Ethics: A Beacon for Journalists

Fernando Ravsberg*

Photo: Raquel Pérez Díaz
Photo: Raquel Pérez Díaz

HAVANA TIMES — I’ve been teaching a postgraduate course on journalistic ethics at a university outside of Cuba. Even though this country’s reality is very different from the island’s, researching and preparing for my lectures has made me think a lot about Cuban journalism.

Since the times of ancient Greece, ethics has been the branch of philosophy that seeks to determine the goodness or badness of behavior. Fernando Savater defines it as the “art of living, knowing how to live and, as such, the art of discerning what is good and what is bad for us.”

Journalism in general – and Cuban journalism in particular – can find many of the answers it needs in ethics. These professional principles, which we ought to define collectively, not only reflect what we are but what we aspire to be.

UNESCO affirms that information ought to be treated as a social good and not as simply a product. This principle makes journalists and the media “responsible for offering the community the information it needs to remain politically active.”

Having a professional ethic that demands honesty from us is the best and most reliable compass for journalists. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

There can be no democracy or political participation if the population has no access to truthful, complete and timely information that allows it to develop opinions on given matters. One has to be informed in order to effectively participate in a nation’s decisions.

Thus, when a journalist conceals the truth or part of it or manipulates the facts, they are sabotaging people’s ability to participate in politics and undermining the exercise of democracy, understood in its broadest sense, as a government of the people.

The fact a newspaper is public, private or State-run has no bearing on its condition a social good, as defined by UNESCO. This means that any property rights over the media are limited by this obligation to satisfy the needs of citizens.

Accordingly, information should not be treated as a form of merchandise or a tool for political propaganda. Newspaper proprietors, editors or journalists are not the “owners” of the information they publish but the “means” of making it available to people.

The press does not require a censorship apparatus, it needs social control mechanisms. The right to reply is key and, in digital media, this right is alive in the comments made by Internet users, provided the opinions of those who criticize us are also published.

In other countries, there are institutional tools designed to ensure this, from mechanisms for the social control of public media to the figure of a “news ombudsman.” That said, the world is still in diapers in terms of the social control of the media.

Journalistic ethics steers journalists away from the appetite for personal benefit and towards the impartial fulfilment of the common good.

Our ethics should not fluctuate in tune with the interests of political or business groups that control the media. On the contrary, journalism “must disobey the appetite for personal benefit and impartially aim at the common good,” as Jose Marti taught us.

We all know it’s not easy to face up to the “boss” – it cost me my job at the BBC, in fact. The most important aspect of ethics is to know what is right. Ethics is a beacon that points the way, whatever the circumstances may be.

The road to follow is the road leading to more ethical conduct. At the beginning of the revolution, journalists created a mechanism to report on the lies spread by the private media they worked in. Today, blogs allow us to be truer to ourselves and our social role.

Cuba needs a code of ethics, developed by its own journalists, suited to our times and geared towards the future, where the dreams of the majority point to. It needs a code that will guide us and prevent us from falling into the temptation of extremes.

I’m not talking about a manual that has all the answers or punitive norms that must be strictly applied. Such a code would merely be a series of principles to appeal to on a daily basis. Gabriel Garcia Marquez used to say ethics must accompany the media and journalists “like buzzing accompanies flies.”

It may seem like a pipe-dream, but aiming high in our ethical aspirations is well worth it. Jose Ingenieros used to say that “humanity does not achieve what idealists want in terms of individual perfection, but it always goes further than it would have without the effort.”

2 thoughts on “Ethics: A Beacon for Journalists

  • To include the words “Cuban journalism” and “ethics” in the same breath is an abomination. My wife was the morning newsreader for ICRT for several years. She could not change one jot or tittle of the news she was given to read during her daily morning newscast to 4 million Cubans. Every news item written had to be approved by a representative from the Ministry of Information Political propaganda office. There were numerous times when some party official would call the News Director to either plant or kill a proposed news item. In the news room, ICRT had satellite feeds from all the major news outlets around the world. The “journalists” would cut and paste from these feeds to create news “from around the world” that fit the Castro narrative. Ethics has nothing to do with journalism in Cuba.

  • I think that it would be fair to describe Fernando Ravsberg’s political views as left of centre – and that does not mean that he is unethical, he like all of us is entitled to his views.
    But I note with interest his comment about being fired by the BBC – an organization which has been described in these columns by one contributor as being of the left, although as I have sometimes agreed with its views and sometimes not, I have always thought it to be without remarkable bias.This is one of the difficulties that face free-market media.
    It used to be in the UK that one could reasonably define newspapers as supporting one political party or another. The Guardian was of the left (Labour), the Observer was central (Liberal) and the Telegraph was of the right (Conservative). In consequence one could read their respective articles taking into account those leanings.
    In North America however the definitions are more difficult. It is clear that the Murdoch empire supports Republican (including the Christian right) views – how they must love Trump, and the New York Times supports?
    In Canada, the Globe and Mail is viewed by Conservatives as Liberal and the National Post as Conservative by Liberals. I receive the Globe and Mail daily when in Canada and find that I agree with its interpretations about 50% of the time.
    What has this got to do with Cuba?
    Well in Cuba there is no choice, the media only reflects one view, that of the Castro family regime. The ethics discussed by Fernando Ravsberg have no role to play! To speak of Cuban journalists is to speak of only one political view, that which is dictated by the regime. There is no criticism of the regime or of it’s decisions. Any articles contradicting the views promoted by the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of Cuba would be defined as dissention – and for dissenters in Cuba there is but one destination!
    Yes Fernando, to think of the application of ethics in Cuban media is a pipe-dream! Watch Randy Alonso Falcon facilitating discussion between people holding identical political views – in journalistic terms a nightmare!

Comments are closed.