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Y. Kazakov. What Should Be Upheld? What will Hold Up? (On Some Ethical Aspects of Election Coverage in 1999)
Let us make it clear from the very outset that the following is intended for a professional journalist. The word «professional» may be used either in a narrow sense denoting one's status or it may be based on a sociocultural concept, actually shared by the whole world and treating journalism as a profession playing a special role in social life. Vesting special rights to members of this social profession whose work is equated with the performance of duty, imposes, at the same time, stiff requirements on the way journalists do their job. It implies professionalism not only in terms of the law, but also in terms of professional ethical norms and standards.
This conventional «code» is used practically everywhere (I am aware of it as the compiler of a collection including dozens of journalistic codes6). It imposes requirements on journalists and mass media and sets out a method for making professionally correct choices at every stage from obtaining information to delivering the information product to the user.
It should be noted at this point that the formula of «what is professionally correct» as it applies to the methods of journalistic work, is embodied in the texts of the so-called Sofia Declaration (hereinafter referred to as SD). «Professionally correct journalistic work is the most effective safeguard against restrictions imposed by the government and the pressure of special interest groups.» This statement opens para. 6 of the document that appeared in the course of the European Seminar on the Consolidation of Independent and Pluralistic Media, held in Sofia in September 1997 under the aegis of UNESCO7. The Sophia Declaration, the key document of the seminar, was later approved by the UNESCO General Assembly and ultimately acquired an official international status: the observance of its provisions is recommended by UNESCO to the governments of the member countries.
Let us quote two key provisions of para. 6 SD. Both are very relevant today, when amateurs of all sorts, except the very laziest, take it upon themselves to teach journalists «professional ethics» without worrying about inevitable disagreements of opinion or that the «rules» or «standards» they offer contradict the basic law guaranteeing freedom of mass information. Their supertopicality due to the reality of their «politically seasonal» character is glaringly evident: the topic of professional journalistic ethics, of the «wrong» and «unacceptable» in their methods and techniques at the time of two nationwide electoral battles will inevitably become the focus of not only clashes of personal and group views and concepts but also of speculations of varying gravity, by no means healthy for the profession and society itself, its moral, political, social, economic, and cultural prospects.
In view of the above, the following quote requires no commentary:
«Any attempts at establishing norms and guiding principles should come from journalists themselves.
The disputes about news media and/or media personnel in the course of the performance of their professional duties should be settled in court where such cases should be examined in accordance with civil rather than criminal (or military) procedures».8
Having fixed the format of professional independence, embodied as mandatory both in the Sofia Declaration and in the available professional codes of ethics as well as the codes of particular associations and mass media, let us consider the concept of professional responsibility stipulated in the same documents. Without ascertaining what precisely constitutes the professionally correct methods of journalism, how can we insist on compliance with the «rules of the game?» In other words, without developing the mechanisms of «interdepartmental» separation of «honest journalism» from «journalism without rules», how can we talk in earnest about the journalist's professional duty?
What can a journalist do in all this active, aggressive, and oppressive reality where everybody shouts at him, «You must!» What guidelines should he follow? We can say--and it will be essentially correct--»abide by the laws governing the activities of the journalist and the media, particularly, in the specific period of an electoral campaign and other regulations (of course, not all of them but those envisaged by these particular laws). Therefore, simply open the basic RF law «On Mass Media,» Federal Laws «On Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights and the Right of Citizens of the Russian Federation to Participate in a Referendum» and «On the Election of Deputies of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation» and learn the procedures they establish for the exercise of rights to electoral campaigning insofar as they apply to print and electronic media.
But, first, I am convinced that the role of the law should on no account be underestimated by those who would like neither the coming electoral campaign nor the relationship of society and the state authorities with the mass media or Russian journalism itself to be reduced to a free-for-all. I am convinced that abiding by the law, that is, a knowledge of the law and a desire to act in accordance with its letter and spirit not only distinguishes the «respectable» press from the «yellow» press but enables the former to compare favorably with the latter and indicates the professional and ethical progress of particular media and journalists. Third, I am convinced that despite all the difficulties that are encountered in the course of professional activities, the journalists (and such is the nature of their work) are guided not as much by a particular law but by specific professional ethics, which less frequently consist of norms and rules and more frequently of a moral imperative or morals corresponding (or not corresponding, which also happens) to such rules.
Whom to Serve? What to Serve?
