Open door: The independent pursuit of freedom: The readers’ editor o

Open door: The independent pursuit of freedom: The readers’ editor on … a
conference of European press councils in Cyprus

The Guardian – United Kingdom
Oct 16, 2004


Last week I went to the annual huddle of the Alliance of Independent
Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE) to speak about the still fairly rare
form of self-regulation that we try to practise at the Guardian. I
was invited by the hosts, the Cyprus Media Complaints Commission,
and we met in the divided city of Nicosia.

Unless you are involved in the self-regulation of the press you are
unlikely to have heard of the AIPCE, a useful and, deliberately,
fairly informal association of self-regulation bodies that began
meeting about six years ago at the joint suggestion of the British
Press Complaints Commission and its counterpart in the Netherlands.

In the relatively short period that it has been in existence, it
has become a major forum for exchanging ideas, sharing experience,
and in particular, most recently, for the support and encouragement
of the press councils that are emerging in eastern Europe – in the
former Soviet Union, in former Yugoslavia, and in countries such as
Bulgaria. Half of the independent press councils in the world have
been formed since 1990, and a third since 2000. The growth among
members of the European alliance reflects that pattern.

The new European members have found among their colleagues in the
older established bodies – such as the PCC in Britain – a ready
response to requests for help and advice. The PCC has, in fact,
provided consultative services since not long after its foundation
in 1991. An assistant director, William Gore, coordinates its work
overseas. He says: “It is important for us to get involved when and
where we are wanted, if our help is sought.” The director of the PCC,
Tim Toulmin, is keen on this work, like his predecessor, Guy Black.

The PCC has had a direct involvement in, for example, the establishment
of a press council in Bosnia- Herzogovina where it went, initially,
at the invitation of a European commission agency there. The former
acting chairman of the PCC, Professor Robert Pinker, having gone
there as a consultant, became the first international chairman of
the Bosnian press council, a post to which he expects a Bosnian to
be elected in May next year.

Prof Pinker told me, “The Bosnian press council could not have started
under more difficult circumstances. Now it is fair to call it one
of the truly national bodies. We are in the process of extending the
range of members to make it even more representative.”

The PCC has also been quick to put its experience, on request, at the
disposal of projects initiated by others. I have personal experience
of one of these, a programme to establish press and media councils in
two pilot schemes in Russia, one in Nizhny Novgorod, to the east of
Moscow, and the other in the south at Rostov-on-Don. I visited both
places with PPC representatives when the project was just beginning.

The guiding hand has been provided by the Programme in Comparative
Media Law and Policy at Oxford University. It has worked with the
Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute and local people over the past
three years and – as the Russian delegates reported at the Cyprus
conference – the scheme is now showing positive signs of success. I
hope to report on that more fully later this year.

The problems faced by the media in this and other areas represented
at the conference are daunting. There is something chastening to
see the dedication and courage being brought to the task of trying
to develop and protect a press free from state interference and
corruption. These efforts are often taking place in a context in
which there is no tradition of the principal elements in society even
meeting and talking, let alone trusting each other.

The key requirement that any press council must fulfil to be worthy
of the name, in the opinion of members of the European alliance,
is independence – it needs great effort in many countries to carry
it beyond aspiration.

Delegates in Cyprus came from, among other places, Albania, Armenia,
Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, and, as I have
already mentioned, Russia and Bosnia. The struggle they are involved
in provides a reminder that self-regulation, with the long and often
difficult process of agreeing an editorial code that usually precedes
it, promotes and protects a free press against repression. It is easy
to forget this as we pick over the imperfections of our own system.

Ian Mayes is vice president of the Organisation of News
Ombudsmen. Readers may contact the office of the readers’ editor by
calling 0845 451 9589 (UK only, calls are at local rate) or +44 (0)20
7713 4736, 11am to 5pm UK time Monday to Friday excluding UK bank
holidays. Mail to Readers’ editor, The Guardian, 119 Farringdon Road,
London EC1R 3ER, UK. Fax +44 (0)20 7239 9997. [email protected]

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress