Thursday, 10 December 2020

Understanding T&T's Procurement Debate

It was while thinking of an information/connectivity metaphor for this week’s column, last Monday’s internet blackout descended upon us like unexpected, stifling fog. Depending on where you were, mobile data also offered no opening in or to the cloud.

Before all that, the idea was to propose to readers a scenario in which there was a confluence of information flows and to point to its relevance within the context of official transparency and accountability.

Then came the blackout and how journalists feel while pursuing a story reliant on authoritative verification from both official and private sector sources.

I had been thinking that all through last week’s parliamentary hubris, the role of freely accessible public information found no space as pre-requisite to transparent procurement processes. I tried hard to follow all of it, but the rhetorical brawl provided little comfort or attraction to those interested in getting to the heart of political habits beyond recurring claims of corrupt practice.

Surely, I thought, if corruption resided in constant social orbit (“all ah we t’ief”) then at the core must reside the means for its sustenance – both the institutional and psychical conditions that permit it.

It is clear to me that a key issue in all of this is a cultural preference for secrecy over disclosure – no matter the candour of our music and our art. And, even so, to recognise that the pathology transcends virtually all sectors.

Behind this is the notion of information as a primary component of the power dynamic. Finance minister Colm Imbert addressed the challenge during the debate when he spoke of the ability of independent information and opinion in the media to “weaken the position of MPs.”

It remains one of his most truthful declarations ever, as it points to the impact on power of information expressed as knowledge (and, eventually, as wisdom). It is the gist of this column cogently and succinctly expressed.

It all came together during the sharp parliamentary back and forth, as I waited to hear the connection between the requirements of strong procurement regulations and an official predisposition favourable to openness and the more efficient flow of official information.

Recent experience as leader of a regional investigative team examining Chinese investments in the Caribbean significantly influenced my position on government-to-government projects as an area of coverage by the legislation. Whether we were talking about the north-south highway in Jamaica, housing projects in Suriname or NAPA in T&T, there was an information portal that remained tightly closed and sealed.

Zero from former Cabinet ministers, senior state officials and Chinese sources. I personally spoke with two former senior T&T ministers – on both sides of the political aisle – and they sincerely claimed to have never seen official documents in support of these investments. There may or may not have been corruption, but the conditions for it to prevail clearly persisted.

Politicians do not appear to understand how much open access to official information can help establish their case as immune to the lure of corruption. It does not reduce their power, it enhances it. Yet, just eight of Caricom’s 15 countries have access to information laws.

And, in cases such as ours in T&T, the legislation requires strengthening in order to counteract the instinct to conceal.

This requirement of modern society is now recognised as a global challenge. The standards set by both inter-governmental and non-governmental international bodies point to several clear principles.

These include the concept of “maximum disclosure” guided by a compulsion to let everybody know as much about everything as possible. An obligation to proactively disclose even unsolicited information and, promotion of the concept of “open government”.

Of course, there will be exceptions to these rules. These cover the risk of societal harm and matters inimical to the public interest. They may also include issues of national security, public safety, privacy rights, judicial action and legitimate private business concerns.

Strong freedom of information laws should also enable simplified processes to facilitate access to information, limited costs, and protection for whistleblowers. In the process, procurement practices can become far less problematic.

When minister Imbert spoke, there was uncharacteristic peace across the aisle. There was nothing more to add. He could have written the preamble to the Bill. The Opposition would have supported him.

Originally published in the T&T Guardian on December 9, 2020

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Caribbean Media Discourses. Various Voices - Conflicting Agendas

UWI, November 2, 2020

Introduction

Now that you have an idea of who I am. I think it would be important to understand who I am not. I am not an academic. My lifetime of reading and exploring has never explicitly focused on cultural linguistics as a discrete discipline to apply to the Caribbean or West Indian condition.

Even as a media practitioner – and I am first and foremost a journalist, a reporter – I have spent little time purporting to study in any depth, media linguistics and dynamics as being culturally significant.