Four years ago, opening a conference «Election: Whom Should the Mass Media Serve?», President of the Glasnost Defense Foundation Aleksei Simonov noted that only the arrow of a broken barometer constantly reads «fair» or «cloudy.» In real life, however, where different forces act and counteract, the well-known axiomatic answer, «The media should serve the voters,» may remain purely theoretical. As defined by Simonov the goal of the conference was to try to outline the entire spectrum of forces affecting the mass media, to determine which factors influence the media and individual journalists and to what extent the media is prepared for the elections, and to discuss the experience of electoral campaigns in the regions «in order to understand whether we could really be on the voters' side and serve them?»
One of the highlights of the conference was the story of Larisa Yudina, the editor of Soviet Kalmykia, about the recent presidential election in the republic. She drew out a portrait of the only candidate Kirsan Ilyumzhinov on the ballot paper, told us of the mass meeting of the opposition that decided to nominate an alternative candidate that was held in pelting rain and with a blaring band, specially placed there, but without a single journalist except Yudina because they were not allowed to attend the meeting (»Don't poke me with your mike for I don't poke you with my gun,» she was told by one of those who registered everybody who held signs at the meeting).
Four years later, I wonder whether it is worthwhile asking a Russian professional journalistic audience the same question about whom the media should serve (with the same additional questions raised by Simonov as well as new ones that cropped up in the meantime), or is there no longer any need for it?
My answer is yes, such a question should be asked what to serve? and should be added to whom to serve?
Without insisting on a perfect formula, I would describe as «professionally correct» not only the behavior merely conforming to the law including electoral law but also enabling journalists to display fully their professional responsibility to citizens and society on particular problems and in the particular period of a national electoral campaign. In my opinion, «professionally correct» is the behavior of mass media and journalists during an electoral campaign, which elucidates the details of the electoral process to ordinary citizens, enabling them to form a complete and accurate picture of each subject of this process and adopt their personal, free and, in this sense, genuinely responsible decision.
Does this approach mean that a journalist's behavior is «professionally correct» as long as «it helps» a citizen by «the end justifies the means» principle?
No, it does not, because throughout an electoral campaign the press has (on the basis of the profound and strategic interests of democratic society), another stable criterion of «professionally correct behavior», that is the maintenance of the potential of freedom and independence of the media and the journalist. In Resolution 10003 (1993) of the Council of Europe on Journalistic Ethics the formula «the end does not justify the means in journalism» has a specific follow-up: «therefore information should be obtained by legitimate means and in accordance with ethical requirements».9
In short, although campaigning is a special period in the life of the press (it is no coincidence that certain types of professional activities are governed by special laws or norms), nobody exempts it from the standards of professional journalistic ethics. Furthermore, this period is characterized by the fact that the special regulations introduced by the government in respect of certain matters pertaining to campaigning obviously increase the role of the moral norm, which is applied by journalists always and everywhere and forming the basis of any professional code of ethics.
Let us draw attention to another basic fact. Most of the European and American professional codes of ethics contain no special provisions governing the professional conduct of journalists in the course of electoral campaigns. What does this indicate? Apparently, that some media communities strongly believe that the norms and rules contained in such professional ethical documents are sufficiently universal and do not require special ad hoc supplements including those that would govern such complex but not extraordinary situations as elections at any level in stable democracies. While recognizing such a stance as worthy of respect, let us first have a look at codes of professional ethics where the electoral campaigns are mentioned.
I am familiar with only two such documents if we consider permanently valid regulations rather than the documents that are ad hoc by definition. One of them, the German code, is fairly well known first of all due to its venerable age for contemporary codes of professional ethics (the first version was published in 1973). The other, a Slovenian code, is not so well known. It is not merely two decades younger but was also drafted on the basis of the same German document. As a result, the paragraph we are interested in is practically identical in the meaning (if not the actual words).
