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Latin America: Dead letter codes
By Javier Darío Restrepo

For three days 43 journalists from nine countries discussed the ethics of their profession at the Hilton Hotel on Margarita Island, Venezuela. The Mc Cormick Foundation of Chicago sponsored the gathering, with organizational input by the Catholic University of Caracas and the International Center for Journalists of Washington, the Regional Conference, Ethics and Media. It was a meaningful group of journalism professionals from all over the continent discussing their ethical principles.

In Panama earlier, the Latin American journalism program of the University of Florida had convened a continental congress centered on journalistic ethics. Two other press freedom events of continental character convened by the Freedom Forum in Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires provided more elements for a discussion on putting ethics in first place on the agendas of union associations and university extension pro-grams.

The focus on ethical journalism is inspiring the appearance in Latin America of a new institution that, sheepishly but with increasing certainty, is prevailing: the Reader's Defender. This Latin American version of the Swedish ombudsman centers its main activity on the teaching and application of ethical principles to concrete cases promoting the readers in their communications. Newspapers with a wider vision have perceived what the daily Reform, of Mexico, proved: that ethics sells. Or as Spain's Victoria Camps put it: "Sensationalism and flattery perhaps produce some immediate economic benefits, but in the long run discredit the medium, or classify it as yellow and not very serious. (. . . ) Ethics sells. Resorting to ethics has a pragmatic efficiency explanation."

This is how the most lucid of journalistic companies understand it and the desire to offer the best journalistic product is being linked to the

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application of ethical principles as the guarantor of high journalistic quality.

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The codes

For a long time there were no ethical codes for the press in Mexico because, as Ignacio Rodríguez Zárate, a well known journalist of that country, notes, "the government and the owners do not favor an organization that starts from grouping the professionals of communication." The ethical code is seen, in effect, as a unifying factor. Mexican journalists envisage the possibility of an ethical code and have prepared a project to respond to a severe preoccupation: the lack of journalistic professionalisation. According to the professor and journalist, Federico Campbell, journalism is not a profession in his country "because it does not have an ethical or behavioral code. (...) Nor has a consensus been reached on the level and type of knowledge required for the course."

The two aspects, ethics and university training, are seen as complementary and indispensable. The journalistic unions of the continent have taken the course of promoting ethical principles to become professional. In countries like Bolivia and Cuba, codes are imposed by government, but in 14 others unions or associations adopted codes after reflection by journalists on the nature and requirements of their profession.

The deontological codes describe the ideal professional profile. As well as the constitutions of the countries, codes represent a human group utopia and they are, at the same time, even within their dimension of "having-to be," a vision of what a profession means in society. A review of ethical codes in Latin America reveals not what journalists are, but what they want to be and what they want their profession to be.

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A profession of veracity

Running through 16 codes is the notion of truth and mechanisms to protect it, such as right of reply, rectification, and the sanctity of sources.

It is clear to Latin American journalists, though in different expressions and nuances, that their professional task is to offer their publics the true facts. This supremacy of truth coincides with the ethical tenets of the world's journalists. UNESCO notes in a comparison of 48 ethical codes in the world that 71% of them underlined "veracity, objectivity and accuracy." The same verification emerged from an examination of 68 codes of five continents (seven international, 20 American, 11 Asian, 23 European, five African and two Oceanian). In 56 of them veracity is underlined as duty of the journalist. In 10 Latin American codes it is considered as a duty, one of those codes calls it "commitment," four state its obligatory nature and others regard truth as "a cause."

Veracity is associated with being levelheaded in the Latin American Press Federation (Felap) and the Bolivian codes. This code and the Mexican treat it as equivalent to honesty and Brazil, the Latin American Press Association and Costa Rica relate it to accuracy. The Camwork of the journalists from the Caribbean and Mexico sees veracity as impartiality and in their descriptions Brazil, Cuba, Chile and Ecuador mention objectivity as one of the equivalents of veracity. Service to veracity generates some concrete duties. The codes of Bolivia, the Caribbean and the Inter-American Press Association (AIP) underline the duty to confirm information to guarantee its truth. The Camwork of the Caribbean forbids "to write, to publish or to transmit news not based on proven facts" and the AIP indicates "the duty of proving all information."

Offering complete information is another obligation the codes show as an application of veracity. "No fact will be forged or omitted," orders the Venezuelan, and the Bolivian sets a norm "not to adulterate or conceal data in prejudice of the truth."

