Maintaining Independence and Neutrality in the Media: How not to use the media for personal gain

21 June 2008 at 17:38 | 716 views

This lecture is part of a US Embassy Symposia Speaker Program for Journalists and Media
Professionals of Sierra Leone in honour of Dr. Jane Kirtley, an expert
in journalism and media law, visiting Sierra Leone from June 16th -
23rd, 2008 with the goal of providing a new perspective on media related issues.

Presented by Gbanabom Hallowell
Sierra Leone Country Director
Journalists For Human Rights

“Many of our most critical problems are not in the world of ‘things’
but in the world of ’people.’”. Hersey and Blanchard.

Any discourse on media independence and neutrality not only borders on
ethics but also acknowledges the inevitability of conflict in the
profession by virtue of the profession.

Therefore, a presentation like
this uses several metaphors to discuss the independence and neutrality
of the media. It is important that we recognize the careful
phraseology of the topic on which I have been asked to make a

I have been asked to talk about the broader
personification of the media as an institution to which we can also add
the media practitioners. Noteworthy here is the fact that while it is
acceptable to think that media practitioners are themselves people,
ordinary ones at that with their attendant biases, the profession can
still benefit from independence and neutrality.

I want you to consider
this demarcation as a strong warning popularized in a Krio saying that goes: "Nor cam pwel ya-o! U meet ya don make." In the corporate media
world this warning translates that the media profession is an already
organized body, but notwithstanding, it is still vulnerable to ill-will

In other words, the media have a personification of desires: they want
to function in a free state and in a free state of mind, and they want
to function independently of the practitioners and stakeholders. The
stakeholders responsible for the smooth functioning of the media
include the practitioners, the legal system, and the general public.
Of these three, the practitioner is arguably the closest custodian of
the media’s ethics.

The media and the media practitioners don’t
necessarily have to agree with each other on all matters; however,
because both the media and the media practitioners are a symbiotic
means to an end, both must tread cautiously in order to avoid being
considered a societal liability.
Compare the needs of the media to that of medicine or law.

The medical doctor only has to administer the correct dosage, and the medicine will
effectively perform its function; the lawyer only needs to interpret
the law, and the law will efficiently apply itself. When these two
examples are distorted, the end result is an abnormality of both the
professions and the professionals.

The tasks involved in the simple
examples I just gave you are very complex. Before the doctor
administers any medicine, he falls back on the profession for guidance;
and before the lawyer assures his prisoner-client of freedom, he falls
back on the profession for guidance.
This business of falling back to consult with the profession usually
has a nostalgic origin to it.

The nostalgic factor can only be
attributed to the long term relationship existing between the
profession and the professionals. The profession must fit the
professional as good as a tailor’s suit simply because the professional
had first measured him or herself well. In the event of a challenge,
the professional returns to understand the tide and to learn how to be
courageous in the face of adversity. The doctor would study the
symptoms of his patient against the books of the profession; the lawyer
would compare current matters with appropriate past case studies.

After consultation, the professional emerges with a neutrality of
understanding regarding how to address the matter at hand.
Serious media practitioners answer to their profession’s codes of
conduct, not to their emotions. Recklessness is not accepted in these
professions or in any worthy profession. Like any other profession,
the media practitioner has both the self and the self-same -the media-
to protect.

I don’t care how much of a life the media organization
has, it is the metaphor of the practitioner. It is becoming
increasingly difficult today to separate medicine from the doctor, law
from the lawyer, and journalism from the journalists. Psychologically
speaking, many a patient, including the present speaker, has
rejuvenated in health merely by feeling the “miraculous” touch of the
doctor, and many a prisoner has experienced freedom by talking to his
lawyer from behind caged windows.

Similarly and particularly in
conflict ridden situations, many victims and, yes, perpetrators too,
feel comfortable that their sides of the conflict can be articulated
well when a courageous and unbiased journalist from a respected media
organization shows up.

My organization, the CanadA-based Journalists For Human Rights (JHR)
has as its mandate working together with local journalists wherever
they operate to help transform journalism from promotional to

I want to discuss the independence and neutrality of
the media against the backdrop of our understanding of promotional
journalism and developmental journalism; against the backdrop of
Government’s national drive of attitudinal change; against the backdrop
of the interdependence between the media and the media practitioner;
and against the broad perspective of globalization.

