Journalists have been urged to live above reproach as they put out information that sometimes border on the private lives of public officials.
At a forum organised by the National Media Commission (NMC) and the Friedrich Ebert Shiftung (FES) in Accra, journalists were also charged to be professional and circumspect and publish only relevant private information on public officials.
A lecturer at the School of Communications Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon, Dr Anthony Bonnah-Koomson, and the Editor of the Ghanaian Times, Ms Adjoa Yeboah-Afari, were unanimous on this at the forum, which was on the topic, “How much of the public officer’s private life is public?”
Some participants, however, said the right to privacy was lost by public officials when they assumed public office which was resourced by public taxes.
In his presentation, Dr Bonnah-Koomson conceded that “balancing journalistic right of exposure or freedom of inquiry with a healthy respect for the privacy rights of public officials does not come easy”.
On a practical and legal basis, he said the general view was that the minimal expectations of public officers were integrity and competence, which were the monitoring and evaluating yardsticks for assessing performance.
Based on that, individuals devoting themselves to a service in which the public had interest could not expect anything less than the public’s interest in their lives, including the media’s exposure, he averred.
He said a major consideration to be made by journalists in the balancing act was the extent to which such matters benefited the public as gauged by the degree of public interest.
“Whereas in the eyes of the law there may be little about the lives of public officers that is sacred, moral principles exist to temper such violations,” Dr Bonnah-Koomson pointed out.
He said “social utility”, that is, the relevance of the information to the understanding of issues by the audience, “respect for persons” and “justice”, that is, whether the violation of privacy was deserved under the circumstance, coupled with the “good faith efforts on the part of the practitioner”, were important guidelines for journalists in such matters.
Using case studies, he said a determination of what was “public interest” and “public curiosity” provided a useful clue for journalists in publishing private information on public office holders.
Dr Bonnah-Koomson asked media organisations to institute “codes of conduct” in-house for employee journalists which would be an “institution specific contractual instrument for corporate enforcement or sanctions”.
He also proposed the institution of a culture of discussing ethical problems within media institutions, orientation programmes on ethical policies for the newly employed and “in-house ethics committees” to deal with ethical violations in the manner of “naming and shaming colleagues”.
He said in the final analysis, the consciences of journalists in what was right and fair, which was an individual responsibility, was vital.
“In this regard, the responsibility is on the individual journalist to develop a high professional stance, namely, a stance that is above reproach,” he said.
Ms Yeboah-Afari said the guiding light for all journalists had to be their professionalism in the issue, which was rooted in accuracy, fairness and objectivity.
She said public officials and the incumbent deserved respect, particularly those in elective office, because it was a case of the “survival of the fittest”.
That, according to her, was important to attract the best calibre of people into those positions.
However, since people seeking elective office often asked for the assistance of the media to project them to the public, it was only logical that the media held them accountable, hence, the scrutiny by the media of their lives, she claimed.
“Obviously, there is a certain level of exemplary conduct that is expected of certain people, such as Members of Parliament (MPs), because they help formulate the laws that guide the country’s conduct,” she said.
Using recent examples in the media in which the private lives of certain public figures had been highlighted, Ms Yeboah-Afari indicated that although the love life of a female CEO was not relevant in a story on a row between her and her staff over a purely administrative matter, an MP who beat the wife could not expect privacy over the matter as it had a bearing on the MP’s contribution to bills on gender violence.
On recent media reports on the health condition of the presidential candidate of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), Prof Atta Mills, Ms Yeboah-Afari stressed that the framers of the Constitution made allowances for human illnesses and frailties.
“We should be able to separate behaviour that will impact negatively on a public official’s ability to do his or her work well from behaviour that is, to put it bluntly, none of our business,” she concluded.
The forum on media and elections, according to the NMC, would be instituted monthly to provide a platform for dialogue on issues prior to the elections at the end of the year.
DAILY GRAPHIC, MARCH 8, 2008