The Brazilians demand investigation of the news as an essential task of

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the journalist - "his/her work is the investigation and diffusion of events with accuracy" - which is expressed by the journalists of the Antioquia Journalists Circle (CIPA) in Colombia as "pledging to seek the truth."

The journalist's independence appears as an attitude associated with his/her veracity in the code of the Panamanian journalists: "They will not permit their silence to be bought or the truth to be silenced." That is the preoccupation latently perceived in the code of Felap: "Who silences, forges or misrepresents the facts offends against ethics."

The management of the sources appears here as a consideration necessarily derived from that duty to be independent to find the truth. The codes of Venezuela and Panama have this in their norms, and Peru and Ecuador refer to it in connection with the professional exercise or the relationships to the media.

The code of the Journalists Circle of Bogota, (CPB) in Colombia, is explicit about this topic: "The journalist must adopt an analytical attitude to the sources, to confront them and to probe their declarations."

The concomitant obligation of objectivity Brazilian, Chilean, Ecuadorian and Cuban journalists have in their codes reflects a polemic common to journalists the world over. The code of the CPB (a.1.1) says that "though truth and objectivity are debatable as absolute terms, in journalism good faith is indispensable." The Ecuadorian journalists go further in opposing two readings of objectivity. If it equals neutrality, they consider it impossible: "(The journalist) is obligated to be loyal and consequent to the principles and aspirations of his/her people, community and family. He/she is not and cannot be neutral because in human society that neutrality is impossible except to favor directly or indirectly unpopular interests. He/she is and must be substantially objective, especially in interpreting the events of daily life and in giving to information the category, volume, importance and interpretation it deserves." The latter sense, that of the essential objectivity, is the one their code names in the first article on the norm of "providing objective information."

The mandate of objectivity, imparted from the media directors' offices

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and understood as a guide for "a journalism free of ideological commitments or political, social or economic partiality" is suspected of being a pretext used by the most powerful to silence the weakest. This is perhaps the reason for the vehemence with which the Felap defends the journalist's "ideological and political responsibility derived from the nature of his/her profession, that influences the conscience of the masses, and that said responsibility is unavoidable and constitutes the essence of his/her social function" (Code Felap. Introduction).

On that perception it builds articles 1 and 2, which enjoin journalism to be "a collective interest service with eminently social functions. (...) (must) consecrate its conscience and professional occupation to promote respect for the freedoms and human rights (...) contribute to the strengthening of peace, coexistence, self-determination of peoples, disarmament (...) equality of human beings (...) contribute to the cultural and economic independence of our nations and peoples."

The polemics on objectivity starts from a premise that philosophically objective knowledge is impossible, as skeptical philosophers made clear. Furthermore, it is argued, given the conditions of Latin American peoples, objectivity cannot occur in practice. The journalist has to be on the one or other side – with the powerful or with the weak. Consequently, neutrality is read as a subtle but effective commitment to those who have the power.

These reasonings are added to the experience that demonstrates that in practice the journalist is a located subject that in all the stages of the informative process chooses and moves away his/her activity from an aseptic and neutral position. He/she makes the choice of topic, how to cover it, what sources to use, how to edit, defining texts, agreeing on the emission or edition, the place, the duration, the space and the editorial features of the information disseminated. Given these processes and considerations, the Latin American journalists treat "objectivity" as a myth and in place of that norm put an obligation to inform honestly, without consideration of secondary interests and in obedience to the public interest.

Within political frameworks as contrary as those of Cuba and Ecuador,

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it is conspicuous that their codes share an interpretation of objectivity. The Cuban code calls on journalists to do their work "with absolute veracity and objectivity" and defines journalism as a "conscious discipline, revolutionary duty, communist attitude towards work, socialist patriotism and proletarian internationalism." The Ecuadorian code obligates the journalist "to be highly responsible to universal principles of pacific coexistence among the countries of the world, of mutual respect to social fundaments of his/her own people and its legitimate aspirations, and to human beings' freedoms and rights."

Hence an acceptable objectivity is one that takes part, one that cannot be based on a neutral knowledge, but on a position that excludes personal or group interests and favors those of the community.

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The guarantees of truth

The Latin American journalists protect the truth of their information with instruments like secrecy of source, the right to reply, the rectification duty and protection of journalists persecuted for saying the truth.