I come to this presentation fully informed about media independence and
neutrality in Sierra Leone through the progressive national events that
have not only posed a challenge to the media but also have almost
succeeded in undermining the independence and neutrality of the media.
In global terms, the media are as much in need of quality control
management as is a country’s cash crop. Inferior quality in media
practices can result in a country becoming a failed state. Whenever we
succeed in identifying an undemocratic state, we also succeed in
identifying yellow media practices and products.

However, this is not
a completely fair judgement. Don’t we also have undemocratic nations
where the media have maintained a high democratic standard? Another
question begs to be asked: is it government culture that shapes media
culture or it is media culture that shapes government culture? I would
not immediately expect a yes or no answer; instead I would rather first
put fresh thoughts into the concepts of independence and neutrality.

Ahead of that lexical thought, let me quote Craig LaMay who summarized
the findings of researcher David Weaver and his colleagues, whom he
said “argued against trying to apply the same model of press freedom to
many countries, especially a model that seeks to compare industrialized
countries with developing ones.

All the major press freedom and
sustainability indices rely on values that are, if not subjective, at
least not universal.”
If we were able to define the media term “independence,” we would
certainly have included in the definition some of the arguments by
Weaver and others. They rightly argue that the independence of the
media is contingent on maintaining values, but I do not agree with them
that we have to view a country’s press freedom from that country’s
monochromatic value system.

It goes against the great fusion of
globalization to categorize core states as having a media ethics
different from those of peripheral states. I don’t believe in the
unbridled metaphor of discretion regarding the universality of media
ethics. Ethics itself operates on a universal note.
Canadian journalist, Jared Ferrie, a current JHR media trainer in
Sierra Leone, identified three universal concepts of independence for
any media organization: editorial independence, technical independence,
and economic independence.

We are going to briefly examine them, but
first let me just also add that Jared noted that independent media is
dependent on, among other factors, the rule of law, especially media
law and a functioning economy and civil society.
Let us push Jared Ferrie’s argument further by stating that editorial
independence is related to the goals of the practitioners. Hersey and
Blanchard noted that people have goals, but organizations do not. What
are the vision and mission of the practitioners?

What slant is the
media organization portraying? Is it conservative, liberal, or
leftist? The reason why I have not defined independence is because the
word independence cannot be defined in the way that neutrality can.
For instance a conservative media organization is not necessarily in
support of the policies of an existing conservative political party.

To a large extent, such a distinction can be seen between media and the
political parties in the United States, but it is difficult to say the
same about the Sierra Leone media.
Technical independence is related to the ability of both the media
organization and the media practitioner to deliver expected results.
Technical independence can also be associated with the power of
creativity. Why is that as a consumer, I will opt to tune my radio to
station A and never to station B? Why would I pick up newspaper A and
never newspaper B? What mindset is pulling me toward or away from a
media organization? How about program queuing in a radio station? How
about the newspaper layout?

Do I see fair play in investigation? How
detached are the practitioners from what I’m supposed to be informed
about? How democratic is the coverage? Am I experiencing
developmental or promotional journalism?
Economic independence affects the ethical concerns of the media

Are the funders separate from the editorial team? How
much vested interest do the funders have? Under this concept, we may
want to know how much latitude does the professional team have to
determine which direction the media organization should go? When a
media organization is being funded by another organization, it is very
important that the practitioners critically understand the several
interests the money is coming with. The ethics of the profession
should prevail in any transaction.

I would add to Jared Ferrie’s three concepts two of mine called
political and linguistic independence. These are actually sub-concepts
found somewhere in Ferrie’s three, but I wanted to identify them. Why?
Well, to feel good. Sierra Leone media consumers are very smart to
compare notes and associate objects and concepts. In this country, the
lack of political independence in media organizations can be seen in
the way political parties and media organization parade slogans,
phrases, and ideologies before the readers or viewers. This brings us
to linguistic independence.

Journalists should frown on the language
of propaganda, which is a political tool. The rhetoric of politics
should not be the rhetoric of the media. The Sierra Leone media,
unfortunately, has mastered the art of political propaganda. My hope
is that with more and more professional training, the Sierra Leone
media will soon liberate itself from this monochrome.
Until now, we have said very little about neutrality. Earlier I told
you that neutrality is easier to define than independence. I lied.

