Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V.

Chapter 8 – Ethics and general legal principals

Context can also defame. So everyone needs to know about libel law – including the person who writes the headline, lays out the page or writes the continuity links. When the late Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda was life-president of Malawi, he fired a newspaper editor for the defamatory implications of placing a headline story on one of his speeches too close to a large photograph of a witch-doctor.
  • Journalists’ freedom to operate is governed by an international legal framework that guarantees significant rights, as well as by national legal codes that are sometimes more restrictive.
  • The ‘public interest’ is a key concept in defence against legal attacks and in making decisions. It refers to information which the public will be better-off knowing or worse-off not knowing – not simply what interests the public.
  • Defamation laws exist to protect individuals’ reputation and dignity. Defamation is the crime of publishing something that could tend to lower a person’s reputation. Publication includes republication from another medium, a quote, or Internet publication. The key defence is that what was published was “true and in the public interest”, but to succeed this must be provable in terms of your country’s legal code.
  • Keep all materials relevant to a potentially defamatory story until the statute of limitations runs out, and keep track of witnesses, too.
  • Everybody – including public figures – has the right to privacy. You have to be able to demonstrate the relevance of their private to their public life to justify breaching privacy.
  • Official secrets laws exist nominally to protect national security, but can be and are used to restrict press freedom. The climate of official secrecy has in many cases been made tighter by anti-terrorism legislation.
  • You need to know the press laws of your country thoroughly, and seek detailed advice for specific problems. Don’t rely on generic tips and hints.
  • All reporting requires ethical decision-making at every stage.
  • The guiding principles are: tell the truth; minimise harm; stay independent and be accountable.
  • Use a consistent process (such as the ‘ethics roadmap’ given here) for reaching ethical decisions.

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