Confidentiality of sources is a universally recognized obligation on journalists. After the duty of truth, the main consensus in the world's codes is about this norm, because it is a necessary instrument to get to the truth. This is reflected in the codes of Brazil, the Caribbean, Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica and Felap. But Costa Rican journalists warn that source secrecy should not become a pretext for sheltering irresponsible information. The code of the CPB states that professional secrecy "in no case can shelter the inaccuracy of the information or relieve the journalist of his/her duty of verifying the facts..." But when secrecy protects a veracious source the spirit of the norm is for the journalist to maintain it regardless of the consequences, though they might be onerous: judicial demands, fines or jail.

The disloyal journalist, on the other hand, offends against a work instrument that constitutes the reliability of journalists.

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The Bolivian journalists claim access to the source as a right and those of Chile, Honduras and Felap consecrate in their codes the right to reply as an expression of their love of truth.

It is a right not recognized comfortably because it clashes with the overriding right to media property. However, a wider and clearer vision of the role of media and the coincidence of credibility with the success of media companies favor practices like rectification and the right of reply being exercised through the figure of the Reader's Defender, or Ombudsman, or the Reader Councils.

The National Journalists Council of Venezuela enshrines other means to protect the truth in its code, such as demanding protection for the journalist pursued for publishing the truth.

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Freedom of expression

The codes of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela stipulate an ethical duty for the journalist to defend the right to freedom of expression. In some cases it is considered a right of the population, in others it is a media right, and yet others, which do not define that freedom's holder, underline the duty of defending it.

Just one code draws attention to the need for interior freedom to be part of the exercise of freedom of the press and opinion. The Cipa code demands that the journalist's spirit be "free of prejudices and hatred in the moment of supplying information. "

The widest understanding of this freedom is related to the common good. It is neither a freedom for the media nor for the journalist, but for the community. "(The journalist) uses the freedom of expression for the common good" stipulates Colombia's Cipa code. Another Colombian one, that of the Colombian Journalists Association (ACP), expresses the same idea: "Democratic freedoms are indispensable as a complement of the social function of journalism."

For the journalists of Costa Rica, press freedom "must be protected as an

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essential right of the community." The Panamanians define it in the same sense: "It is the people's right to express and confront opinion, to inform and be informed."

Theoretically this vision of freedom puts media and journalists at the service of the population and gives to freedom the character of a service instrument. In practice it would enable effective and direct intervention by information recipients in the media agenda and contents, which is slowly beginning.

The most common conception of press freedom is reflected by the code of Bolivian journalists: "Freedom applies in the highest degree to journalists, nobody can limit their expression and information freedom." The concept found in the Venezuelan code is similar: "The journalist has his/her origin in the freedom of expression." This code enjoins the journalist to "prevent everything that reduces, hinders or annuls the exercise of the freedom of expression."

Other codes do not define the object or raison d'être of press freedom, but they give it the nature of a good that must be defended for its own sake. For the Chileans it is an ethical duty "to prevent all acts intended to limit or destroy press freedom." The Ecuadorian journalist is obligated "to defend the right and exercise of the freedom of expression" and in Peru it is considered unethical "to violate the freedom of thought and expression."

The disparity between these norms and political reality in the different countries was shown clearly in the forum held in Santiago de Chile on April 17 and 18, 1998. Convened by the Freedom Forum, journalists from across the continent described press freedom in their countries as badly wanting. A press law imposed in 1977 by a military dictatorship governs Brazil, a journalist from there reported, and "the one currently discussed is even more restrictive." A Chilean professor astonished the gathering by revealing the existence of a restriction regime in his country intolerable in a democracy. The report on Argentina showed freedom threatened by government corruption and death threats, and the account of the status of press freedom in Peru left no doubts about the continuation of military restrictions, this time under the control of the

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civilian government of president Fujimori. Venezuelan journalists spoke of a regime of distrust and suspicion from their government. In Colombia increasing danger emanates from the growing invasion of power by entrepreneurs buying media. But despite assassinations of journalists, threats and legal restrictions, the most potent threat to free information was seen in the systematic conversion of news into merchandise.

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Ethics and human rights

Ethical codes move forward the constitutions of Latin America in regard to the right to information.

While constitutions go no further than to proclaim press freedom and the right to inform, the codes of the Inter-American Press Association, the Cipa, Ecuador and Panama have been put in place explicitly to set up defense of these rights as an ethical duty. The ALP is concrete: "What the public has the right to know must not be omitted." The Colombian journalists perceive a duty to be guarantors of the right to information, the Ecuadorians make the journalist responsible for the community's right to be correctly informed and the Panamanians proclaim the right of every human being to serious, veracious and integrous information.