However, at least I can attempt to define neutrality. Firstly, let me
take you back to Craig LaMay who has this to say about media in the
developing world:
Journalists in developing and democratizing countries-will typically
describe “democratic” media as serving two broad goals. The first is
‘building a culture of free expression,’ to which end journalists will
talk about a range of issues associated with the ‘watchdog’ role of the
press and the need to provide citizens with access to news and
information. This conception will often compete with another, quite
different one that emphasizes providing citizens access to the
instruments of communication, perhaps even against the prerogatives of
those who own them, and especially where ownership is concentrated in
the state or in private centers of economic powers. (p.1)
In this entire quotation, I am interested in the pivotal role, or more
appropriately, in the facilitation role of the media. LaMay talks
about the journalist serving as society’s watchdog.

No one serves as a
watchdog unless he/she is neutral; therefore, the duty of the media is
to ensure that every member of society enjoys free speech, that every
member of society has access to news and information and that the media
as a neutralist should make available every instrument of communication
to any member of society who wants to communicate or inform others
about any issue.

Over time, all of these observations have been co-opted into the Sierra
Leone media laws. I will now belatedly define neutrality as the
watchdog function of the media which ensures that every citizen is able
to pursue social justice through free speech. By this definition, I
think it is legally obscure to criminalize the excesses of the media as
is the current situation in Sierra Leone. The 1965 Criminal Libel Act
is draconian, threatening, and militaristic.

The journalist is not a
devil, but he is certainly also not a theologian. To a large extent, he
is a psychiatrist dealing with the unpredictable behaviours of all
kinds of people in society. It is ironic to note that a society that
is still grappling with state and private sector corruption, ethnic
conflicts, and poor attitudinal culture should seek to criminalize, in
the event of a shortcoming, the media, an institution that largely
remains the best source to fight against all these anomalies.

I began this presentation by stating that the media deals with conflict
both internally and externally. Part of what sustains conflict in the
media is a result of any or all of the stakeholders wanting to use the
media for personal gains. In transition countries, such as Sierra
Leone, the media can easily be rendered vulnerable to the whims of
corrupt stakeholders. The second half of my topic allows me to show
how not to use the media for personal gains.

Well, it so happens that
I do not know how not to use the media for personal gain.
In 1992, I was a senior reporter with a local tabloid, when the United
States Embassy in Freetown advertised the job of library assistant. I
got the job, selected from among some hundred applicants simply
because, in addition to having worked before in a library, I was also a
practicing journalist. The United States information Service boss did
not hide that fact from me. Would you say that I had used the media
for personal gain?

Maybe that example is rather simplistic, but it is going to allow me to
determine if stakeholders should benefit from media and media products.
Whereas the phrase “benefit” is positive, the phrase “personal gains”
is pejorative. Therefore, I will agree that to use the media for
personal gains is unjust and undemocratic. Linguistically speaking,
while benefits are outcomes from an investment, like me having an
advantage over other applicants for the embassy job because of my added
media association, gains are looked upon as an undue advantage sought
after through corruption, bribery, defamation, libel, and sabotage.

I will return to an earlier observation I noted Jared Ferrie made, that
independent media is dependent on, among other factors, the rule of
law, especially media law and a functioning economy and civil society.
It is hardly possible that a nation with a vulnerable media will
develop. In a recent public lecture that I gave at the British
Council, I posited two theories to guide attitudinal change in the

The first one I called the Media Polity Theory defined as the
creation of media values through conferral authority, and the second
one the Meta-Communication Theory would be the collective ingredients
that can be realized in any act of communication. I will not go into
them in-depth, but I will briefly mention here that media practitioners
should not tire in holding internal and external conflicts to
professional standards. The truth is that every sector of our society
compliments the efforts of other sectors.

In a bid to enhance a
healthy democratic society, the media, through unbiased investigative
reporting, independence and neutrality should see themselves playing
the role of a community builder: help build a solid rule of law, a
functioning economy, and a strong civil society in which to operate a
media free from abuse for personal gain.

As with most computer
programs, in the business of professional media products free from
editorial, technical and economic virus, the following should be the
equation: independence the username, neutrality the password, and the practitioner the antivirus!

Gbanabom Hallowell(photo) is a Sierra Leonean writer and regular PV contributor.