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Matt Von Pinnon, Published May 03 2009

Von Pinnon: Why we didn’t speak at the vigil for Saberi

Journalists often struggle with the irony that sometimes preserving freedom means you don’t have it.

As we strive to objectively report on our surroundings, we are cautious to carry ourselves in a way that doesn’t cause people to question our objectivity.

For that reason, Forum newsroom employees are prohibited from receiving free gifts, meals or in-kind donations from anyone we may cover.

They are not to sign petitions, campaign for anyone or any issue, or serve on groups or boards that are likely to find themselves in the news.

Essentially, the newsroom, using its ethics code, has chosen to refrain from any activity that might cause the public to question our motives.

So what’s a newsroom to do when it’s asked to take part in a community vigil for an imprisoned journalist from our hometown?

Nearly every area media outlet chose to say a few words during Saturday’s show of support for Roxana Saberi, even as some covered it as news.

Ultimately, we chose to simply cover it as news and not participate.

But that decision was not without internal debate – some of it very passionate.

Consider these two e-mail exchanges (just a sampling of the many I received on the topic):

“No question. The Forum should be represented.

“We should support the free flow of information everywhere. (Saberi) showed courage to continue to do her work in an authoritarian country …

“She has also been accused, tried and been convicted of being a spy. That is eminently suspect because authoritarian regimes throughout the world have regularly regarded journalists as real or potential spies. Journalists in free societies work with few fetters, which is anathema to those who would hold unbridled power over others.

“… We should have the simple courage to stand up for her as a matter of human rights, and to reaffirm the principles of our profession.”

And an argument against taking part:

“It would subvert our neutrality on an ongoing story that we continue to cover.

“Newspapers shouldn’t throw their weight behind rallies, protests, petitions and the like because people depend on us to not pick sides – simple as that. This does not change just because the cause happens to cut close to home.

“If we can bend the rules for issues we really care about, why doesn’t the same hold true for our employees? Why can’t they take part in rallies concerning matters that affect them directly or that inflame their passions?”

“As to the question of whether this would change if it were one of our employees: Yes, obviously that would be a different situation. In that case, we would be a principal part of the story. Pretending we weren’t would be silly.

“The Forum’s position in the Saberi case is not entangled enough to require our inclusion.”

In the end, our ethics code covers this area pretty well. It says:

“Staff members may not march or rally in support of public causes or movements or lend their name to campaigns, benefit dinners or similar events if doing so might raise doubts about their ability or The Forum’s ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news.”

Still, giving up some of these simple freedoms can be tough for journalists. It’s a price we pay for routinely practicing one of the best freedoms of all: freedom of the press.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579 or mvonpinnon@forumcomm.com