The biggest commonality in the past century has been defense of freedom of information, or rather, the right to disseminate it. In line with that, the code of Brazil calls loudly for the right of access to public information, but the stance most common in the codes is defense of the freedom to emit and print with no consideration for the rights of those receiving the information.

Thus human rights are only partially present in the codes, conditioned by societies' political and cultural contexts.

In general terms there is consideration of the rights in norms like that in the code of Costa Rica laying down an ethical duty of journalists "to promote the respect for freedom and human dignity," to oppose and denounce advertising campaigns that attempt to violate social and human security.

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The code of the Peruvian journalists reads similarly. They see ethics violated if infringements of human rights are left unchallenged. In other norms the codes promote defense of human rights media are inclined to transgress, e.g. the right to intimacy. Keeping informative activity far from private life "unless it affects the public social order" is set forth as an ethical norm by the Cipa code. In Peru, too, a norm enjoins journalists to respect intimacy. But when you look at media marketing, norms like these are dead letters. In the confrontation of the two realities, the one proposed by ethical codes, the other dictated by the laws of business, the latter are winning hands down. In the long run it will have to be up to the public to exert pressure for ethical journalism.

The code of the Caribbean incorporates other norms to defend human rights by defining as infringements of ethics any discrimination by race, color, nation, sex, religion or ideology. Those criteria are shared by the ACP code of ethics of Colombia.

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Social responsibility

The Mac Bride Report noted that like any other citizen, the journalist must not exercise his/her own freedom to the detriment of other people's freedom. He/she cannot avoid the responsibility to his/her fellow citizens and other nations. In all collectivity there are accepted norms media and journalists individually have to observe. This principle appears in the ethical codes of the continent, though in different formulations and interpretations.

In general terms the code of the ALP derives that responsibility from the assumed awareness of journalists of the power of the instrument they handle and of the irreparable damage it could wreak.

The codes of Honduras and the Cipa add other considerations. The latter defines the journalist as a public servant and along with the authors of the code of Honduras links that service to a patriotic loyalty in defense of national sovereignty and the country's institutions.

Some codes accentuate the social responsibility of the journalist as

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patriotic loyalty and participation in the negotiations of the governments. The Cuban is the clearest case of that. The Cubans merge the notion of professional duty with the concept of the social duty "to wholly fulfill the principles of the constitution (...) to contribute to the fulfillment of the agreements and resolutions of the congresses of the Party" into an ethical principle.

The journalist linked to the state apparatus through an enjoinder to defend national sovereignty and institutions is also found in Mexico where the journalistic function is defined as "a service to the democratic effort of society and a contribution to safeguarding the fundamental principles of one's own State."

The Costa Ricans similarly demand that the journalist "struggle for national sovereignty and the progress of the country." In Honduras the press law issued by the government puts journalists under obligation to defend sovereignty, territorial integrity and the institutions. In Ecuador, too, journalists are enjoined to guard sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also to demand from the state a national communication policy that prevents an information monopoly and assures the defense of workers' rights.

The Felap opens a wider panorama of social responsibility by demanding that journalists "serve the collective interest, (...) for the strengthening of peace, (...) contributing to the defense of nature and defending national values."

Journalists of the Caribbean impose the ethical duty "to demonstrate lively interest in training and investigating to be able to perform the profession in a competent way and to serve the Caribbean people."

In the course of the conference on "Journalistic Ethics, responsibilities and challenges in Latin America," gathered on Margarita Island (Venezuela), the participants considered with special interest the text of an Argentine journalist: "We recognize in journalism a power, even though new, gigantic and growing, that must obey the popular interest, as well as every power born in the republican bosom." In effect, Latin American journalists in general are trying to redefine their professional roles in

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their respective societies. They have not formulated this yet with the same clarity that the journalists of Liberia and Israel have done, for whom preference for the common good is a mark of high professionalism. Israelis say, "To reach a level of high professional attitude, the journalists should consider themselves servers of the public." And those of Liberia add, "A high professional conduct level requires devotion to the public interest."

Fulfilling such a high social function compels journalists to adopt norms of conduct and work that preserve their credibility and authority in society. These norms also apply to the techniques of obtaining information.