In one of its three specific «guidelines», examining the first commandment of the press (»respect for the truth and truthful information for the public») and setting the standard for professionally correct activities, the German document (The Principles of Journalism. The Press Code) reads as follows: «If in covering pre-election activities, the press publishes views that it does not share, it conforms to journalistic honesty and promotes free access and distribution of information for citizens, guaranteeing equal chances for democratic parties».10 Let us compare it with the following principle from the Journalistic Code of the Slovenian Republic: «For the sake of objective as well as free and balanced information, journalists covering electoral meetings should familiarize the public with views including those they do not share. This principle applies also to advertising and notices, that are protected by freedom of the press».11
Let us point out another fact: both the German and Slovenian documents contain a provision that, while not related exclusively to a pre-election situation, acquires maximum political and, most importantly, social value in the campaign context. It focuses on what is professionally correct in publishing public opinion surveys. The German Press Council recommends the press «to indicate the number of pollees, the time of the poll, at whose request it was conducted, and the way the question was formulated. If the poll was not requested, it should be pointed out that the survey data were obtained on the initiative of the institution that conducted it».12 Slovenian journalists are recommended «to describe the survey methodology: the number of people who replied to the questionnaire, the time of the poll, and the person who authorized this public opinion survey».13
Let us make it clear that what is defined as «professionally ethical» and recommended in Germany and Slovenia is a binding legal provision in Russia. Article 54 of the Federal Law «On the Election of Deputies to the State Duma of the Russian Federation's Federal Assembly» (»Public Opinion Polls») obliges the mass media, in publishing the results of election-related public opinion polls «to indicate the organization conducting the poll, the time of its holding, the number of pollees (the sample), the method of obtaining information, the precise wording of the question, and the statistical estimate of possible error.»
Having dealt with simple matters, let us try to examine more complex ones. It is good to be a journalist in a stable democracy: everything is established there--from codes setting guidelines for any situation to «the good journalistic tradition.» Isn't that so? And what about Russian journalists who lack stable democratic professional traditions, are not always affiliated with a trade union and are not always sure that their union has a code?
To begin with, let us make this clear: most Western journalists are still «adjusting» to their own codes most of which are less than 10 years old. Their job is incomparably easier than that of their Russian colleagues. It is not just because in most cases the journalistic tradition «comes to their rescue». In most countries, as experience demonstrates, there is no such enormous gap (as we unfortunately find in contemporary Russia) in the value orientation of the electorate, in notions of human rights or in the limits of freedom, enjoyed by a sovereign person in civil society. It is easier for Western journalists to associate themselves with the basic ethical foundations of society for which freedom of speech is not just an empty phrase.
Let us now open the Russian Journalist's Code of Professional Ethics, adopted in 1994. Bearing in mind that this is a valid document (albeit only on paper), let us have a look at its main provisions (see Appendix). Most of its paragraphs directly correspond (differing in wording but not in approach or meaning) to the vast majority of European codes.
«Wild» and «Civilized» Journalists
Is there any guarantee that an attempt of an individual journalist to base all his activities on the provisions of the Code of the Russian Journalists' Union will prove to be more successful than the work of his or her colleague, guided by the norms of his own «critical intelligence» and sometimes defying many norms to take a short cut to the goal? Let us complicate the situation by introducing an additional condition: it does not matter whether the one trying to work «according to the Code» belongs to the Russian Journalists' Union or just keeps the Code before him as a professional cue; it does not matter whether this journalist works in Moscow, Tver or Vladivostok; it does not matter whether he works in print or electronic media; finally, it does not matter what political course his publication follows or which political association he is closer to. Taking into account all clarifications, let us repeat the question: will the first colleague be more successful and will he not suffer a crushing loss in a professional competition with a colleague, not overburdened with his duty to comply with professional norms?
My answer will disappoint those prepared for a ready and affirmative reply. He may lose out at least by formal criteria. «Wild» journalism has a vast territory in Russia, and there are quite a few citizens sympathizing with it: after all, a «wild» journalist does not impinge on the interests of ordinary and frequently disadvantaged people. He attacks «those upstairs» and does it with recklessness, often associated in the public mind with bravery. Thus a «wild» journalist has a head start on the «civilized» one at least in the speed of his work and in emotional contact with the reader or viewer. There is no need for the «wild» journalist to waste his time checking his information. Nor does he mince his words when addressing his audience.
There is another fact that cannot be passed over in silence. In real-life Russian conditions, a journalist often depends on the will of his media boss whether it be a government body (including a local one) that deems it necessary to pursue «an information policy» of its own or a banking group or a private media owner. Without trying to decide whether or not it is normal and what precisely should be done to prevent conflicts between the proprietor's interests and the so-called «public interests,» let us point out that the journalist is not always able to take a professional and personal stance that he hopes will enable him to advocate the interests of society.
The latest example of such nonfreedom is the so-called «information war» between the ORT TV network and the Media-Most Holding (M-M for short).