Instead, as a reporter of some vintage, I am offering some questions in the hope they  elicit responses and answers that, point at least minimally in the direction of likely outcomes and resolutions.

This evening has however not found me in completely unfamiliar terrain. For I have always been concerned with the notion of media effects and impacts, especially when it comes to journalistic content – to the extent that journalism occupies much (but not all) of mass media content.

Yet, I would not say I am a media researcher – someone whose job it is to apply science and reason to the increasingly amorphous world of mass communication. Indeed, I would suggest that in this region, there is much too much official and even industry decision and policymaking based on conjecture and jaundiced intuition than on scientific enquiry.

All I can therefore offer is the perspective of someone interested in the Caribbean cultural aesthetic and the establishment of a framework guided by conditions that conduce toward more rather than less free expression. Someone who is concerned that finding our way in the world, with all our pre-existing conditions, is as much interested in understanding the world that resides within us.

The late, great Prof. Rex Nettleford also advised us eleven and a half years ago, that “self-empowerment”, (if we are to consider it the injunction of our time as elegantly described recently by PM Mia Mottley of Barbados) “comes with the capability to make definitions about self on one’s own terms and to be able to proceed to action on the basis of such definitions.”

I would add that such definitions are increasingly being expressed in languages and modes of expression other than what we consider to be our own. I also cannot offer much hope by way of research methods or methodologies for analysing postmodern texts and discourse.

So, be clear. What is being presented is more of a personal narrative on the questions posed for exploration today, with some concerns and suggestions of my own.

Answering the Questions, Raising Others

The framing of today’s given subject impels us to come to terms with some important preoccupations. The first has to do with the assertion of “media discourses” being the subject of some kind of ethnogeographic capture, especially within the problematic context of a modern communication environment now characterised by essential timelessness, spacelessness and borderlessness.

Another has to do with the unchallenged assertion of a diversity of voices describing a shared reality, within which space discrete aspirations for attention and power are being contested and are capable of being expressed as “conflicting agendas”.

This is not to signal the invalidity of the terms, but simply to point to the intractable nature of the challenge before us. For me, it has always been a problematic area to engage the linear nature or causal impact of so-called “media discourses” and its accompanying languages on the distribution and/or mediating of conflict and power.

Such a suggestion evokes highly-contestable imperatives dictated by a notion of the agenda-setting capabilities of traditional mass media – an environment now subject to pervasive, new, digital realities.

Indeed, since Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw presented such a proposition to the world of communication theory 48 years ago, it has been widely embraced as offering an understanding of how mass communication is capable of not necessarily influencing what people think about the things around them, but what, in the first place, people think about – to quote Bernard Cohen who predated these two researchers by another 10 years.

I have read and encountered enough to suggest that the digital era seriously challenges the already highly contestable assertions of McCombs and Shaw, and all who came before – offering instead a case for the examination of multi-dimensional impacts of relatively uninterrupted, but technologically mediated sources of expression-based causation and correlation.

Of course I face the possibility of a charge of gross oversimplification, but so do the numerous public policy interventions, based on such assumptions, many of which have led to derogations of free expression and the formulation of what is rather casually described as media and cultural policy. In instances when I hear the language of such policy there is a mistaken sense that official intervention is somehow required to rescue facets of expression, through the suppression of others. In other words, that censorship is somehow perversely capable of facilitating freedom of indigenous expression.

This comes to the fore each time I hear the hue and cry for legislated content quotas on broadcasts, comprising both a restraint on trade and outright censorship through coerced omission.

There is also the realisation, at least by some of us, that Caribbean people need no prompting from other interests to acknowledge the non-binary nature of our cultural habits and behaviours. This in turn challenges the belief in a single community characterised by binaristic values. This leads to discomfort with everything from Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter, the latter signifying recognition of a cohesive, yet exclusionary political stream of its own.

Some of this greatly challenges but helps us understand the dissonances occasioned by efforts to develop the idea of an integrated single market and single economy within the Caribbean Community – as distinct from confederal trade and economic alliances. Who or what is this “single” anything?