Caribbean journalists have set themselves a norm "to resort only to scrupulous methods to obtain and publish news and photographs." The Colombian code of the CPB makes the same demand in its fourth article: "Not all methods to obtain a piece of news are ethical. Public interest should prevail over personal interests in the search for information."

However, the issue does not appear to concern most authors of the codes. The prevalent attitude is that it is already difficult enough to obtain information the powerful jealously conceal so that no new obstacles should be added. Furthermore, the corrupt want to shelter behind such norms to maintain silence and impunity for their actions. In a recent conflict between a transnational company and a United States newspaper, in which the paper had to pay a sum running to millions to the company because information had been obtained illegally, a subsidiary in Latin America wanted the facts about the corruption committed by its officials and denounced in the sanctioned publication, to be rectified and forgotten by the local press. Cases like these tend to make journalists regard ethical methods of looking for information as an obstacle to their task and protection for corrupt people.

Another norm that seeks to preserve the credibility of the journalist is the one demanding separation of information and opinion. The ALP is emphatic: "That personal opinion of the reporter does not equal a commentary of the information." The Colombian code of the CPB adds: "The news must remain clearly differentiated from the commentaries."

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The difficulties in this area have multiplied since print media moved beyond simple information and introduced analysis. The rare practice of analysis created confusion between it and opinion. That confusion is still there and has blocked the practice of analysis in the Latin American periodicals.

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Service to the community

Relationships between journalists and public are defined in the codes with a dose of idealism very similar to what you'd hear in any speech inaugurating a medium on the continent. The founder of the Tribune and the New Yorker, Horace Greeley, inaugurated his newspaper by saying: "The Tribune will work to promote the interest of the people." Joseph Pulitzer said when inaugurating the headquarters of the World: "This building owes its existence to the public." Randolph Hearst, speaking about his chain of newspapers, said: "Each of the newspapers is so identified with the community, that the citizens come along to them with preference to the other." So when Latin American journalism codes stipulate that the relationship between journalists and public must be in terms of service and not of power, this is proof that it is imposed by the nature of the profession. Felap proclaims: "Journalism is a collective interest service that consecrates its occupation to promoting the respect for freedoms and human rights." In a tone of high idealism the code of the Mexican journalists proclaims: "We declare that we will never attack the weak and defenseless, not with arguments, slanders or ridicule, and if we discover that we have been mistaken, we will never avoid acknowledging this. We will always deal with all people with absolute equality as far as humanly possible, regardless of the wealth, influence or personal situation of individuals." The same ideals are set forth in article 13 of the Venezuelan code: "The journalist shall sponsor and stimulate the access of opinions from the most diverse sectors to the media of social communication, without discrimination by sex, religion, social class and ideology. He/she will be concerned fundamentally with the fact that the most deprived sectors of the population achieve the most just and prompt recovery of their petitions and causes."

The conception of the code of the journalists of Costa Rica is less

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impassioned but clearer in its definition of the class of service journalists render to the public: "(The journalist) assumes the responsibility for his/her writings, his/her words to carry news, information, articles or any form of publication for public knowledge."

That service is governed by some priorities the Mexicans explain in their code: "The society before the individual, the country before the governments; we consider that man is transient and that only the institutions and the ideals last."

In the continent's reality, however, there is a chasm between the ideals stated in the codes and daily life. Antonio García, a Colombian sociologist, noted that the media have fulfilled a task of preventive cultural counter-revolution because "enterprise freedom substituted information and opinion freedom, commercial and political advertising replaced the possibility of the free exam and the critical conscience, force governments substituted opinion governments." Whereas these negative factors spawned by the era of military dictatorships have waned in the past two decades, the enterprise men and their powerful economic groups have supplanted them as a new element interposed between the media and the population. The "inescapable commitment to the community" stated in the code of Brazil is thwarted by the presence of economic power in the media - the greatest present obstacle to media and population acting together.

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Controls over journalists

There are two classes of control organizations urging fulfillment of ethical norms or sanctioning transgressors. Some are linked to state authority and others proceed from the union authorities within journalism colleges or associations. A third category are organizations of journalists where observance of the ethical codes is assumed as an individual honor commitment, with no provision for sanctions other than publication of decisions, sentences or verdicts of the ethical courts and the moral blemishes this might involve.