The high drama of the situation actually lies in the fact that the two most powerful TV «outposts» of democratic Russian journalism found themselves on opposite sides of the information barricade, acting against not only the interests but the rights of millions of Russian citizens. What is lost is the synergy that comes from the presence of two democratically oriented television companies, such as ORT and NTV, in the informational space, although there was every reason to expect their presence as not that long ago both NTV and ORT signed the Charter of TV and Radio Broadcasters. This assumed that despite their association with different financial groups, ORT and NTV would base their policy and, consequently, all their obligations both to the public and their own colleagues on agreed common ethical principles and agreed guidelines. The life and interests of Russian society, the «common national interests», indeed the strategic interests of media empire proprietors will eventually bring the present situation back to normal; the question remains when it will be done, at what price, and with what losses and expenses.
In clarifying my obviously not indifferent attitude to the Charter, I will specify that this document actually lays the groundwork for self-regulation of broadcasting organizations. That is the main specific feature of the Charter, that makes it different from the Code of the Russian Journalists' Union, serving as an ethical compass for individuals, members of a particular professional association.
As to the qualitative aspect of the problem, it is illustrated by specific provisions of the Charter which the signatories voluntarily oblige themselves to comply with. Citing some of them (that seem to be most important particularly during the pre-election period), I will single out the combination of the quality of commitments and their assumption by particular organizations concluding a conventional agreement (that is, by agreeing on the possible rather than by declaring the ideal). The latter means at least «in theory» that the professional and social value of each of the truly qualitative items of the document is amplified many times due to the quality of the conventional «body» and to assigning the duty to comply with certain rules and norms to each of the signatories of the document as a whole without the right to put the blame on a «special position» of a particular editorial office, studio or a particular correspondent violating the convention.
Let us get back to the above-mentioned question about the «competitiveness» of journalists holding two different views of professionalism -»civilized» and «wild.»
Having no unambiguous answer to the question as to whose professional stance (that of a «civilized» or «wild» journalist) will turn out to be more successful, I am still convinced that the «civilized' journalist will undoubtedly have a strategic advantage. He is less professionally vulnerable to all his rivals in the political ring or their teams. Where a «wild» journalist will sooner or later expose himself reducing to naught all his «wild» advantages, a civilized journalist will feel perfectly safe. But that is not the crux of the matter. With his professionally ethical position, in a hazardous situation, he works intensively for the citizen, for society, for his own profession, and for its future in Russia. Let us discuss only four items out of those contained in the Code of the Russian Journalist's Ethics.
A journalist who complies with this Code, supplies the user with information guaranteed to be true, that can be relied upon by a person seeking to make a responsible choice. Is there a more important and serious task for a journalist during the pre-election period?
Further, a journalist who abides by the Code does not act in any situation as a political advertiser, PR man or spin doctor, he does not assume the role of a seller of political «goods» and does not abandon a responsible approach where he deals with an opinion or assessment rather than with a fact.
Even while chasing the most important information, a journalist who observes the Code does not disregard the rights of a person, the dignity of an individual or groups, enlarging rather than reducing the field of passionate emotions, high-wrought feelings, the space of civic dignity and civil peace.
And, finally, a journalist who complies with the Code does not enter those «information wars,» does not strike blows at freedom of speech and, at least, does not undermine such a fundamental basis of freedom and democracy as the professional solidarity of journalists.
So, this is the theory. Because any moral decision (including whether or not to join in the «informational wars»), in situations where a person appears to have little choice (when, e.g., a media proprietor commands «Fire! during the war») a self respecting journalist will still make his own individual decision understanding that he risks not only his job and his living but what his living depends on - his name and reputation. If you have not used the right to turn down a job which is incompatible with recognizably professional ethical norms, than you have made your choice and taken a definite stand. If so, live according to your choice without relying on corporate solidarity or even on the trust of the part of the audience, that is most demanding toward the notions of honor, dignity, and duty.
Relations Inside Media Organizations and «Journalistic Traditions»
Although the situation above may be called ethical, let's not subscriber to it unconditionally. Let's emphasize one important aspect of the above - the situation of a journalist being forced to make such a personal choice cannot be considered normal or civilized. We may argue as much as we please about what an optimal code of professional ethical norms and rules for Russian journalism should be. What is important is realizing that no attempts at advancement toward genuine freedom of speech will succeed until the moment when certain principles of regulating professional and ethical relations within media organizations (the triangles media owner-editor-journalist) are established.
