Media ethics in the third world - a tough balancing act? Photo courtesy of: http://www.pjreview.info/issues/11_02_05.html
Media ethics in the third world – a tough balancing act? Photo courtesy of: http://www.pjreview.info/issues/11_02_05.html

The journalists’ role in developing countries is complex and contradictory. There is a set of universal principles of journalism which include freedom of expression, objectivity, truth and social responsibility. There is controversial debate surrounding the question as to whether these principles, code of ethics and professional ideology inherent in western journalism actually translate into practice for the development journalist in the third world, where conditions are very different. According to Musa and Dumatob (2007) in post colonial societies there are tensions between social responsibility and journalistic principles and the practicalities of implementing these principles. For them development journalism is distinct from other forms of journalism; professional values of development journalism do not align with the western model.

What is a development journalist? A simple question but extremely hard to answer. Are they truth tellers? Civic advocates? Liberators? Watchdogs? Government propagandists? The truth is they still aren’t sure themselves:

“Development journalism eschews a dogmatic adversarial posture toward government…it doesn’t require journalists to become lapdogs” Musa and Domatob (2007).

They argue that a balance needs to be found between these two extremes. Sooner or later development journalists need to decide what role they want to play and stick to it. Is there a need for a re-examination of media practices for the third world?

The media as a lapdog?

As Latin American countries gained independence their leaders saw the media as an institution that could and would play a salient role in fulfilling development goals and national building (Schramm 1964).  Media is still seen as an instrument of modernisation imposed by the west as development journalists are expected to partner with the government in a drive to improve socio-economic conditions for the people. Conversely in developed countries the media emerged as part of the economic structure of these countries.

The media as the peoples’ advocate?

To return briefly to the argument of Musa and Domatob, they stipulate that development journalists can take on the role of ‘peoples advocate’ – giving a ‘voice to the voiceless’. Latin America boasts a plethora of examples of the ways in which development journalists have empowered the marginalised and raised indigenous issues onto the governmental agenda. “The People’s Radio” of Vila Nossa Senhora in Brazil powerfully illustrates Musa and Domatobs’ argument.

Vila Nossa Senhora Aparecida today - photo by Vitor Rodrigo Dias courtesy of http://images.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://www.panoramio.com/photos/original/7173268.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.panoramio.com/photo/7173268&usg=__D9VJTPrbs_g3-LNQq4wnw3YQx8A=&h=1536&w=2048&sz=795&hl=en&start=2&tbnid=11NDGQqrifwWDM:&tbnh=113&tbnw=150&prev=/images%3Fq%3DVila%2BNossa%2BSenhora%2BAparecida%26gbv%3D2%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DG

Vila Nossa Senhora Aparecida today - photo by Vitor Rodrigo Dias courtesy of http://images.google.co.uk/imgres?

This community radio project was established on outskirts of Sao Paolo in the 1980s by migrant workers to provide them with the means of receiving information about government events; radio was also used as a medium through which they could voice their concerns and initiate debate. TV programmes were westernised in outlook and portrayed industrial southern Brazil and its relatively affluent lifestyle as the true urban Brazil. This image attracted rural populations in their droves and ultimately led to problems with integration and identity for these once subsistence farmers. The radio project was inspired by the use of loudspeakers as popular radios in Villa El Salvador on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. The station was set up using a basic tape recorder, amplifier, microphone and loudspeaker wired to the church tower and transmission was over an area of 3 km. The broad aims of the station were to use the oral medium as a vehicle for mobilisation and empowerment.

‘In Shanty towns nobody knows how to read…people have an aversion to paper’ (Sao Paolo News 1986).

Radio reiterated the importance of the oral culture for rural migrants and overcame the hurdle of illiteracy. After the success of this project 19 sister stations sprang up across the region under the umbrella of the ‘Project for Non Written Communication of the Eastern Zone’. The group developed communication and technical skills at a grassroots level, ideas were exchanged between communities and locally produced programmes and audio visual materials were made. A news group was created to read daily papers and journals as well as providing a critical commentary on them. Schelling (1999) describes this as the development of a ‘new communicational order’ where communication is participatory, two way and dialogic. The poor were not seen merely as receivers of information but producers of it.

The results of this communication network are far reaching. Firstly radio played an educative role by raising awareness of social and political issues and providing basic information to help the community. It also created a sense of community and celebrated the values of rural culture for these migrants.

Secondly it created a culture of resistance by giving these migrants the power to resist marginalisation and push for development from below. This is an example of how the ‘radio’ can be a double edged sword for the development journalist. Empowering the masses also politicises them and can ultimately lead to rebellion. This brings me back to my first point that the development journalist is stuck in the middle of the government and the people unsure of who he/she is serving. On one hand the development journalist is partnering with the government to disseminate its literature and publicise its events. On the other by educating workers about their rights and providing them with civic media tools they are breeding discontent and workers begin to demand justice and equality. This inevitably means that authoritarian governments will limit work like this as it threatens their own power systems.

Projects such as the ‘Peoples’ Radio’ have developed from the belief that Latin America needed to follow an alternative route of development that reflected its historical, social and economic identity. Today most Latin America post-colonial societies are experiencing waves of democratisation with communication at the centre. Globalisation is constantly changing and re-defining the roles and impacts of development journalists. The question is how will they adapt to these changing landscapes and best serve both the government and the people?

Can they find the balance between working with these new governments to aide development and becoming their lapdogs and propaganda tools?

 With so many competing interests, contradictory principles and unforeseen effects of reporting it’s proving a challenge.

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