The Report of the West Indian Commission of 1994 contended with the issue in some depth by locating what it described as the region’s “genesis, development and general character … determined by common cultural responses to a variety of shared experiences.”

Such experiences included “aboriginal decimation”, the “institution of slavery”, “the crucible of plantation life” and “colonialism which deepened the sense of economic and political powerlessness even while it reinforced the inheritance of struggle against injustice and the yearning after self-determination.” But is it really that simple? Are there indeed ‘common cultural responses’? Won’t that depend on who is the “we” in our investigation?

The Current Challenges

I would suggest that an exercise of the West Indian Commission variety in 2020 would require an almost complete reassembling of the framework for revisiting the cultural dimensions of Caribbean development. It would render these signposts virtually invisible in the face of a new universe.

Who is this “we” to begin with? Successive work on the subject, including the consultations of the West Indian Commission raised the issue of “which Caribbean”. Who is being referred to when it comes to a cohesive rescue mission for the space we (that problematic word again) occupy? This suggests that what I am hinting at is not new in its origins, neither has it gone unrecognised.

The emergence of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), for example, signified an attempt to engage the challenge through recognition of countries “washed by the Caribbean Sea” – despite the Atlantic embrace of countries such as Suriname and Guyana, together with El Salvador which has a single coastline washed by the Pacific Ocean.

Only Friday, The UWI and ACS signed an MoU, described by Vice-Chancellor Prof. Hilary Beckles as reflective of the manner in which the university is “resolute in its agenda to decolonise the structures inherited from history.”

“Only the integration of our Caribbean world can fully unleash the potential of our people. It is our mutual intention to advance the process of regional cooperation and consciousness.”

This, together with other developing scenarios linked to an ages-old desire to deepen further South-South economic relations, come together to both challenge and in a sense help re-define a notion of “identity” – as if capturing a picture of “identity” can serve as some kind of easy transit to a so-called “common agenda”, as the theme for this discussion proposes.

I believe we have moved beyond CLR James’s binary formulation which had been based on the suggestion that the Commonwealth Caribbean, expressed as the West Indies, together with Haiti and the insular Spanish-speaking countries, is somehow adequately framed as a single socio-cultural space, through ethnic configuration, colonial history, and other such antecedents.

Yes, I believe we ought now to dare contest the philosophical basis upon which the regional cohesion that gave rise to the construction of longstanding institutional structures has sat for many years. It may well be that they ought to endure but with an aspiration to better take into account the condition of the constituents whose identities, even so, are yet to be precisely recognised.

There is also yet cause to challenge Stuart Hall’s decades’ old conclusions that follow what he describes in his famous essay on “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” as “an investigation, on the subject of cultural identity and representation.”

Even he conceded that “the ‘I’ who writes here (meaning him) must also be thought of as, itself, ‘enunciated’. We all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always ‘in context’ and ‘positioned.’

“If the paper (Cultural Identity and Diaspora) seems preoccupied with the diaspora experience and its narratives of displacement,” Prof. Hall conceded, “it is worth remembering that all discourse is ‘placed’, and the heart has its reasons.”

In yet another context, through St-Hilaire’s “state of (linguistic) flux” owing to Saint Lucia’s attainment of national sovereignty and the forces of globalisation, there are objective and subjective conditions that qualify conclusions related to what he describes as the ‘I’ and the ‘We’.

A lot more is now correspondingly known about how mass media and the language of media, within the traditional meaning of the value of legacy platforms, have adapted in accordance with changing situational and cultural contexts both at the meso and macro levels.

What roles do our various creoles (French and English based) play in the public media arena? How accepted are they?

I am not certain to what degree this is being studied and discussed in our region, because it lies at the heart of understanding what is emerging as discourse generated by mass media output in the Caribbean. St-Hilaire is useful in this respect, but we need perhaps to go further and deeper.

Even traditional legacy media are confused; crisscrossing form and content between and among digital platforms in contestation with informal and formal sources trading in a mass of fact, opinion, creative output, information, disinformation and outright trash.