Do we know what these principles are?
Generally, we do. I will refer to the extremely important Resolution 10003 on journalistic ethics, adopted in 1993 by the 44th Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Although it deals with a somewhat different triangle within corporate structure (»publisher-proprietor-journalist»), the gist of the main conclusion and guideline of Resolution 10003 is universal. «Publishers and journalists must coexist inside information organizations, mindful that legitimate respect for the ideological orientation of publishers and proprietors should be limited to the imperative requirements of the authenticity of news and compliance with ethical norms. It is very important if we intend to respect the basic right of a citizen to receive information»14.
Three following requirements supplementing the above-mentioned one and sounding like guidelines merit attention due to their extreme importance to Russia in general and to Russia facing elections in particular. The first is promoting the freedom of self-expression for journalists as the main sources of information. The second is the transparency of information organizations in terms of media property and management which enables the citizens to obtain a clear picture of the owners of the media and the scope of their economic interests. The third is the denial of the right of publishers, proprietors and journalists to consider themselves the owners of the news. According to Resolution 10003 (1993), information organizations should view information not as consumer goods but as the fundamental right of citizens.15
At this point, we will have to get back to the subject of «information war» between two media empires. Speaking of professional ethical links keeping afloat the professional community of civilized journalists, we pay much more attention to the professional ethical norm than to the «good journalistic tradition,» believing that it takes a long time to develop a tradition. Then Novaya Gazeta published a story by Elena Afanas'eva entitled «Washing Dirty Linen on TV. The First Wounded in an Information War»,16 reporting the fact of a violation in the course of media clashes of a «good journalistic tradition»--the unwritten order of priority in the transmission to the Ostankino TV Center by journalists covering the Kremlin, the White House, and the State Duma of simultaneously recorded video cassettes.
According to the author, during one of the government meetings last July, the following tradition was violated: among journalists working at the governmental TV stations the first to transmit recorded cassettes from the governmental TV studios is not the one who comes first but the one whose news program goes on the air sooner. (If the newscasts coincide, the company whose news program is shorter is usually the first to go on the air from a government body.) But on June 23, before the 12 o'clock news, NTV turned obstinate and not merely refused to let ORT pass as was the case before (the ORT program is shorter), but established communication with its White House correspondent in a way that nearly blocked the airing of the ORT program. An hour later, however, ORT followed the logic «Let the enemies wait now!»
After making public a «backstage» situation, E. Afanas'eva took up the problem of «journalistic tradition» not merely recalling that helping a colleague has always been a journalist's ironclad rule, but directly appealing to fellow-TV journalists to resist provocations and abstain from quarreling with one another in «political and oligarchic wars.»
This appeal came from within the profession and was directed to the journalists of both TV companies. Behind this appeal is the awareness of not only professional but also civil responsibility.
I would extend the «resist provocations» formula far beyond a single intermedia (but not «intramedia») conflict, anticipating the growing pressure of the government on the mass media and journalists in the pre-election period and drawing on the experience of «cooperation» of certain «spin doctors» with the press during regional campaigns.
The Government's Points of Pressure
As to the government's pressure, I will call your attention to three points that I consider highly desirable for «participant observation» on the part of the media. (The need for such observation is largely due to the fact that Russia has been slow to absorb the view of mass media as one of equal partners in campaign debates and one of the groups enjoying the right of freely expressing one's views).17
The first of the three potential «monitoring» points is apparent. It is the activities of the newly formed Ministry of the Press, TV and Radio Broadcasting, and Mass Media. The fact that is was established at the beginning of the electoral campaign is a sound reason for both society and, above all, journalists to keep close watch over the new creation. Under no circumstances should the Ministry be allowed to become not only an «agitprop» as the press pointed out from the outset but also a «secret agency» - a direction in which it will be actually pushed by the mass media practice of an open electoral campaign. I would recommend monitoring not only the law enforcement practice of the new ministry but also its appeals (if any) to the ethical aspects of media and journalistic activities, evaluating professionally the quality of each of them, in order to eliminate thereby the chances of the state taking over the functions performed throughout the world by professional communities themselves and even (considering it an extreme but also sufficiently plausible case) warding off the danger of the state gaining a powerful and effective foothold for attack on the freedom of mass media (even after the electoral campaign is over).
