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.”
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.
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.”