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Draft guidelines for media ethics

2013 Jun 25

By  Malinda Seneviratne


These are days of ‘ethics’ or rather days where ethics are questioned and recommended. President Mahinda Rajapaksa observed that there are those who come up with guidelines for ethical behavior in professional matters and that they themselves can violate these edicts with impunity. He pointed out that politicians can and do infringe, but at the risk of punishment.

Now it is clear that not all those who indulge in unethical (and even illegal behavior) are punished, either by the voters or in terms of the law. This is not because voters are themselves indulgent. Most often they don’t have the choice, for they have to pick from among the unethical and unlawful. As for those who flout the law, there are those who are apprehended and those who get away, the latter usually being endowed with bucks and power, the ultimate insulators against due punishment.
The President also passed the ethics ball back to the media, challenging the fraternity to revisit their own guidelines, amend where necessary or even abandon if deemed unnecessary or impractical.

This Sunday is Poson Poya. That’s an added incentive to seek succor in the word of the Buddha and the pathway to emancipation therein, namely the Arya Ashtangika Marga or the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Of these, the first two are in the realm of ‘wisdom’, the last three refer to ‘mental development’. Right speech, right action and right livelihood come under ‘ethical conduct’. It would be useful then to discuss these in order to shed light on the seemingly vexed question of ethics, media ethics included.

Right speech

This is the first principle of ethical conduct. Media is about words. And of course silences. Both can make and break, save lives and put them at risk, start wars or make peace. The Buddha elaborates thus: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. In short, it is recommended that truth be spoken, spoken in friendly, warm and gentle manner and silence be kept when word does not add to conversation and debate.

Right action

This is the second ethical principle, right action, considers bodily action as form of expression. In essence, the recommendation is to desist from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently, to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and to abstain from sexual misconduct. The terms of ‘activation’ of the principle, it is thus recommended that one be kind and compassionate, honest, respectful of others’ belongings and that one keeps sexual relationships harmless to others. Plagiarism apart, the rest of the guidelines can be taken in metaphoric manner reflection upon which can enhance the ethical character of one’s work.

Right livelihood

This essentially means that one should earn one’s living in a righteous way, i.e. legally and without harm to others. Dealing in weapons, dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), and selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs are not recommended. Again we could use these as metaphors to guide professional conduct.
In general, it would appear that reflection on the possible consequences of a given act, including the act of writing, in terms of the above three frames of reference, the exercise of caution always, the deference to wisdom and compassion, makes for ethical practice.

One could write a thesis on journalistic ethics or a ‘comprehensive’ set of guidelines, but it can be argued that it would all boil down to the above.
Mr. President, I humbly offer that I can do no better than Siddhartha Gauthama, the Compassionate One, the All-Knowing One, the Samma Sambuddha, no less. I can only strive to abide. How about you and your Government?

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