Journalists are usually reluctant to judge or submit to the judgment of

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their peers. Hence the main parts of the codes either do not mention, or mention only obliquely, the control mechanism. The most explicit are the honor court of Bolivia, the Technical Board of Journalism of Bolivia, and the colleges in Costa Rica, Ecuador and Venezuela. Bolivia and Honduras leave open the possibility of government authorities intervening by imposing sanctions.

The Honor Court envisaged in the Bolivian code (a 21-22-23-24) deals with cases of bribery, extortion, handouts from sources and infringement of professional secrecy. The court can pass cases on to judicial authorities for due process. In any event, its verdicts are communicated to the Education and Culture Ministry to take what action it deems fit.

In Panama the code envisages the operation of a Technical Board of Journalism, commissioned to receive accusations of infringement of professional ethics. The board is empowered to sanction the journalist according to the laws of the country. In Venezuela and Costa Rica the colleges are the control organizations; in these two countries the journalists exclude any interventions by state authorities and abide by their internal mechanisms.

Peru and Chile mention sanctions but not organizations that impose them. Four of the eight articles of the Peruvian code are devoted to a thorough enumeration of 20 acts contrary to professional ethics and the journalist is responsible for them only before his/her conscience. It is similar in Chile where no ethical commission is even envisaged. One does operate in Colombia where associates of the CPB code assume an honor commitment that indirectly urges a commission to study complaints on presumed infringements of ethics and concludes with an academic pronouncement that in some cases has meant a moral sanction.

In Bolivia, Ecuador and Honduras the government imposes the sanctions. Article 23 of the Bolivian code provides for the verdict handed down by the Honor Court to be communicated to the Education and Culture Ministry to deal with finally. Article 24 empowers the Honor Court "to arrange for cases outside its competence to be brought to the knowledge of judges or competent authorities." The Honduran legis-

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lation provides for imposition of fines to be made effective by the respective political governance.

Article 33 of the code of the National Journalists Federation of Ecuador envisages the reporting of cases of illegal exercise of the profession to the corresponding authorities. It provides no sanctioning mechanisms for infringements of its ethical principles.

Given the reluctance of media owners and directors, the scant operations of the union control institutions and the lack or weakness of those mechanisms, one has to conclude that by and large the codes are dead letter. One of the best-known cases is that of Mexico, where there are no sanctions for those who transgress their code and the government and media owners oppose it because they see it as a force promoting cohesion among journalists. In the same way that they have rejected the unions and syndicates, they are far from accepting codes that bond them and spread practices perceived as "ruinous" to their business.

Add to this proprietorial attitude the unjust occupational conditions of the journalists, you have a continent with magnificent codes and some unethical practices induced by a labor situation that prevents the honest exercise of the profession.

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Conditions of the Latin American journalist

The chief of a team of pollsters surveying the journalists of Latin America noted sadly that their second main anxiety is their pay. He alluded to situations like one he found in Peru where a Lima journalist declared he earned 55 dollars per month. Even that was better than that of journalists in some areas of the Bolivian province of La Paz, who were paid the equivalent of 45 dollars a month. These were the most dramatic cases in a generally dark labor panorama.

Of the polled, 61.8% said they received 400 dollars a month; 72% revealed that their wives also had to be employed to augment the household income. The study, done by a team of the International University of Florida in the five countries of the Andean Agreement, allows linkage

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of most of the ethical problems of the journalists to their labor conditions. About 60% of the respondents admitted they knew at least one suborned journalist. In Honduras an intensive movement to adopt a code of ethics began when a list of journalists "bought" by a government institution became public knowledge, but nobody questioned the working conditions of that country's journalists. The pollster team found in Ecuador a list of journalists just one politician had "bought." In the course of the same investigation the pollsters were told by a radio executive in Bolivia that "the majority of journalists are corrupt to some extent because of their low pay."

The University of Florida team found a close relationship between the most common high-priority anxieties of the journalists. The biggest number (28%) worry about independence within editorial staffs. But that links to a second preoccupation, that of the wages, expressed by 19.8%. At the same time, the defective preparation of the journalists seems to justify the low pay. "We want to pay journalists better, but only when they are better prepared," an executive of a Guayaquil newspaper told the researchers. An article of the Costa Rican journalists' code setting forth an ethical duty "to struggle permanently to perfect the professional and cultural knowledge in his/her integral training" is exceptional among the codes.

