In March 2015 a group of journalists and scholar-practitioners in social science from the South Caucasus met in Tbilisi, with an aim to develop a code of ethics for journalists covering conflicts in the region. The following code of ethics was jointly prepared during the meeting and developed later with the feedback from an expanded group of journalists.
The working meeting was organized by the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation. The meeting was supported through contribution of the Black Sea Trust Fund.
The range of ethical guidelines, presented in this document, reflect the depth of experience accumulated in the field of conflict sensitive journalism over decades, and can be seen as universal and applicable to various conflict situations. At the same time, the guidelines below also reflect the cultural and political particularities as well as regional conflicts of the South Caucasus.
The authors’ point of departure in developing this code f ethics, is that journalists writing about conflicts and covering military operations and clashes, have the power to create and shape conflict discourses, thus influencing the development of existing conflicts, the emergence of new ones, or alternatively, their peaceful transformation.
In the broadest sense, even journalists who have never been to the areas of direct military operations and actual clashes, contribute to the construction of the discourse, the reasons, events and consequences of the conflict among their respective societies vis-à-vis the coverage they produce and stories they publish.
Modern journalism in the South Caucasus formed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to lack of skilled and well-trained journalists often those entering the field were vaguely familiar with the contemporary methods and requirements of journalism let alone conflict sensitive reporting. As a result the discourse around the conflict was rather mixed – often aggressive than neutral. Lacking necessary professional training and experience, journalists often unknowingly have become a side to the conflict, contributing to its intractability rather than offer an objective and balanced coverage.
The guidelines provided in this code aim to promote professional approaches and regulations for the coverage and analysis of conflict developments in the South Caucasus.
In the preparation of the document the authors focused on the principles of professional journalism, which includes guidelines urging the journalists not to become instruments of ideology, often a tool for creating and deepening conflicts further.
This code of ethics is a call for the regional journalists to position themselves for covering and analyzing conflicts in an honest and professional manner.
1. Do No Harm
- Do Not Contribute To PROLIFIRATION or ESCALATION Of The Conflict
- Be honest and refrain from presenting unverified information ;
- Do not plagiarize – make citations and references. It is paramount to cite all the sources that have been used in the material; attribute information received and make explicit what information comes from where;
- Do not withhold/cover up information, with a possible exception of cases when lives are at stake;
- Inform editors when emotionally connected to the story;
- Exercise care when reporting on marginalized groups (e.g. refugees, IDPs, soldiers and their families, minorities);
- Do not stigmatize, as such reporting may have a negative effect on personal and professional lives of individuals or groups;
- Exercise caution when reporting about casualties. Refrain from publishing details of individuals affected until it is confirmed that the relatives have been informed.
2. Do Not Become Part Of Information Wars
- Do not take sides or position yourself as advocates or representing one of the sides to the conflict;
- Adhere to professional standards of journalism and do not prioritize or act in support of any ideological or national positions;
- Avoid focusing on the suffering and fears of only one party. This divides the parties into ‘villains’ and ‘victims’ and suggests that punishing the ‘villains’ represents a solution. Instead always provide the suffering, fears, and grievances of all parties;
- Avoid victimizing language, such as ‘devastated’, ‘defenseless’, which only tells us what has been done to or could be done for a group of people by others. Instead report on what has been done by the people;
- Avoid the use of demonizing adjectives like ‘vicious’, ‘cruel’, ‘brutal’, or ‘barbaric’. Instead report about what you know of the wrongdoing and give as much information as you can about the reliability of other people’s reports or descriptions of it;
- Clearly differentiate between representation of facts/ covering events and proposing your own opinion, commentary or analyses. Both are acceptable, as long as you are transparent to the reader.
3. Do Not Become Part of Conflict Discourse/Language
- Avoid using ethnic and cultural stereotypes and clichés that serve to dehumanize the sides in the conflict;
- Avoid multiplying war propaganda and conflict escalation – do not contribute to de-humanization and building image of an enemy, do not call for violence; Avoid wording that includes negative actions, events and individuals or groups;
- Refer to the people involved in the conflict by their actual national identities (i.e., Azerbaijanis instead of Turks);
- Avoid using emotionally charged, evoking vocabulary and in particular adjectives that stir aggressive or traumatic sentiments (such as bloodthirsty, coward, barbaric);
- Avoid speaking of individuals or groups as homogeneous entities or collective actors. Avoid totalizing formulations such as “Azerbaijanis organized pogroms in Sumgait and Baku”, or “Armenians drove Azerbaijanis out of Armenia”);
- Recognize that representatives of sides in the conflict – groups, individuals – have different and diverse backgrounds, experiences and relationship to the conflict;
- Avoid contributing to discrimination or participate in it, including but not limited to discrimination based on: race, gender, ethnicity, religion or any other.
4. Taboo and Self Censorship
- Be sensitive to the cultural and religious taboos. While covering sensitive topics should not be avoided, while doing so exercise caution with regards to the emotions and beliefs of potential audiences;
- Strive to break taboos as they prevent a dialogue and constructive debate around the conflict, distort facts and preclude the multi perspective coverage;
- Self-censorship is only applicable in cases when a journalist is trying to avoid harming his/her informers and protecting vulnerable populations. Nevertheless, self-censorship should not become a barrier to criticizing discriminatory practices and stereotyping, or contribute to formation or maintenance of taboos;
- Provide diverse perspective, which includes covering events from all possible angles, bringing in opposing views, giving voice to the discriminated and marginalized individuals and groups is an important instrument of overcoming taboos;
- Avoid adding to already existing cliches when writing about history. Go beyond cliches by finding untold stories.
- Avoid inciting conflict, hatred or enmity;
- Be acceptable rather than provoking to all sides in the conflict;
- Avoid clichés, hate speech and the language creating negative stereotypes of the other and positive stereotypes of oneself. Use neutral language not containing emotionally charged adjectives and terms that could dehumanize others (i.e., savage, bloodthirsty, cultureless when referring to others vs. civilized, heroic, cultured when referring to one’s own group);
- In cases when neutral terms do not apply, (i.e., when quoting a source) supplement the material with additional information or opinion from alternative sources, in order to present the audience with the full picture of the context and the alternative views available on the topic.
We encourage the journalists working in the context of the South Caucasus conflicts to adopt this code and continue to evolve it.
 Data verification is essential to avoid risk of producing or replicating false information
 CLICHÉS are words or word combinations/phrases permanently used with a negative implication or provoking a negative response/reaction.
STEREOTYPES are thoughts, ideas repeated at a definite frequency with a negative implication or a direct negative content.