In finding research methodologies to better understand all these phenomena, there might well be measurable attributes to be found in the code-mixing and code switching of modern cross and intra-cultural communication especially when you consider it to be mediated by technology platforms that are not by themselves neutral to the messaging process.

There is now quite some focus on the global GAFAM operators – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft – with respect to their roles both as commercial enterprises and as purveyors of mass communication signals and messages descriptive and prescriptive of realities we have not had the chance to contemplate as countries outside of the dominant cultural fold.

As I’ve suggested, all of this is concerned with matters of form and content, products and processes. Additionally, and to an increasing degree, communicative practices - as elaborately discussed by Martin Luginbuhl in his recent paper on ‘Mediality and Culturality’ - are not only blurring the lines between individual and mass communication but in a sense challenging definitions of what indeed constitutes the “medium.”

At a functional level, media regulators and professional communicators have been similarly challenged by this dynamic. Who or what is the “publisher” in an age of convergent media where the tools are critical to the processing of communicative signs and signals?

The question is thus being asked in some quarters among people concerned with researching and understanding such matters: what indeed is the medium? Is it, asks Luginbuhl, “the technical apparatus that gives material shape to the transmitted signs (such as a printing press or a TV camera)?”

“Is it the sign carrier (such as the printed newspaper) or the receiver device (the television set or tablet or phone)? Or do we refer to an institution when talking about the newspaper or television – and therefore to a social group producing the texts with certain routines, within a certain society and for a certain media market?”

“The research questions that need to be formulated depend greatly on how we answer these questions,” Luginbuhl proposes.

My Evolving Views

Now that I have tried to focus on some, not all, key issues and questions. I am going to turn to my own evolving views on mass media practice and its contribution to socio-cultural expression. It is clear that while there is quite a lot to understand, the role of traditional media practitioners is neither neutral nor unimportant. It is not popular to assert that they will endure, but I believe they will.

For one, there are the implicit developmental impacts to be derived when attention is paid to ‘who’ and ‘what’ constitute the distinct elements of a Caribbean ethos – bearing in mind the ground rule of determining the needs of ‘which’ Caribbean is being attended to.

The Caricom project, for example, has tended to direct socio-cultural attention largely to the cricket-playing Commonwealth Caribbean – though in Belize, The Bahamas, Haiti and Suriname, the sport is not as highly-considered as elsewhere and are irrelevant as a developmental signpost.

As an aside, I can imagine the discomfort of the leaders of these countries whenever regional resources are being set aside to attend to the needs of a sport that is fast losing its once favourable place in the narrative of West Indian development.

But let’s say for the moment we are focused on the countries of Caricom. Is there a recognisable aesthetic to be captured? Are there grounds for orienting our focus as mass media to the cultural assets and liabilities of this geographic space in such as manner as to implant a greater sense of collective and communal self?

It is not that in the past we, in media and wider society, have been completely oblivious to such an injunction. Our experiments with the Caribbean News Agency and Caribbean Broadcasting Union have followed the University of the West Indies, the Caribbean Examinations Council, the Caribbean Community Secretariat and West Indies cricket as attempts to harness a hint of coherence. There have been offerings of success and of failure.

Again, CLR James provided both guidance and obfuscation through his embrace of a panoramic landscape including by necessity Cuba and Haiti and the French overseas territories of the Caribbean.

But he did so even as he embraced distinctive West Indian virtues through the struggle of Afro-descendants emerging from the scourge of colonialism and the exploitation of the plantation economy.

In defining a common cultural core of the West Indian concentric circle, he introduced a paradigm that linked the game of cricket to nationhood – a process observed in 2007 by Prof. Hilary Beckles as being “fractured and retreating, gradually being replaced by something less understood and arguably less desired.”

In my view, there are grounds for contesting the latter assertion if only because the game of cricket has always persisted within the confines of limited terms of reference with little importance to the wider paradigm of Caribbean social and cultural development which, in any event, finds far greater cohesive and creative resonance through music, literature, drama and art. CARIFESTA persists as tangible evidence of this.

