Italian media heeds UNHCR call to set up code of conduct for refugee issues
ROME, Italy, February 23 (UNHCR) - Stung by the Italian media's demonising of a Tunisian linked to a recent gruesome murder case, UNHCR is working with the industry to draw up a code of conduct for coverage of refugee and immigration issues.
In response to a proposal last month by the refugee agency, interested parties gathered on February 1 at the Rome headquarters of the Italian National Press Federation (INPF) and agreed to set up a technical committee to draft the code of conduct.
The committee gathers representatives of UNHCR, the Italian National Press Federation, the National Journalists' Association and the anti-discrimination departments of the ministries of interior, equal opportunity and social solidarity as well as a professor of international law and selected Italian and foreign journalists.
"We agree entirely with the UNHCR proposal and that is why we are working together on the code," said Renzo Santelli, head of external relations for the Italian National Press Federation. "Non-EU [European Union] citizens are not second-class people," he added.
The catalyst for the UNHCR proposal came on December 11, when the bodies of Raffaella Castagna, her two-year-old son, her mother and a friend were found in the northern town of Erba. The three women had been stabbed while the infant's throat had been cut. Some sections of the Italian press swiftly blamed Castagna's Tunisian husband, who had served prison time on drug charges.
It soon emerged that Azouz Marzouk had been in Tunisia at the time. In January, police arrested Castagna's two middle-aged neighbours on charges of murdering her and the three others, apparently due to a feud over noise.
But UNHCR argued that the attitude of the media needed to change. In a letter sent on January 19 to the editors-in-chief of major media organisations, Senior Regional Public Information Officer Laura Boldrini condemned the initial coverage of the Erba case and possible suspects.
"Strong and rather unexpected evidence of xenophobic sentiments emerged, as did a media system ready to act as the sounding board for the worst manifestations of hate," Boldrini wrote, while adding that the killings at Erba should "mark the beginning of a 'new deal,' a new course for Italian information and news communication."
She said it would be "useful and important" to open a serious dialogue on the role and behaviour of the press in cases of this kind and in coverage of refugee and immigration issues, which she said was often characterised by alarmist and warlike language and had influenced public opinion.
Boldrini said UNHCR, working with academics, the two press bodies and other experts, proposed to draft a code of conduct for press coverage of refugee and immigration issues. The document would be modelled on the 1990 Charter of Treviso, which provides protection for minors who are subjects of press stories.
She said the aim would be to produce "a sort of code of ethics that, without prejudice to the right to information, treats immigrants as persons, regardless of their origin, and which leads to a correct use of language and adequate protection for all those who have requested and obtained protection in Italy."
This proposal led to the formation of the technical committee on February 1 and was followed on February 5 by a lively roundtable debate chaired by Minister of Social Solidarity Paolo Ferrero and attended by UNHCR, academics, the two press bodies and editors-in-chief of print organs and TV stations.
Some journalists opposed the idea of a code of conduct, saying that it would restrict freedom of the press and expression. Participants also debated the merits of setting up an independent body to monitor press coverage and whether or not the code of conduct should have powers to impose penalties on those who violated standards.
Such matters will be considered by a small working group, comprising members of UNHCR and the two media bodies, which will prepare an initial draft for discussion and development by the full committee.
The draft that they approve will be presented at a public event, where relevant non-governmental organisations and association can make further suggestions. Boldrini said they hoped to have a final version ready before the middle of this year.