24 March 1994
COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMITTEE OF MINISTERS
Reply to Recommendation 1215 (1993)
on the ethics of journalism
(adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 21 March 1994
at the 510th meeting of the Ministers' Deputies)
1. The Committee of Ministers shares the view of the Parliamentary Assembly that European citizens from the different Council of Europe member States increasingly share the same media facilities within a common European information area. It has sought the opinion of the Steering Committee on the Mass Media (CDMM) with regard to paragraph 5 of Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1215 (1993) on the ethics of journalism.
2. There is a general agreement on the importance of independent and pluralistic media for ensuring the free flow of information and ideas within States and across frontiers, and the Committee of Ministers endorses the particular points made by the CDMM in its opinion.
It is common ground that the individual, and society in general, have a right freely to express, communicate and receive information and ideas and that this contributes to the health of a democratic society. The importance of the media in this regard is incontestable. The media should, therefore, carry out their activities in a responsible manner.
The crucial point is to determine the appropriate legislative and institutional arrangements for guaranteeing the above matters. The Committee of Ministers stresses in this regard that recourse to legislative intervention is by no means the most appropriate device for reconciling media freedom with other rights and values. For this reason, the Committee of Ministers is unable to accept the conclusions of the Assembly set out in Resolution 1003 (1993), or, consequently, to adopt a declaration on the lines the Assembly has proposed. Such an approach might well encourage and enable policy makers to interfere with media freedom under the guise of promoting of responsible journalism.
3. As regards the provisions of Recommendation 1215 (1993), the Committee of Ministers feels, regarding paragraph 5.i, that the reference to "the organisation of public media" may lead to confusion. If this expression is taken to mean public broadcasting media, it recalls that the public service principles which underpin the functioning of such media require the presentation of facts and opinions in a balanced and fair manner. Commercial broadcasters without any explicit public service obligation are also expected to communicate news and information in accordance with the same principles. In this regard the provisions of Article 7, paragraph 3 of the European Convention on Transfrontier Television highlight the responsibilities of both public service and commercial broadcasters to ensure "that news fairly presents facts and events and encourages the free formation of opinions".
4. More generally, the Committee of Ministers would prefer to speak of "the impartiality" of the presentation of information, rather than "neutrality" of information in paragraph 5.i.
5. Concerning the written press sector, the Committee of Ministers notes the particular difficulties accompanying any attempts to promote the presentation of information in an impartial manner. Newspapers, more often than not, follow a particular editorial line which colours the way in which news is presented. The important point is that such presentation should enable the reading public to distinguish between fact and opinion.
6. Paragraph 5.i also refers to the need to ensure "plurality of opinions" as a principle to be followed by the public media. The Committee of Ministers notes in this regard that public service media are expected to cater for the interests of the public as a whole and to present a wide variety of opinions, information and views. Moreover, the Committee of Ministers wishes to encourage policies which ensure the existence of a plurality of independent and autonomous media.
7. Furthermore, as regards the need to ensure "gender balance" in the media, the Committee of Ministers accepts that, while admitting that gender balance within a media enterprise can be promoted by legislation concerning, for example sex discrimination and equal opportunity, different considerations apply to the promotion of equality between women and men through the media. The primary responsibility for promoting this goal resides with the media professionals themselves. Given the importance of editorial independence, the Committee of Ministers would caution against legislative solutions and would advocate instead codes of conduct being drawn up by the professionals themselves.
8. With regard to the need to ensure a right of reply, the Committee of Ministers recalls its Resolution (74) 26 on the right of reply - Position of the individual in relation to the press.
9. As far as paragraph 5.ii is concerned, the Committee of Ministers is particularly opposed to the idea of a "European Media Ombudsman" within the Council of Europe with the specific task of verifying the accuracy of information. In particular, the Committee of Ministers expresses concern that this would lead to the creation of a sort of European information authority, with the task of policing the accuracy and impartiality of information. This would run directly counter to the Council of Europe's role as a guardian of press freedoms.
10. With regard to paragraph 5.iii, the Committee of Ministers endorses the need to further media education in schools so as to teach individuals to acquire a critical understanding of the media. In this context, the Committee of Ministers is of the opinion that genuinely independent media associations can play a useful role.
11. With regard to paragraph 5.iv, it is recalled that the 4th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy, to be held in Prague on 7-8 December 1994, may provide the occasion for the adoption of a policy statement on journalistic freedoms and human rights, which the Committee of Ministers would welcome.
12. In conclusion, the Committee of Ministers does not feel it appropriate to adopt a Declaration on the ethics of journalism along the lines proposed by the Assembly in its Resolution 1003 (1993).