In the modern era, both the extra and intra-regional cultural dichotomies are also disappearing at an unprecedented and rapid rate. Our cultural products are increasingly reflective of the global environment in which they compete for attention on platforms occupied by everyone else.

Our music, to cite one platform, made the passage across the Atlantic and back again and now the distinctions between what is presented everywhere are difficult to establish. There is a marketplace of creative output far more disposed to open access than has ever existed.

It is not the time for parochial protectionism or jingoistic false pride. Much of what I have heard as proposed cultural policy in our space willfully dismisses such a reality.

Where, within the context of “local content” do we, for instance, place Bob Marley, or Sean Paul or David Rudder or Heather Headley or Rihanna? Is there a residency requirement? Does Burna Boy’s dancehall or Timaya’s soca make the cut? Is there a birthright issue?

I would contend that the belief that we can be in the world and not of it betrays a deficient sense of self-worth. Here, as in other important areas is where Mia Mottley’s “cultural self-confidence” enters the picture. The fact is West Indians understood and defined the global system long before almost everyone else. Our past was founded on the principle of a global marketplace. We participated both as subjects and as objects of the process.

There are few lessons of globalisation we can be taught but yet so little we seem to understand.

Our approach to tourism as a viable source of income and a generator of economic activity suffers from the same malaise. There is no way we can reasonably address questions of service in the sector without understanding the psychology of entrenched servitude. Indeed, if you want to talk about branding and selling you have indeed come to the right place! The double entendre is absolutely intended.

This is why, for example, the dissonance between indigenous food production and tourism in most of our countries. There is no sense that the activities of the past can so intrinsically contribute to imperatives of the present and future.

Instead, we continue to display a far more remarkable ability to feast our visitors than to feed ourselves. The tourists bring the foreign exchange in and our food import bills take it out. In the language of the Trinidadian school child of my generation, we are spinning top in mud.

The vision must first turn inward to see what we can see of ourselves. This is not to suggest that we repudiate the vast contributions of those who have sped along the highway of development, but that we now also look at the footprints we leave in the wake of the steps we take on our own narrow, dusty path with far more confidence than we have in the past.

Our mass media and our own faltering, uncertain and sometimes maddening steps also provide cause for concern for some of the same reasons. Cable television, at one time, satellite broadcasts, and now 5G and the Internet have helped defy attempts by our societies to impose regimes to control and regulate what we see, read and listen to.

The new technologies have, happily in my view, made nonsense of attempts at regulated cultural protectionism, censorship and other forms of official control.

So concerned have we been with imposing new and higher levels of regulation and control that we as societies have abandoned the injunction to seek the creation of better societies – people equipped with the skills to distinguish between trash and treasure. This is in fact a key objective of the global push for greater media and information literacy. Some describe this alongside the need for wider digital literacy.

The way I see it, Caribbean media and cultural expressions embrace all that there is in the world, because we are in the world and the world is in us.

The discourses and concerns that greet us in our daily lives are as global in nature as is the current pandemic. We would be to naïve to assume the absence of what the title of this paper describes as “conflicting agendas.”

I want to close with a quote from my 25-year-old son, Mikhail Gibbings, who was interviewed in the press recently as a young musician and filmmaker. We need to pay closer attention to his views and the views of his peers. In this case, he is speaking about the country of his birth. 

“I don’t even know if I can define what Trinidad and Tobago means to me– and that’s why it’s the best place in the world to me. It’s the most amazing and terrifying thing.

“Trinidad hasn’t been around long enough, as a country, to even really figure out what direction we’re going in. That means we can make it absolutely anything we like. It’s not even a choice we have to make. We are, by our very nature, the road less travelled. And I like it that way.”

