-MEDIA | 03.08.2018 11:25 > 03.08 11:38

Ethical Norms in Journalism Only a Dead Letter?


Accurate, informative and unbiased – this is what news media in general ought to be. In reality, however, the situation is the very opposite: front pages of newspapers are teeming with hate speech, threats and smearing campaigns, guesses are presented as facts, the right to privacy is violated and police investigations compromised.

“In eight daily newspapers we sometimes have 20 to 25 obvious violations of the journalistic Code of Ethics in a single day. There are no dilemmas about their nature – they involve the most flagrant breaches of the basic rules of the profession,” says Petar Jeremic from the Association of Journalists of Serbia.

Vlado Mares, chairman of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia’s (IJAS) court of honor, believes that such a situation was caused by political control over the media.

“They [such media] are carrying out their task and do not care what they broadcast, publish or tell the public. What is important to them is that they do their bidding, show loyalty to their master and, probably, earn something along the way,” Mares says.

After heated debates, in 2006 Serbia got the Code of Ethics for journalists stipulating the basic professional rules. Four years later, the Press Council, a body tasked with ensuring that the code was respected, was founded. Many complaints have reached the Council since then. Council general secretary Gordana Novakovic says that in 2018 alone there were 77 complaints, mostly because of violations of the Code’s Item 1 – truthful reporting.

“The item prescribes that a journalist must tell facts from commentaries, assumptions and guesses, that he/she must consult several sources and shall not resort to slanderous claims. And this is exactly that what is persistently being disregarded,” Novakovic says.
Most complaints concerned the newspapers Alo, Srpski Telegraf, Blic, Novosti, Pink portal, and weekly Palez from Obrenovac. When the Complaints Commission determines that the Code has been violated, a public warning is issued to journalists who are not Association members, while the members have 15 days to publish the Commission’s decision in its editions. Some media, however, do not publish these decisions or warnings, thereby raising the question about the adequacy of the prescribed sanctions.

“A moral condemnation by their peers saying that one did not do something in accordance with the Code is a serious sanction for responsible news media and responsible journalists,” Novakovic explains.

TV stations too, both local and national, violate the Code, and quite frequently do so in their news programs.

“This mostly concerns any critical opinions in Serbia. The ruling parties and the authorities enjoy full privileges, while an opposition or critical opinion is rarely aired. TV stations also frequently serve as mouthpieces for the ruling party,” says Rade Veljanovski, professor at the Belgrade School of Political Sciences.

The most drastic examples are reality shows broadcast daily on several TV stations, where insults and indecencies constitute a regular repertoire. This does not only breach ethical but also legal norms. The Regulatory Body for Electronic Media should take care of the quality of programs and respect for professional standards on TV and radio stations. This body, however, has failed to respond to our inquiries concerning the violation of the Journalistic Code of Ethics, and their website features only two warnings issued to Pink and Melos TV stations.

“The Regulatory Body is obliged by law to immediately react as soon as a violation of the law is registered or reported. It has several sanctions at its disposal: a warning, admonition, and a temporary or permanent revocation of the broadcasting permit. This body, however, is quite reserved and resorts to sanctions very rarely,” Veljanovski says.

The authorities completely ignore reports by self-regulatory bodies on the drastic violations of the Code of Ethics. What is even more striking is that the media most frequently violating the norms of the profession are those that are granted the highest sums at public competitions for the media project co-financing.

“Thus, for example, we had a situation in Kikinda where the commission said that it was taking into account the fact that an outlet who was granted the highest sum was the one most frequently breaking the Code, but that they are convinced that the money they were to receive will prompt them not to violate the Code any more. This is an outrageous and cynical explanation and extremely humiliating for the profession,” Petar Jeremic said.

The major media associations have courts of honor that can issue warnings to their members or can exclude them temporarily or permanently from their ranks. Those who break the rules, however, in most cases are not members of any association.

“We have issued public warnings in several cases. In one instance we excluded a member. That case involved a woman who actually had a PR agency and was abusing the IJAS authority and her position as a member to obtain funds from various sources,” Vlado Mares explains.

There are trials in progress against journalists, editors and owners of news media over violations of ethical norms. In 2017 the Higher Court in Belgrade initiated 636 proceedings where non-material damage was sought for emotional distress, undermining reputation and honor, and endangering the right to privacy.

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