When a reporter joins The Peninsula newspaper in Doha, he or she is required to sign for the receipt and acceptance of a Code of Ethics document.
It’s an unspectacular looking 16 page manual, printed in-house on A4 paper. There are three main sections; a code of ethics for journalists, a list of journalists’ rights and a chapter titled ‘Employees’ Duties and Non-permissible Actions’.
“Last year, we terminated the contract of one of our reporters, he didn’t follow the code,” editor in chief Khalid Al-Sayed told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF). “He violated the power of the media. The journalist signed that he wouldn’t use the media for self-interest when he started. We then received a complaint from a company saying he was using their facilities as a reporter and he told them he would give them some coverage, which he didn’t.”
The code, known internationally as a code of conduct, has been in place for two years at the daily, which is one of the three major English language newspapers here.
But a poll conducted by the DCMF has revealed that Al-Sayed is in the minority, when it comes to self regulation.
The Peninsula is the only English language newspaper with a written code of conduct. Its counterpart, Al Sharq, is the only paper out of four Arabic dailies which has a similar document titled ‘Media Work Code,’ as far as the DCMF was able to investigate.
Working without a written code
Neither the Gulf Times, Qatar’s biggest and oldest English newspaper, or the Qatar Tribune has a code in place.
Editors at Al Watan and Al Arab said they did not have a code either. Al Raya’s editor was unavailable for comment.
“In terms of a written code of conduct, no we don’t have one,” said Neil Cook, Gulf Times editor. At his paper and others, however, a list of rules are made known to journalists verbally.
“Whenever a new journalist comes here, during the interview process I tell them certain things. The news editor is very good at conveying the culture of our newspaper,” explained Cook.
Before he joined, over four years ago, there was little direction and no guidelines on ethics which came with consequences.
“There was an unhealthy relationship between advertisers and journalists, for example. When I came, I told every member of staff, if I find them receiving any financial inducements, they would be dismissed.”
He also made smart dress mandatory for journalists when attending press conferences and enforced a rule that his employees should commit to balanced reporting.
“We always give the other party a right of reply,” he said. “The problem is a lot of PR people, companies and institutions ignore the request for comment. There is a policy we have adopted; we give 48 hours to them to respond, if they haven’t, we will publish that story within that timeline anyway.”
Similarly at the Qatar Tribune, unwritten rules exist.
“Instead of having a code, we just tell new people when they join the dos and don’ts,” said editor Ajit Kumar Jha. He has worked at the paper for over five years.
While a spokesman from Al Arab said the newspaper does not have a written code, he added that staff do “take into account the ethics of the profession recognised in the state of Qatar.”
There is also a system in place to monitor its journalism.
“We review the articles written by our journalists. The revision is done by editors,” said the source. “When there is any violation of journalistic customs of the state of Qatar, we give guidance and correct any material that contradicts the custom.”
No universal reference
In some countries, a code is written by industry members who, by signing, agree collectively to stick to the rules it has set out. In others, the code is laid out by an independent body.
In Doha, there is no such document.
The number of reporters, writers and editors who could use one is in the low-hundreds, when including publications of all languages.
“Maybe there should be a written code,” said Cook, the Gulf Times editor. “If it’s a policy of self-regulation, yes I’m in support of that rather than some draconian law.”
But with four Arabic daily newspapers and three English, three weekly Malayalam weeklies and dozens of magazines in Qatar, there could be some difficulties in implementing a universal code.
“The culture of Arabic journalism is different to English journalism,” said Kumar Jha. “Why should we come up with a code of conduct? The state would just manipulate us around that, it’s our freedom,” he added.
And while The Peninsula’s Al-Sayed reckons “it would be an excellent idea if we can do something in Qatar that all newspapers sign and establish,” he also warned “what would suit in English may not be the same in Arabic.”
Members of the Arabic press welcomed the idea, but stressed they would have to be involved in its construction.
“ We would sign a national document of media conduct rules,” was Al Watan’s response. “For media institutions worldwide, a code of conduct is like a like road map that determines work mechanisms, rules and defines the mission of media outlets.”
Editors at Sharq and Al Arab said they would also consider signing up.
Debate in Doha likely to continue
The editors in Qatar, who are still awaiting an update of the 32 year old media law, could use a code as an opportunity to set some clear standards in the newsroom.
For Al-Sayed, the code he’s implemented “is very important. It gives us direction and we have a more professional organisation. By having it, we are showing we are committed to what we say, and we practice it. It’s not just a theory.”
The spokesman at Al Watan said he thought that Qatar’s journalism community has long suffered without a code of conduct.
“Media work in Qatar suffered a great of confusion between news and opinion as well as giving too much importance in publications to minor news,” he said. “The lack of a code of conduct has also encouraged the giving of gifts, affecting both journalists and the prioritisation of the news agenda.”
But for every supportive voice, there are those who deny such a collaborative code could be of any use.
Kumar Jha , for example, believes combined regulation between media organisations “never works,” and that it is “put in by the biggest player and imposed on smaller newspapers.”
It is likely that the debate on whether to have a code of practice in each office will continue.
Published on the Doha Centre for Media Freedom website on 13th November, 2011