 

 

SUGGESTED FURTHER READING:

 

1.       The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media

Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw

The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Summer, 1972), pp. 176-187 (12 pages)

Published By: Oxford University Press

 

2.       The Caribbean, Cricket And C.L.R James - NACLA Report on the Americas, Hilary Beckles (2004)

 

3.       The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media

Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw

The Public Opinion Quarterly Vol. 36, No. 2 (Summer, 1972), pp. 176-187 (12 pages)

Published By: Oxford University Press

 

4.       Cultural Identity and Diaspora

Stuart Hall, Essay (Framework, 1966)

 

5.       Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics (2004), by Daniel C. Hallin and Paolo Mancini

 

6.       From Frequency to Sequence: How Quantitative Methods Can Inform Qualitative Analysis of Digital Media Discourse (Journal Article + Infographic) - Mark Dang-Anh and Jan Oliver Rüdiger (2015)

 

 

 

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Resetting Media and Information Literacy


Resetting Media and Information Literacy in the Present Media and Information Landscape – UNESCO, Jamaica October 25, 2017

Information and media literacy occupies a prominent position in the pecking order of media development indicators. This is particularly so since the media, particularly under conditions of strong self-regulation and pervasive respect for the profession of journalism, are viewed as an absolute necessity in the empowering of people and their communities.

There is also an expectation that media outputs reflect a diversity of views and interests and that civil society organisations accept responsibility, together with the state and the traditional media themselves, in promoting a notion of media literacy.

The indicators are also concerned with the accessibility of news and information to women and marginalised groups.

I dare say, though, that since the adoption of the media indicators, almost 10 years ago, there have been transformative circumstances which while maintaining initial aspirations, have tilted the balance of power and influence in mass media.

For one, the legacy or traditional mainstream media have clearly lost monopoly status in the industry of news, information and ideas.
Now, consider the implications of this. A previously unimaginable maze of relatively unmediated sources, channels, platforms and media competing for eyes, ears, hearts and souls.

Also consider the undeniable imperative of free expression and specific emphasis on freedom of the formal press.

In many senses this was always the case. Technology following media and media following technology. The steam engine eventually cranking the printing press, mobile telephony breaching the analogue fortress. Digital media challenging a way of viewing the world and the modalities for transporting ideas and aspirations.

It has in a sense marked the democratising of the very concept of democracy with new rules and new ways of doing things.  The immediacy of broadcast media now shares important space in the world of online content. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others are broadcasting and narrowcasting ‘live’ and way in excess of the reaches of broadcasting towers and cable connections.

At the helm of these new platforms is a cadre of ordinary people telling ordinary and often extraordinary stories – much of it ‘journalistic’ in nature, but this is not ‘journalism’ in its purest professional sense.

It is without doubt though that the current era has challenged both traditional media and the journalism they produce. This has been achieved through the undermining of previously impervious revenue streams that served as platforms for the practice of professional journalism and through a diversification of alternative, virtually unmediated sources and streams of data, information and opinion.

Yet, journalism remains steadfastly relevant and important. This is in part so because though the aggregating of news and information is now possible by way of app and algorithm this is incapable, on its own, of advancing knowledge to the point of understanding or providing meaning.

The transformational impact of the so-called ‘digital age’ on traditional, mainstream media is undeniable. As an industry, mainstream media have virtually lost monopoly status with respect to news, views and information that matter.

In many ways, this follows on a longstanding relationship between mass media and technology. Think of the value of the modern printing press to newspapers and the innovations in wireless communication to broadcast media. Print lost to radio what radio went on to lose, in part, to television. Yet, whatever their respective conditions, they endure to today.

The immediacy of broadcast media now shares important space in the world of online content. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others are broadcasting and narrowcasting ‘live’ and way in excess of the reaches of broadcasting towers and cable connections. At the helm of these new platforms is a cadre of ordinary people telling ordinary and often extraordinary stories – much of it ‘journalistic’ in nature, but this is not ‘journalism’ in its purest professional sense.

It might also be true that some online publications are already turning to “automated solutions to create basic stories” and in the process dramatically challenging the “modus operandi” of newsgathering and therefore some important pillars of traditional media practice.

This may eventually prove that the nature of what is broadly defined as “newsgathering” may evolve beyond current reliance on journalists as we know them (already there is the vexing question of so-called “citizen journalism”) and turn attention to the mechanical features of aggregating vast streams of data and information.

