Complaints Committee of “Ethical Charter”: Syrians to hold their press accountable
Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas
The emergence of independent Syrian media institutions after 2011 is a challenge to provide an alternative media sector to the structure of government media outside the framework of state or businessmen ownership, such as newspapers, radio stations, and satellite channels.
Its information and news bulletins must be characterized by objectivity, moral responsibility, and a plurality of opinions, founded and managed by individuals committed to professional values, and not linked to any political groups or other blocs of various interests.
However, in the absence of Syrian laws protecting freedom of expression, these alternative media institutions needed self-regulatory mechanisms to control their work.
At a time when the Syrian government, through its administrative and legal tools, controls all media sectors and limits their function to explaining the policies and positions of the state and the ruling party and mobilizing the masses to support them.
The Internal Regulations of the Syrian Ministry of Information in Article No. 3 states that “the mission of the Ministry of Information is to use all media to enlighten public opinion, consolidate Arab nationalist trends in the country, and support relations with Arab countries and friendly countries in accordance with the principles of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party and state policy.”
However, state agencies, through their government institutions and executive bodies, still control all aspects of the media process. The Syrian regime prohibits genuine political opposition and harshly suppresses freedoms of speech and assembly, according to the Freedom House organization.
The rate of freedom of expression and independence in the Syrian media within the areas under the control of the Syrian regime is zero out of four, according to the organization’s press freedom index for the year 2022.
The Syrian regime also has a monopoly on granting and withdrawing licenses for the establishment of a media institution by giving the absolute right in this matter to the Prime Minister, based on the proposal of the Minister of Information, in addition to the absence of a law for the right of access to information by journalists.
The need for self-regulation
The government’s restriction on the media in Syria has resulted in the need for independent institutions in this sector to have the experience of establishing self-regulation mechanisms in the context of media institutions’ work as an alternative to state media in order to respect the ethics of the profession, and as a remedy to the crisis of media credibility in the country.
In 2015, a group of alternative Syrian media outlets issued a comprehensive charter regulating their work under the name Ethical Charter for Syrian Media (ECSM) within an independent non-governmental organization that is not affiliated with any party.
The ECSM General Assembly approved last February an independent “complaints system” as an additional step to self-regulate the Syrian media sector, a first in Syria and the entire MENA region.
The complaints system was approved with the aim of developing media practice, raising the professional quality of journalistic content published in the various Syrian media, and dealing with complaints received from users of these media about potential violations of journalistic ethics.
This type of press self-regulatory body first appeared in Sweden in 1916 and was later established in most of the European Union and some countries of the world.
UNESCO defines journalistic codes of ethics as a collective body independent of political authority tasked with making decisions on addressing citizens’ complaints against media institutions or related to abuses by journalists.
“Codes of ethics, under their different denominations, are an essential instrument of media self-regulation. They are useful for publishers and owners of media outlets for their protection against legal claims and critics. Further, codes of ethics contribute to the accuracy, fairness, and reliability of the information, therefore also benefiting readers in general,” according to UNESCO.
Individuals have the right to monitor the media
The complaints system within the Ethical Charter works on any professional violation issued by the Charter’s members only, who currently number 26 institutions of newspapers, radio, and satellite channels.
Ghossoun Abou Dahab, Chair of the Board of Directors of the ECSM, told Enab Baladi that “anyone has the right to file a complaint against a media institution that publishes content that violates rights, incites racism and hate speech, or uses an image violating privacy without permission.”
The complaint mechanism is not complicated. Within each material published in a media outlet, there is an icon directly linked to an e-mail of the Complaints Committee, where the Committee investigates the complaint related to the published press content.
In this case, Abou Dahab says, the media outlet against which the complaint was directed cannot see the content of the complaint “in the interest of the issue of transparency, and so that the complaint goes to the competent parties, without the intervention of any other side.”
It is not forbidden for the media outlet to join the Complaints Committee without joining the Ethical Charter because there is complete independence from the management of the Charter by correcting professional errors and issuing reports related to violations of professional rules, according to Abou Dahab.
This self-regulation in the countries of the world is a regulatory mechanism that guarantees the professional practice of journalistic work when combined with strict and specific constitutional and legislative guarantees.
It is a basic reference point that guides journalists regarding their roles, rights, and duties and how to best perform their work.
The legal and regulatory framework in countries is the enabling tool to ensure that the press is able to carry out its work without hindrance.
According to Abou Dahab, the members of the Complaints Committee in the ECSM rely on the ethical references and professional norms of the journalism profession.
All the Committee’s decisions are morally and ethically binding, but these decisions are not legally binding and do not result in any judicial procedures or financial penalties.
However, when a certain media outlet joins the Complaints Committee at the will of those in charge of this medium, it implicitly declares its commitment to all the controls and principles on which the Complaints Committee operates and its commitment to implement all decisions issued by the committee members, which includes legal experts and journalists with extensive work experience.
Thus, the accession of the media outlet to the Complaints Committee system is the basic guarantee of its commitment to any investigation that may examine a specific violation published in its press materials.
The independent media outlets that join the Complaints Committee will ensure that their professional reputation is intact from any complaints they have ignored or any violations committed by them since one of the most important tasks of the Committee is to issue reports and rulings related to these violations.
These reports will be a reference for any party intending to fund independent Syrian media, and it is in its interest that this funding be directed to institutions that are disciplined with the ethics of the profession of journalism.
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