Not without internal doubts and hesitation, I would also consider useful the journalists' «participant observation» of the activities during the pre-election campaign of the RF Presidential Judicial Chamber for Information Disputes (SPIS). Although this body has throughout its five-year history acted, as a champion of freedom of speech, its formal (»presidential») affiliation with the state machine may in fact become conspicuously more rigid due to the efforts of the machine itself including the Presidential Administration. Thus the monitoring of the Judicial Chamber's activities might safeguard the present level of the independence of SPIS. This is one aspect of the problem.
The other aspect is somewhat delicate. I will put it this way: although the Judicial Chamber is known for its commitment to professional ethics, not all its decisions in this sphere could be described as flawless. To cite a well-known example, I will refer to the SPIS decision, adopted on March 4, 1999, in connection with the publication by L. Kislinskaya «Shokhin's Dangerous Turn» (»Who Ordered the Killing of Otarik?») in the newspaper Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret) (No. 12, 1998). Without casting the slightest doubt on the legitimacy and well-founded character of the decision as a whole, I cannot agree with the following statement from the SPIS document: «In the opinion of the Judicial Chamber, . . . the journalist L.Yu. Kislinskaya did not meet the requirements of legal standards and professional journalistic ethics about the dissemination of complete and objective information on the events described«18. Here I must say that I am not aware of an «ethical norm» requiring that the journalist should disseminate precisely «complete and objective information». Feeling a strong affinity to each member of the Court Chamber, I can only shrug my shoulders in this case: an arbitrary interpretation of «ethical norms» in this particular case strikingly demonstrates the danger of unprofessional manipulation of «concepts» in a professional sphere when it is done by an official body. An undocumented requirement to furnish complete and objective information which is essentially absurd and, furthermore, incompatible with the practice journalism, acquires after the promulgation of the SPIS decision, the virtual «flesh» to which it has no right at all. An arbitrary act, publicized by the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta, becomes, as a result, a dormant and, at the same time, long-term misfortune of national proportions. In the total absence in Russia of a reliable knowledge of professional media and journalistic ethics, requirements, not based on professional grounds, may be imposed «in view of the foregoing» on a journalist by anybody and anywhere.
To avoid new traps and threats of this type, I deem it necessary for media and journalists to exercise professional control over the activities of the Judicial Chamber. I am convinced that the members of the Court Chamber will react to such «external control» not only calmly and with proper understanding but also in accordance the well-known maxim «do not cause harm!»
The third «point of control» is, in my opinion, any information from the Interior Ministry's Bodies containing warnings against any candidate. You will recall that during the previous electoral campaign the list of those with a criminal record included the famous civil libertarian S. Kovalev. Let us also recall those names that were put on published lists by error or negligence (hopefully, not deliberately). In view of the short duration of an electoral campaign, there is every reason to bear in mind the personal and social cost of such errors and publish information without undue haste and after a journalistic checkup.
The Media and Smear
Let us continue with the discussion of the personal responsibility of a journalist for his signed publications and the reputation of mass media. During the «smear war» into which elections will inevitably degenerate, don't hasten to spill out a sensational and particularly compromising story. Reread the provisions of the Russian Journalist's Code of Professional Ethics, the Charter of TV and Radio Broadcasters, and the Moscow Charter of Journalists if you are its member. Each of these documents contains required elements of the technology of «honest journalism»:
- a mandatory check-up of the story before its publication;
- distinguishing between fact and opinion;
- respect for human honor and dignity;
- complying with the principle «innocent until proved guilty»;
- mandatory correction of an error on finding errors in a published story.
Is meeting each of this requirements enough to have an easy conscience? Let us put it like this: by complying with them, you reduce your personal vulnerability and that of your media to a minimum, but --more importantly-- you have every reason to treat yourself as a respectable journalist.
But what about relations between the media and the «spin doctors» who will push by hook or by crook not only what they consider useful to their candidate but also that which poses a mortal danger to others into newspaper columns and TV programs?
After sorting out a large number of descriptions of conflicts that arose during regional elections in the past two years, I decided to cite here just two particular instances as examples for discussion and analysis prior to «big» elections.
The first instance does not lend itself very well to a verbal description because the story is for TV. It features one of the episodes of the «propaganda war» during the April (1999) elections in the Kuznetsk Basin. I hope, many of you saw the clip of the Regional «Aman Tuleev Bloc» on NTV when it became known that the bloc had won a landslide victory in 33 districts out of 34. I will describe what it looked and sounded like for those who have seen neither the clip nor the program.