Yet, journalism remains at the core in so far as there continue to be the imperatives of verification, accountability and the nuanced voices of reporters on the ground, whatever their professional or vocational manifestation.

Hard news, verified by humans and reported by those bearing a professional obligation to be truthful and accurate will remain an important requirement of individual, community and social decision-making. Yes, I do contend, journalism matters and will continue to matter in the future.

Today’s journalists are reporting and editing, but also aggregating data and information from a much deeper and wider pool of resources. An awareness of Media and Information Literacy forces us to contemplate obligations on this subject that extend beyond the responsibilities of the press and more on what societies determine to be the true nature and extent of their own interventions to make sense of it all.


Friday, 8 May 2020

The Threat of Media Capture in the Caribbean


(Presented at the World Press Freedom Day Virtual Dialogue hosted by UNESCO, Caribbean on May 4, 2020)

Background

Depending on where you begin the story and the definitions you apply, media capture – meaning a concentration of monolithic ownership and/or hegemonic control over content - as a feature of the Caribbean mass communication landscape can be said to have fairly durable characteristics spanning more than 300 years.

In this respect, we may choose to introduce the subject by looking at the role of independent print media - to be distinguished from official imperial communication – by noting the advent of the first indigenously-printed Caribbean newspaper the Weekly Jamaica Courant in 1718. It was a publication produced by one of the island’s first printers with a network of African slaves comprising its circulation department.

The rather belated arrival of printing presses to the Caribbean served to create in those early years a variety of newspapers and journals under the exclusive ownership and control of colonial elements, with ties to the motherland, and leading members of a largely homogenous expatriate business class.

Broadcast media followed a similar pattern, launched in the 1930s with programming provided largely from the studios of the BBC in the United Kingdom, but growing in numbers and reach through the work of the US Armed Forces Radio Service network (WVDI) based in Fort Reid, Chaguaramas, Trinidad.

Changes in the scope and nature of Caribbean broadcast media only came in any significant manner through the achievement of political independence beginning in 1962 with Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago leading the way.

Fast forward to the mid-1980s and the dismantling of state monopolies in the broadcast media and the expansion of private investments in broadcast media. There are grounds for the argument that state capture of broadcast media went into decline thereafter, as a more diverse commercial print media base had been established through both technological and socio-economic shifts.

Various manifestations of media capture as a function of the dominance and concentration of commercial influences were evident in the early evolution of private broadcast media and were also generally characteristic of a relatively less pluralistic print media environment.

The Current Reality

The onset of new players in large numbers, particularly in the broadcast media, has played a role in reducing the influence of both state and otherwise dominant commercial interests. Though, whatever the current, unfolding conditions, I do not subscribe to the view that a largely homogeneous group – expressed as either dominant ideological or commercial interests – currently exists to the extent that a capture of the mass media space by indigenous players is evident in the English-speaking Caribbean.

That said, declining economic fortunes and accompanying changes in media market structures, the subversive role of new media and global big tech on the traditional media environment, and the gradual re-entry of the state to bolster political uncertainty and instability in some jurisdictions exist as signals to be alert to the danger of historical relapse.

Latterly, in the face of undivided attention to state communication on COVID-19, the practice of independent enquiry is being marginalised by the power of information and data framed – justifiably or not - as critical to the public interest, all massing to present the biggest single-story of our lifetime.

All these factors can have the cumulative impact of promoting higher levels of self-censorship and the emergence of media taboos while imposing limitations on the ability of independent media to challenge existing commercial and political power structures.

There has been nothing, since the transformational impacts of the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of the printing press in the Caribbean and, later, the communications environment of a world at war, to match the current Caribbean media environment.

This also occurs at a time when real questions as to the disproportionate influence and power of the big tech operators such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft (GAFAM) is being critically scrutinised as an anomalous presence in the global and regional media landscape.

