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World: Journalism Conference Stirs Ethics Debate

Prague, 21 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An international conference on journalism ending today in Istanbul has stirred controversy among journalists and media watchdog groups worldwide for its proposal to create an international code of ethics for the media.

The World Association of Press Councils (WAPC), which is hosting the three-day conference, today moved forward with a proposal to establish an international code of ethics for journalists and an international media council to deal with complaints against the press. WAPC said two working committees would work on writing up an ethics code and a body to see that it is respected. A third committee will draft a model for independent press councils.

WAPC's chief organiser, Oktay Eksi of Turkey, said such a council would be able to comment on the complaints, but would not be empowered to impose sanctions.

However press watchdog groups like the International Press Institute (IPI) say those ideas go too far. IPI Director Johann Fritz says attempts to create such international codes usually run into trouble.

"If you're trying to discuss having international practices, you usually are discussing restrictions. Or at least things which you should take into consideration when you do good practice. And this varies from country to country, from culture to culture and should really be left as it is on the national level. Sometimes even on the level of one business because the BBC code of practice is quite different from the French Radio and broadcasting corporation code of ethics. And that's good."

Other opponents say a council for complaints against journalists must not be created by governments or international institutions such as the United Nations, but by individual journalists, publishers and editors. Times of London Editor Rosemary Righter on Sunday warned the 220 conference delegates that governments might abuse such a council.

Perhaps the most vocal opposition of conference's proposals came from a body that did not attend the conference. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) complained in a formal letter to the WAPC that an ethics code and monitoring council could become an institution of press restriction rather than press freedom.

ASNE President Edward Seaton said in a letter to Eksi that "the journalists of the world will not and should not be accountable to any self-appointed group." He said an ethics code could be used by courts or governments to undermine press freedom.

The American press, protected by the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, traditionally polices itself through peer pressure, self-criticism and non-binding ethical standards. U.S. libel laws help prevent the media from publishing false information and also give the public recourse against the press.

But the international media has recently criticized the American press for its coverage, or over-coverage, of U.S. President Bill Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Plagiarism and libel scandals at major U.S. publications like the Boston Globe and Cincinnati Enquirer have also brought U.S. journalism standards into question.

Fritz says the freedom of Western journalism often comes with a price.

"The Western Press certainly can't be an overall model in terms of how to report about things, but certainly it is a model in terms that it has the greatest freedom to report about whatever. And of course it is in the nature of having freedom that you sometimes misuse the freedom, as others misuse the situation where there's no freedom."

Although the IPI opposes the ethics code and the creation of a council for complaints, Fritz says the institute is not opposed to delegates creating a model of a code and a hypothetical organizational structure for a council.

Eksi, who's also the president of the Turkish Press Council, stuck to his line, saying there is a need for a new look at worldwide journalistic ethics in a time when information is spreading rapidly around the globe. He accused U.S. editors of wanting to protect American journalists from meeting international standards while telling journalists in other countries how to practice their craft. Eksi also said the WAPC has no ties with governments or non-journalistic organizations.

Eksi also received support from the former IPI Director Peter Galliner who said establishing an international ethics code for journalists could help preserve the profession. Galliner said pressure will increase to introduce press legislation if journalists don't establish some kind of order to their profession.

Claude-Jean Bertrand of the Paris-based French Press Institute agreed with Galliner, saying a code would increase ethical awareness, generate solidarity within the profession and improve its reputation.