It looked like this: the camera eye shows a spotty somberly glowing map of the Kuznetsk Basin dotted with population centers. Moving across the map to seize the heart of the region are arrows like those used in wartime newsreels to designate a large-scale military operation. The screen is overlaid with inserts, built into the picture to illustrate the key words.
While the picture causes a subconscious feeling of alarm and anxiety, it is reinforced by a well thought-out sound track: an electronic staccato brings back the memory of the metronome, known from the newsreels of the Leningrad blockade. A special sensation is caused by the announcer's enunciation and voice: his timbre, intonation and stress pattern - everything imitates a wartime Sovinformbureau bulletin.
Perhaps a real «masterpiece» - at least in its impact on the instincts and the subconscious of a Russian citizen - is the text itself, consisting of only eight sentences. Here it is:
«This is a plan to seize the Kuznetsk Basin.
The Moscow financial groups are converting our natural wealth into dollars.
Criminal groups are pushing through candidates who will prevent them from going to prison.
Has-beens are promoting their puppets to stage a comeback.
Moscow politicians have integrated us into their Napoleonic plans.
They don't spare money.
They have figured everything out.
On April 18, the battle will be for each city, for each house, and for each vote.
We will defend the Kuznetsk Basin!»
Leaving the emphasis on the words, stressed by intonation, I will supplement the text by the comments of the correspondents who prepared the text (the obvious association with wartime films aroused a natural desire to rush to the defense of the region - not with Kalashnikovs or cudgels toward the regional boundaries but to polling stations in order to cast votes for those who will «defend the Kuznetsk Basin»), and an exhaustively precise rejoinder from the Segodnya evening news anchor: «It looks as if instincts have worked.»
Could such a clip, appealing to well-known instincts and painting a single «picture of an enemy» for all contestants, especially an enemy from Moscow, be used in the course of elections? This question should be addressed to many agencies including the prosecutor's office.
I am more interested in another question: did the local and regional TV have the right to show it?
On formal grounds, they probably did. «The bloc furnished it, and we ran it.» This logic and this pattern had already been well developed by the elections of 1995.
It seems to me, however, that the logic of «honest journalism» and the ethics of a professional journalist were binding for media managers. Would there be conflict with the bloc leaders? Undoubtedly. But such professional risk would prove to be negligible compared with the risk of showing such a clip with the responsibility for propagating the «enemy image», that is, involvement in an act of «psychological war» inside Russia with consequences of utmost gravity.
The other «pre-election» example is the recent (November 1998) elections to the Legislative Assembly of the Krasnodar Krai. It should be immediately clarified that what it involves is not mass media but propaganda material-a leaflet, circulated allegedly in support of one of the candidates, Anatoly Medovnik. Here is the text: «Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the Jewish people should themselves protect their interests in the Krai Legislative Assembly. Vote for Anatoly Medovnik, a man who understands and supports us. On behalf of the Krasnodar Jewish community, we urge you to support the great nation».19
This is obviously a fake pure and simple, a provocation, an example of the simplest and most inexpensive (although effective) «dirty technologies». But what will happen if «a letter in support of a candidate», perhaps not so crudely manufactured, reaches mass media? Will all the editors, hard pressed for time, have the desire to get to the bottom of this text and find out its origin? I would like to answer it in the affirmative but I cannot. Meanwhile, the price of provocations on the «national» subject may be extremely high in 1999. Therefore this topic itself (particularly in view of its clear-cut wording as a separate item in all codes of professional ethics) should be under the constant and vigilant control of the professional community throughout the pre-election period.
Could we relax a little if all «spin doctors» and professional PR men succeed in adopting a Charter of Professional Ethics so widely discussed of late?
Unfortunately, no. Not only because there are considerably fewer real professionals among «spin doctors» in Russia than sundry «semipros» or even «amateurs» including those who work by order and not under a contract when the name turns out to be one of the stable factors of demand.
Don't pass the buck of your own corporation to another corporation - one of the first conclusions to be drawn today by a journalist who is to be introduced to «political technologies». Another, still more important conclusion is that under no circumstances should he fill in for a professional PR specialist and perform his functions in the course of elections, overtly or covertly promoting a certain image of a candidate in the citizens' minds.
Get Paid Decently
And, finally, the last comment, associated with the severance of professional-ethical straps by big money that seems to tempt a great many editors-in-chief and journalists.
