Ethiopia: Are Anonymous Bloggers Journalists?

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Tadias Magazine

By Liben Eabisa

Published: June 10th, 2019

New York (TADIAS) — Some of the basic tenets of journalism include being transparent, providing facts, and giving individuals mentioned by name in an article the opportunity to share their responses to the story.

But shouldn’t these core values of ethical journalism also apply to anonymous contributors as well? The usage of pen names is a common trait observed among websites catering to Ethiopians in the Diaspora. Of course, technically speaking there is no such thing as being anonymous in today’s digital age. Given a concerted effort and the proper tools everyone’s online identity could easily be exposed.

The pressing question remains, however, if it is fair for webmasters in our community to allow fictitious name personas with a primary purpose of defaming fellow Ethiopians over ideological differences, or in some cases simply because the author may harbor personal animosity towards the individuals that he or she is writing about. Shouldn’t bloggers have the same responsibility to ascertain the facts first and give the targets of their articles advance notice to explain themselves before publishing?

“While there is no obligation to present every side in every piece, stories should be balanced and add context,” advises the website for the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), an international coalition of journalists and media professionals. “Objectivity is not always possible, and may not always be desirable (in the face for example of brutality or inhumanity), but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence.”

As a New York Times Ethicist blog published a few years back emphasized, blogging in pseudonym festers “a hideous subculture” of mean-spirited, inconsiderate one-way dialogue that prevents meaningful and respectful social communication that otherwise would in the best interest of the general public.

To promote the social good of lively conversation and the exchange of ideas, transparency should be the default mode. And that goes both for lofty political discourse and casual comments…“Says who?” is not a trivial question. It deepens the reader’s understanding to know who is speaking, from what perspective, with what (nutty?) history, and with what personal stake in the matter. It encourages civility and integrity in the writer to stand behind her words. There are times when anonymous posting is necessary, when disclosure is apt to bring harsh retribution but more often, anonymous posting sustains a culture, or at least a hideous subculture, of calumny and malice so caustic as to inhibit the very discourse the Web can so admirably enable. Writers should not do it, and Web site hosts should not allow it…Were it merely a matter of taste or tone or social style — etiquette — the anonymously obnoxious would be unimportant. But those who offer not argument but invective discourage others from speaking.

This ethical perspective appeared following a widely-publicized 2009 court case in which a judge had ordered Google to reveal the real name of an anonymous blogger who had defamed a fellow New York fashion model calling her, among other things, “psychotic, lying, whoring … skank.” According to NYT the court found the writer’s comments to be “reasonably susceptible to a defamatory connotation” and that the model had “the basis for a lawsuit and is entitled to know the identity of the blogger in order to seek legal redress. Google complied, identifying the blogger.”

Aside from the question of legality, among the top five principles of ethical journalism advocated by EJN include the need to show humanity and independence in our work: “Journalists should do no harm. What we publish or broadcast may be hurtful, but we should be aware of the impact of our words and images on the lives of others.”

Finally, and most importantly, EJN argues: “Journalists must be independent voices; we should not act, formally or informally, on behalf of special interests whether political, corporate or cultural. We should declare to our editors – or the audience – any of our political affiliations, financial arrangements or other personal information that might constitute a conflict of interest.”

Liben Eabisa is Co-Founder & Publisher of Tadias.

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