Ethics Court says Peruvian channels violated guiding principles in electoral coverage; channels reject resolution

The impacts of the second electoral round for the presidency of Peru continue to be felt not only at a political level, but also through an examination of the press. After the scandal and controversy unleashed by the dismissal and resignation of journalists from channels owned by Grupo La República and Grupo El Comercio due to disagreements over electoral coverage, came the decision of the Ethics Court of the Peruvian Press Council (CPP, for its acronym in Spanish), which determined that the channels violated their guiding principles.

The decision led to discontent in the channels that have even hinted at moving away from the CPP – of which they are part – which could set an unfortunate precedent, according to some expert voices who spoke with LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

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Presidential candidates in Peru, Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori. (Courtesy)

The CPP Ethics Court became involved in the matter when executives from Grupo La República requested its opinion on the situation surrounding electoral coverage and the unrest within the channels. The beginning of this unrest was the dismissal of Clara Elvira Ospina, who for nine years had been news director of the outlets América TV and Canal N – which are owned by the aforementioned media groups. The dismissal reportedly occurred after Ospina allegedly told then-presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori that the media she directed would not favor either of the campaigns in the second round, that is, hers or Pedro Castillo's.

After the dismissal of Ospina, who was replaced by Gilberto Hume, eight journalists from one of the most important investigative journalism programs in the country, Cuarto Poder, expressed their disagreement in two letters to the América TV board of directors. They eventually resigned. Added to this was the dismissal of the general producer of América Noticias and news producer of Canal N.

The journalists who were dismissed and those who resigned had expressed their disagreement over what they considered a violation of the Guiding Principles during coverage of the second round of presidential elections, specifically the principle of impartiality. According to their letters, Hume allegedly indicated the need to support Fujimori's candidacy, and greater coverage would allegedly be given to this campaign. For example, the channels allegedly refused to broadcast Castillo's campaign closing, but they did so with Fujimori's. Hume and the media denied these allegations.

It was in this context that, on June 7, executives of Grupo La República asked the CPP Ethics Court for a declaration on “serious acts (that) must be corrected immediately, via self-regulation” because “they seriously affect freedom of expression and information.”

Although that same day, the Court published a statement in which “it rejects the lack of journalistic objectivity in the coverage of the second electoral round,” it did not mention the case of América TV and Canal N.

However, on June 28, it announced its resolution of the case presented by the executives of Grupo La República “on facts that would allegedly affect the independence and autonomy of information and freedom of expression.” In its resolution, the Court reported that the petition was accompanied by the letters sent by the journalists and news producers of the channels.

It also reported that it received a communication from the representative of the Compañía Peruana de Radiodifusión (CPR) – América TV – which, among other points, pointed out the irrelevance of the Court in this case, arguing that a “declaration” had been requested and that it was not of a formal complaint. Regarding the claim, CPR indicated that the principle of impartiality was never violated in the second presidential round. Other letters and oral presentations were heard by the Court to develop the resolution.

“The Court finds information bias in matters of public interest, such as the second round of the presidential electoral campaign [.....], in whose development corresponds to provide [coverage] equitably to the public as indicated by its own guiding principles and the emphasis that CPR [América TV] itself gave to ‘impartiality’ within them,” the resolution establishes. “The right to freedom of expression has as its counterpart the right of citizens to be fully informed: the former constitutes a guarantee of the latter; since ‘without freedom of the press there is no democracy at all.’”

The Court clarified that it does not question the editorial line that a media outlet can take nor the autonomy that a news director has “but rather the fact that its own codes of ethics allowed it to bias itself with an electoral party, which is part of the facts alleged and not contradicted.”

For the Ethics Court, there was a lack of fairness in the transmission of electoral events on the candidates, as well as the omission of news content that could allegedly affect the candidacy of Fujimori.

“CPR has not denied the occurrence of these events, which are also public knowledge. It is not coherent or sustainable that they have relied exclusively on the ‘editorial autonomy’ of the news director, which cannot imply violating ethics, in general, and the Guiding Principles that they are obliged to respect. In summary, there are well-founded elements to consider that they were seriously affected, by action or omission, given the news information, interviews and reports ostensibly aimed at favoring a certain candidacy, as opposed to essential Guiding Principles for effective self-regulation,” the resolution said.

“Thus, in accordance with the grounds of this Resolution, this Court considers that América TV and Canal N have violated journalistic ethics,” the Court determines.

Finally, it urged the channels to “promote respect for their Guiding Principles, independence, autonomy and journalistic ethics.” It also ordered the channels to publish the resolution.

América TV and Canal N published a statement in which they expressed their “absolute disagreement with the Court's resolution.” “We regret that the Court has issued this resolution with whose considerations we disagree due to the lack of analysis, evidence, rigor and evident partiality shown in the arguments and in the Court's actions.”

They also reported that they are evaluating their “position” vis-à-vis the CPP.

It is precisely this statement that some expert voices have interpreted as questioning their permanence in the Press Council, as explained to LJR by Andrés Calderón, director of the Legal Clinic of Informative Freedoms of Universidad del Pacífico in Peru. Calderón is also a member of the CPP Ethics Court, but he was interviewed in a personal capacity and his statements do not reflect the opinion of the Court.

“I perceive that there are two potential risks: the first, that of the deterioration of the reputation of the media in general, affected by ethical infractions of the sanctioned media and others that have collaborated with disinformation during election time, but do not have with a Code of Ethics or submit to any self-regulation mechanism,” Calderón said. “The second is the emergence of regulatory pressures that could end up affecting press freedom; this, as a consequence of the perception, political and citizen, that the media are not willing to effectively self-regulate and amend the infractions detected.”

It is in this scenario where a possible media law, announced by apparent president-elect Pedro Castillo’s campaign, could be enacted.

“The foreseeable attacks that it may pursue against press freedom could find the media in a vulnerable situation, with public opinion against it and with the perception that some media are not even willing to regulate themselves,” Calderón explained.

A point in which Adriana León, director of the area of information freedoms of the Press and Society Institute (IPYS), also agrees. For her, this misperception of the media by citizens could lead to a measure that could affect press freedom.

“With the latter that has happened with this group of media is that the press has very little prestige. It has no credibility, it has no prestige and that is very, very, very serious. And that's because of the things that the media do,” León told LJR. “I personally am scared that citizens are so anti-media when an apparently authoritarian government is entering that it could take some actions against the media as happened in Ecuador. […] Correa entered and took over the media, he made the worst media law with 100 percent of the population in agreement, until the people realized the consequence.”

That is why she highlights the role of an instance like the Court that can offer “a critical opinion” that allows people to know what is happening within the media and that these discussions take place.