When Aleksei Venediktov, Editor-in-Chief of the «Echo of Moscow» radio station, said in a TV interview that the «Echo» intended «to get paid decently» in the electoral campaign, I suddenly realized that the word «decently» coming from the Editor-in-Chief of the Echo, is perceived by me, a permanent listener of the station, in two senses at the same time: «sufficiently» and «without violating ethical norms».
Assuming that many of the editors-in-chief are thinking today of getting decently paid at the elections, I recall the experience of 1995 when the National Association of Russian Telecasters and NTV (there must have been other precedents) adopted special guidelines of «proper behavior» in the pre-election period not only for their own members or employees but also for colleagues and other electronic media. This example seems to be very important, worth not just remembering but also disseminating at least as a working model already being tested in practice. The reader will find the Memorandum of the National Association of Russian Telecasters and the Guidelines for an NTV Journalist in an appendix to this book.
And, finally, some recommendations from international experience. Each of them (they are all from the reference guide «Mass Media and Elections», edited by Yasha Lange and Andrew Palmer and published in Russian by the TASIS Service in 1995) seems to be essential and useful to a journalist concerned with the Russian elections of 1999, above all because they elucidate and even «technologize» some ethical postulates which help the journalist apply them to specific and not very simple situations.
Here are, for instance, some specific propositions from the final chapter of the reference guide to which all those who talk about «honest journalism» in earnest should at least lend an ear.
One of the requirements to paid political advertising: the cost of political advertising should cover the expenses of the mass media, but profits are ruled out.20
Journalists or editorial staff are not allowed to publish advertising or appear on screens on behalf of a party or a candidate.
On the practice of editorial offices: a self-regulation code, adopted by journalists themselves of their own free will, is an ideal mechanism for a quality coverage of elections. The candidates who already hold official posts should not receive additional coverage for performing their official duties.
On the technique of «pre-election» interviews: a journalist should ask appropriate questions and, as a representative of the electorate, is entitled to insist on clear-cut answers from politicians.
On the coverage of candidates: a candidate should not be covered in programs or newspaper articles that are not associated with elections.
I refer the reader to the book cited above because further quotes are impossible within the scope of this chapter. I also refer the reader without quoting a single line to the special collection «A Journalist at Elections», prepared three years ago by a study group of the Russian-American Press Center and the British Know-How Foundation. It is to a large extent «fit for use» in Russia in 1999-2000.21
I will conclude the article with a plain-as-a-pikestaff idea from the collection «Mass Media and Elections» whose authors' comment on the balanced coverage of parties and candidates was: it takes special efforts.22
The «special efforts» of a Russian journalist, concerned not only about his pay but also about the honest and professional performance of his duty, are required not only in the pre-election period, but practically every day and everywhere. But in many respects, his efforts during that period are more important than all others. Whatever elements of honest journalism we will uphold are sure to hold up. Isn't that so?
The National Press Institute
6 The Professional Ethics of Journalists, in 2 vols., vol. 1, Documents and Reference Data. Moscow, Galeria, 1999, p. 440.
7 Ibid. pp. 289-95.
8 Ibid., p. 293.
9 The Professional Ethics of Journalists, vol. 1, p. 325.
10 Ibid., p. 120.
11 Ibid., p. 186.
12 Ibid., p. 121.
13 Ibid, p. 187.
14 The Professional Ethics of Journalists, vol. 1, p. 323.
15 Ibid., p. 323.
16 Novaya Gazeta No. 27, 1999, p. 7.
17 I refer those who wish to be fully informed about the systemic view on optimizing the role of the media in electoral campaigns of the type characteristic of Russia to the paper «The Principles of Covering an Electoral Campaign in Electronic Mass Media in Countries Adopting a Democratic System of Government.» Its best translation has been published in the journal CPEDA. Russko-evropeiskoe zhurnalistskoe obozrenie (Nos, 1-2, 1995, pp. 64-104).
18 Rossiiskaya Gazeta, May 14, 1999.
19 «Kommersant VLAST», No. 45, 1998, p. 28.
20 Mass Media and Elections. A Reference Guide. Ed. by Yasha Lange and Andrew Palmer. The European Institute of Mass Media, TASIS Service, European Commission, 1995, p. 149.
21 So far as I know, an electronic version of this publication is available at the Center of Cyberjournalism of the National Press Institute. Yu.K.
22 Ibid., p. 160.
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