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Gender Code of Ethics Advanced by African Media Advocates

cbyerlys Icon Posted by Carolyn Byerly

August 16th, 2008

Malibongwe — a word in the Zulu and !Xhosa languages meaning “let the women be praised,” roused the 180 delegates attending the third Gender and Media (GEM) Summit to action, in Johannesburg, August 10-12.

Among the issues on the table at that meeting was a draft policy on gender equality in the media.

What would gender equality look like in national policy, if such were to exist? This is not an idle question. A few days ago, I had a chance to see drafts of proposed “Gender Codes of Ethics” for Botswana, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with indications that similar documents will be drawn up for consideration by policy bodies in other African nations. The draft code sets forth several principles, saying that:

• gender equality is intrinsic to freedom of expression,
• all women and men have the right to communicate their views,
• giving voice to the voiceless is critical to citizenship
• media have a key role to play in changing attitudes

The document calls on the media to ensure gender balance and equality in content, which includes avoidance of gender stereotypes, negative gender portrayal, and sexist language. Each of these terms is carefully defined to help media owners reshape content. Content includes news, other programming, and advertising.

The details of the draft policy are far reaching in their specificity, such as in calling for the protection of rape victims’ anonymity in news, and asking for inclusion of diversity of female perspectives in serious content, such as politics, economics, and war.

The status of a “Draft Gender Code of Ethics,” for the nations of southern Africa, was discussed by GEM Summit participants, who represented 17 African nations and a few non-African nations. The Summit was sponsored jointly by three groups – Gender Links, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), and Gender and Media in Southern Africa (GEMSA). About a third of the delegates were men, some of whom openly expressed a “passion for women’s rights.”

I attended the GEM Summit as a keynote speaker to present an overview of a 50-60 nation “Global Report on the Status of Women in Media,” a research project just now in its planning stages. As a feminist media researcher in the Department of Journalism at Howard University, I will serve as principal investigator for the global report, which is sponsored by the International Women’s Media Foundation, in Washington, DC. (In weeks to come, I will share more details of this project.)

The template for the “Gender Code of Ethics” was developed by members of GEMSA as a means to advance gender equality in media coverage in a systematic way. The document’s introduction by activist journalists and media change advocates before relevant journalistic and governmental bodies in their respective nations is expected to promote discussion as well as action. With respect to HIV and AIDS, a health crisis ravaging African communities, there has already been noticeable change in the gender-related coverage of the disease.

GEM Summit organizers presented numerous awards Sunday night in recognition of advancements in HIV/AIDS coverage, as well as other topics. One such award went to Beata Kasala at the The Voice, a Botswana tabloid read mainly by women, for a story advocating community involvement in addressing the disease. Another went to Brian Ligoweka, a Malawi journalist, for his story on a HIV-positive husband and wife and their young child.

Media policy is one of a number of initiatives undertaken by Gender Links, a non-governmental organization that began in 2003. The organization carries on a wide range of activities, including research, training, media monitoring, and policy development – all toward bringing improved gender balance in media content, employment, decision making and governance.

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