Specifics of the legal and ethics domain under WP1: transcript of the podcast episode #3

Mediadelcom podcasts started to introduce in more detail the domains, which as the hypothesis suggests create the most of risks and opportunities for media. These domains are: legal and ethical, journalism, media competencies, media usage patterns.

Podcast episode #3 provided some insights into the legal-ethical domain.

Contributors of the Podcast #3. Snapshot from the Teams screen.

Prof. Halliki Harro-Loit, the Mediadelcom project coordinator, provided the general introduction into the particular domain saying:

The legal and ethical domain provides a normative frame for the other domains of journalism, media usage and competency. It’s also true that legal regulation and the accountability system have both been described by previous research teams. Still, this domain is important for the risk analysis, especially because we have to check first if there is a legal basis for deliberative communication. And then, of course, it’s more even more important how the legal regulation is implemented in national contexts.

Marcus Kreutler from the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany, has been working on the aspects and variables for the accountability (largely self-regulation) topic, for which he provided an abstract:

Our domain of regulation on the whole is concerned with what the media and what journalists can or should do. This concerns mainly two questions. First, what can be published, in legal terms, that would be a freedom of expression. And second, how to gather the material to be published, in legal terms, that is freedom of information.

Liberal constitutions try not to interfere with what can be said or what can be published for very good reasons. And there are only few exceptions defined by law. But that doesn’t mean that everything else is acceptable or helpful for the society or from the perspective of media ethics. And this is where media accountability actually comes into play. We are looking at non-state mechanisms that try to hold the media accountable to society, which they are supposed to work for.

Ideally, media accountability is filling that relatively huge space that is free of legal regulation. But it can also be seen as a step ahead to avoid legal interference. When media accountability instruments are working, legal action in that field is simply unnecessary. That leaves a kind of freedom that is actually desirable. If we’re looking at it historically, institutions like voluntary press councils or ombudsmen were often an attempt to prevent external legal interference. These statutory institutions or state institutions could govern what the media are supposed to do. So it can be a way to safeguard the autonomy of the media. It doesn’t mean that the reel of journalism or media ethics is necessarily narrower on Twitter than the legal framework is. To give you an example, journalism ethics demand that journalistic sources are protected by the journalists. But penal laws, on the other hand, might require to identify these sources.

The mechanisms of media accountability differ in each country context. So this is an important area of research within the Mediadelcom project. What we are trying to do here is to look at both agents within but also outside journalism to get a complete picture. So if we are looking at media accountability mechanisms, from a very narrow point of view, we are basically concentrating on journalistic agents and mechanisms that are in place inside journalism. But of course, the picture can be broadened to have a look at other agents who also play a role here.

If you think of some countries, particularly in Northern Europe where we have a very highly institutionalized framework of media self-regulation, of media accountability, we are quickly thinking of press councils, or established codes of ethics or ombudsmen that work either for the industry as a whole or for single media houses.

But there could be other means as well. Aspects like media-critical coverage, both inside journalism, but also outside journalism that play an important role. The risk really lies in the mixture of mechanisms in daily action. If you think of press councils again, a council to deal with audience complaints was introduced pretty early in the United Kingdom, for example, but it failed to be very stable in the long run. So other mechanisms could really come into play.

The Greek team from ELIAMEP has been working on the legal variables. Anna Kandyla spoke about these considerations.

For identifying risks and opportunities for deliberative communication in the legal domain, we have chosen to follow the fundamental rights perspective. Fundamental rights do provide the necessary basis for the democratic process for citizens to be able to take part in decision-making to exercise control over it in democracies. Fundamental rights provide some consistency, when it comes to approaching various legal areas.

Within the framework of the Mediadelcom project, we have decided to take free speech as the backbone, but to dissect the freedom to freely express opinions from the right to seek, receive and impart information. We single out freedom of expression as the first conceptual variable in the study of the legal domain, and freedom of information as the second. Freedom of expression will be covered through a set of operational variables that we are developing, aspects that are related to the freedom to express ideas, views and opinions. Freedom of information – this conceptual variable will focus on elements specifically related to access to public information.

We will base assessing risk and opportunities on two criteria. The first is the existence of regulatory safeguards that create an enabling environment for the exercise of each of these freedoms in the countries covered by our project. And so we’re not merely interested in the formal existence of particular provisions but whether these provisions are really creating conditions for exercising these freedoms. And of course, international codes and conventions and other standards of good practice are relevant for forming this evaluation.

Still, assessing risks and opportunities is not just a matter of evaluating the relevant legal codes. Sometimes we have them looking good on paper but, in practice, they are not enforced. Thus, the implementation of the rule of law has important implications for freedoms of expression and information. Hence, our second criterion focuses on the effective application of rules and standards. In assessing risks and opportunities, we try to take both dimensions into account, and see how they interact and what the end result would be.

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