One of the objectives of the strengthening collegiation in Bolivia, Costa Rica and Venezuela is to raise the professional level of journalists by permanent training actions and updating, but this has not been its maximum priority. As the code of the journalists of Bolivia states, maximum importance is assigned to the defense of the work: "No medium will have for its specific tasks personnel who do not possess professional title and who are not registered in the National Journalists Record."

The relative union strength of journalists seems to be concentrated on defending their jobs. Felap includes among its ethical norms the duty of "strengthening the organization and the syndical or union joining, or contributing to create them."

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The Cipa code of Columbia echoes that the journalist "will join the union to defend the profession."

Along the continent, however, discussion on the status of journalism continues. Is it a trade? Is it a profession? Is it an art? The lack of definition keeps journalists moving in a vicious circle. They are paid badly because they are not considered competent professionals; but when they try to defend their jobs they can't do so on the strength of training because that is out of their financial reach. So it is left to the union or to the law.

Criticism leveled at collegiation starts from that fact. As noted by the authors of the University of Florida survey, "the press executives consider that the collegiation law is responsible for the fact that the professional quality may have fallen."

The collegiation law existing in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela disappeared in Costa Rica after an attention-raising ruling by the Inter-American Human Rights Court that it violated the freedom of expression. But it is in full force in Venezuela where the journalism college has a training institute that organizes courses and seminars for journalists. Facts like this are marshaled in defense of colleges that seem, however, to be overwhelmed by the circumstances and should be concentrating most of their activity on defending journalists' jobs and working conditions.

Another common accusation in Latin America is that communication faculties are to blame for the low professional quality of journalists. The journalism schools have been replaced by communication faculties where students can choose to become communicologist, public relationist, publicist, institutional journalist, enterprise communicator or journalist. Despite the variety of splendid titles, the University of Florida team got answers indicating that the programs are deficient:

  1. "Journalism teaching is very theoretical and frequently time is wasted trying to teach graduates how to be journalists."
  2. "A good quantity of journalism teachers has never worked in a press medium."

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  3. "Students pass five years learning about everything and join editorial staffs knowing nothing."
  4. "Students are scarcely taught to read and write, but they do not learn to think or investigate."
  5. "We have seen people graduated in Quito, rattling off all the details about Carlos Marx with complete accuracy, but without having any idea about how to write a lead."
  6. "We teach the theoretical aspects, that is the cheapest, but we do not have any money to fit up the editorial offices and studies for a practical training."
  7. "One does not know anything about the reality because in school they never show you the things you will encounter."

At some time or other all the communication faculties of the continent face those complaints as they continue searching. They know they are contributing to the journalism renovation, but they are aware, too, of the long way they still have to go.

The economic restraints on the continent's journalists resulting from the vicious circle of employers paying poorly because of poor professionalism and universities lacking the resources to improve it, shape a disturbing panorama in which demands as set out in the ethics code of Bolivia (articles 12 and 13) are dead letter: "The journalist has the right to a sufficient remuneration that permits him/her to live with dignity" and that "every journalist and his/her family have the right to social security services."

The reality is that the companies, other than the largest or in exceptional cases, refuse to pay their journalists a just remuneration, opening the door to their unethical behavior. To gain social security for their members, the journalist unions have no option but to beg for it from government entities as a favor or privilege. And so another dependency link is established, sacrificing journalists' freedom and increasing their beholdenness to official entities and personages. In any of the two events, the ethical quality of the journalism on the continent is in serious danger.

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Ethical codes cited

  1. Asociación Interamericana de prensa (AIP).
  2. Federación Latinoamericana de Prensa (Felap).
  3. Círculo de Periodistas de Antioquia (Cipa).
  4. Asociación Colombiana de Periodistas (ACP).
  5. Círculo de Periodistas de Bogotá (CPB).
  6. Colegio de Periodistas de Costa Rica.
  7. Colegio de Periodistas de Bolivia.
  8. Congreso Nacional de Periodistas de Brasil.
  9. Asociación de Trabajadores de Medios de Comunicación del Caribe (Camwork).
  10. Código de la Unión de Periodistas de Cuba.
  11. Código de la Asociación de Periódicos de Chile.
  12. Código de la Federación Nacional de Periodistas de Ecuador (Fenape).
  13. Estatuto del Periodista de Honduras.
  14. Código de los periodistas de México.
  15. Código del periodista Panameño.
  16. Código del Colegio de Periodistas de Perú.
  17. Código del Colegio de Periodistas de Venezuela.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | März 2000

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