Watching the watchmen

Self-regulation is often the most effective way to hold the media to account and improve journalistic standards.

It’s a question as old as the hills and one that’s especially relevant to the media sector: who watches the watchmen? After all, if the media is to play the role of societal watchdog and hold those in power to account, then the media itself must be ethical, transparent and accountable.

IMS views media regulation as a fundamental tool for democratic development – and self-regulation is often the most effective way to ensure both media accountability and minimal state interference in the sector.

Self-regulation entails the creation of regulatory mechanisms that are designed to improve media standards but are, crucially, independent from government control. Selfregulation mechanisms include ethics codes, press councils and public editors.

By ensuring the sector’s independence from government control, self-regulation prevents censorship and other restrictions on media freedom. At the same time, by requiring media to adhere to certain standards of behaviour and professional responsibility, it lays the groundwork for ethical journalism that serves the public interest. Self-regulation is often the most effective way to hold the media to account and improve journalistic standards.

Perhaps more than any other country in recent years, Ukraine understands all too well the need to balance these requirements. Both the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s full-scale invasion have meant that accurate reporting and ethical journalism matter more than ever. Indeed, in such contexts, inaccurate information – whether as a result of bad reporting or deliberately fake news – can be a matter of life and death. In this light, then, self-regulation isn’t just about protecting the interests of the media: it’s about protecting the interests of its audience.

As the following pages show, examples of the media’s shift towards self-regulation abound in Ukraine today, from the launch of an “ethics hotline” providing advice on how to cover the war to the publication of a guidebook for journalists working under martial law. Much of this work was carried out by one of IMS’ partners in Ukraine, the Commission on Journalistic Ethics.

To effectuate changes in the media landscape, IMS has been engaging in the ITP 295 Media Development in a Democratic Framework – EASTERN EUROPE programme. The 15-week capacity-building programme targets 25 participants annually – individuals and representatives of organisations that can promote standards and self-regulation of the media sector in their respective countries. As political, technological and economic changes continue to strain media freedom around the world, their efforts to contribute to national reform and change have only acquired new urgency.

CASE: Tanzanian bloggers sign online ethics code

IMS helped implement a code of conduct for bloggers and YouTubers in Tanzania. More than 50 bloggers agreed to adhere to the new code, which was developed by the Union of Tanzanian Press Clubs as part of wider efforts to promote ethical journalism online.

A surge of young people creating online content has driven regulatory concerns about their professionalism and ethics. Few of Tanzania’s online content creators are journalists or have much experience or education in the field.

With limited understanding of media standards and ethics, some bloggers and online television platforms have been fined or banned by regulators because of their conduct. The hope is that the new code of conduct will reduce these incidents and help foster self-regulation among online journalists.

CASE: Public awareness campaign and ethical code give selfregulation a boost in Moldova

A campaign to inform citizens about the ethical obligations of journalists – and the importance of media self-regulation – was launched in Moldova.

The campaign included material about both traditional and social media at the national and regional level, cartoons promoting journalistic ethics and videos explaining why accurate reporting is both the media’s social responsibility and a public right.

The campaign has helped to improve public understanding of the importance of journalistic self-regulation in a democratic society to protect the right to information. Additionally, it explained how to file a complaint about journalism that fails to meet professional standards. It has also helped make the Moldovan Press Council better known among the public as a national journalistic self-regulatory structure.

IMS funding enabled campaign activities, including the implementation of promotional materials and meetings between Press Council members and the public. Separately, 105 graduates of Moldovan journalism schools agreed to promote quality journalism and adhere to a code of ethics throughout their careers.

In June, students at the State University of Moldova, the Free International University and Chisinau School of Journalism signed the code of conduct and agreed to promote “ethical and inclusive” narratives as an antidote to Russian disinformation.

IMS helped organise the signing of the Journalist’s Code of Ethics for graduates of the institutions, continuing a tradition that began in 2019. According to the World Press Freedom Index, Moldova climbed from 89th place in 2021 to 40th in 2022.

CASE: Improved selfregulatory system in Kenya

Several prominent media associations appointed retired journalists to act as part-time ombudspersons in a bid to boost the credibility of the country’s media sector.

The Digital Broadcasters Association (DBA), the Bloggers Associations of Kenya (BAKE) and the Association of Community Media Organisations nominated the veterans to help improve self-regulation of the media. The journalists were trained in the role of public editor to support professional development in Kenya’s media sector.

To increase public trust in the sector, they were also given training in how to handle complaints. Once all these developments are fully implemented, members of the public will be able to make complaints against more than 200 media outlets that are too small to have a public editor.

CASE: Ethics hotline helps journalists working under martial law in Ukraine

Journalists made a surge of inquiries to an ethics hotline that the Commission on Journalistic Ethics (CJE) established following Russia’s invasion of the country in February.

From April to June – when IMS provided the CJE with support – at least 100 journalists across Ukraine contacted the hotline seeking advice on journalistic ethics, how to cope with stress and exhaustion and how to cover rape, violence and other atrocities with respect to victims’ privacy.

Journalists can contact the hotline through a Google form or by phone. Its launch has purportedly made reporting in Ukraine more accurate, while journalists have become more aware of the work of the CJE and its code of ethics.

Separately, several media organisations – including the CJE – produced the guidebook Selfregulation of Ukrainian media during martial law in Ukraine. The book includes professional and practical advice on how to adhere to ethical standards while reporting on the war, as well as guidance on press complaints. It is now being used not only by journalists working under martial law but by journalism teachers and their students.

This article was published in IMS’ Annual Report 2022.