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SPJ calls on occupiers of Iraq to avoid censorship


Robert Leger, President, 417/836-1113 or rleger@spj.org
Ian Marquand, Freedom of Information Committee co-chair, 406/542-4400 or ian@kpax.com
Maria Trombly, International Journalism Committee Chair, 212/931-0152 or maria@trombly.com

INDIANAPOLIS—Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists said today that occupation forces in Iraq should adhere to the ideals of democracy and freedom of expression, and not impose any official controls on the content of the news media in Iraq.

The Associated Press reported that the U.S.-led occupation authority is drafting a “code of conduct” for the Iraqi news media that would “stifle intemperate speech that could incite violence and hinder efforts to build a civil society.” Reuters reported that a group of Iraqi, Arab, European and U.S. experts meeting under the aegis of the U.S. Department of State had drafted a code with “special provisions to combat defamation and incitement of hatred or violence.”

SPJ believes that any efforts at censorship will backfire and add to the suspicion, resentment and hatred of occupying forces, which have already been well documented. Occupation officials have legitimate concerns about incitements to hate and violence, but those can be dealt with in Iraq’s growing marketplace of ideas.

SPJ leaders said the only acceptable enforcement of press guidelines is self-enforcement.

“Whatever code is established should be voluntary,” said SPJ president Robert Leger, editorial-page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “It could, for example, encourage Iraqi media to point out poor performance by other Iraqi media, such as reprinting false or anti-Semitic material.”

Self-enforcement is a main tenet of the SPJ Code of Ethics, which says news media should be accountable and hold each other accountable for observance of the code’s other main tenets, which include accuracy, minimizing harm to subjects, sources and colleagues and avoiding conflicts of interest.

As a template for development of a robust and responsible news media in Iraq, SPJ calls on occupying forces and Iraqi journalists to consider its Code of Ethics -- a voluntary set of guidelines that has well served American journalists and their readers, viewers and listeners, and could do likewise in Iraq, said Leger.

In addition to hurting U.S. standing in the world community, official control of Iraqi media could also hurt American journalists working abroad, said Maria Trombly, chair of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee.

“If the U.S. starts putting restrictions on Iraqi journalists, it would give ammunition to other countries that restrict American journalists working within their borders,” said Trombly, a veteran international reporter and a columnist for Securities Industry News. ”It could also encourage repercussions against our foreign correspondents, many of whom regularly risk their lives to get important stories.”
SPJ cited such concerns this year when it objected to the exclusion of Al-Jazeera TV network journalists from the trading floors of the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ stock market. “As the news media and its technology make our world smaller, we must take care to show mutual respect while holding journalism to the highest standards,” said SPJ President-Elect Gordon “Mac” McKerral, editor of The Business Journal Serving Greater Tampa Bay.
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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