COVID-19

Today we confront a pandemic, the responses to which are serving to undermine the socio-economic status quo in ways not previously envisaged. Some sectors of our countries have already sustained considerable damage – some of it close to irreversible.

The brittle nature of regional economic stability is being challenged and with it the vulnerabilities of the private media sector. Already, advertising revenues are down by as much as 70% in some instances, and some media companies have already imposed wage cuts and reductions in production.

One study conducted by the International Federation of Journalists on the state of global journalism in the current COVID-19 era, polled 1300 frontline journalists in 77 countries and found the following:

1.    Nearly every freelance journalist has lost revenue or work opportunities
2.    More than half of all journalists are suffering from stress and anxiety
3.    More than a quarter lack essential equipment to enable them to work safely from home, while one in four lack any protective equipment to work in the field.
4.    Dozens of journalists have been arrested, faced lawsuits or been assaulted.
5.    More than a third of journalists have shifted their focus to covering Covid-19 related stories.

These findings are not unrelated to today’s discussions on the potential for media capture in this part of the world. For one, the downgrading of the financial pillars of media enterprises has been found to be a function of the weakening of general economic conditions with severe contractions in advertising revenue, leading to business shrinkage and, in some instances, commercial failure.

People have spoken about the employment privilege of journalists, but to use one term that’s becoming increasingly popular, media workers very much belong to the category of the job vulnerable.

The Future

The survival game of Caribbean mass media involves adaptability to a number of phenomena as a consequence of the challenges I have described. Among them is the opportunity weak financial positions present for the imposition of both state and private information agendas.

In situations where state media remain a feature of the landscape, state media spend is more likely than not to be extensively diverted in support of such entities. In some cases, with an increased share of state advertising expenditure on the market there is the risk of employment of such resources as a tool to reward compliant editorial behaviour and to punish recalcitrance.

In several instances, the private enterprises within a narrow band of sectors that have remained relatively intact and resilient during the current depressed condition have the potential to dominate unstable financial conditions and to impose pressures on the editorial integrity of media enterprises in return for the promise of advertising revenue.

As a backdrop to all of this is the disproportionate presence of the global technology companies that function as virtual competitors for advertising dollars and audience engagement. In a sense, if media capture is to be a concern anywhere it must include consideration of anomalous relations between these major players and domestic media.

The IFJ study, for example, notes that while the GAFAM entities earn as much as $900 billion worldwide, they pay absolutely no taxes in jurisdictions such as ours. Yet, the opportunities their platforms present include various possibilities for the monetising of journalism, and creative and other content in the face of the media revolution currently underway.

We are not the only region being encouraged to pay attention to this and it is perhaps time to form strategic alliances with people, organisations and institutions that have been paying greater attention to this issue.

In the meantime, there is a role for the state sector to ensure that the future of independent media is sustained. It may well prove to be a case of enlightened self-interest in the end. In the post-pandemic era, with rebuilding processes in train, development communication budgets can be diverted to independent media as they find their footing in situations of uncertainty.

There is also a role for a more focused research agenda to better understand the dynamics of the modern communication era and a regulatory environment that conduces to a vibrant, free and independent press. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

COVID-19 and the flattening of the curve


It’s still relatively early COVID-19 days for us in the Caribbean, but I think it’s time we start considering the ways the global impact of the pandemic is likely to change our lives forever – for better or for worse.

The peaks and troughs of outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics are frequently described as statistical growth curves to be “flattened” through interventions that avoid an otherwise unavoidable explosion.

The experience with even less extreme events is that a lasting flattening of multiple social, economic and political curves can accompany such episodes.

It is true that the medically more vulnerable, together with the poor and financially disadvantaged, are called to bear an equal but intrinsically inequitable share of the burden, but it is also a fact that the burden of a pandemic crosses the divides as effectively as natural disasters and the inevitability of death.

It is thus difficult not to make constant reference to what I have been referring to as the “legacy” issues that relate to the world of work, lifestyles, public healthcare delivery, the use of technology, and the general power dynamics of domestic and global politics.

As we speak, the mighty are being brought to their knees and a disassembling of the structures of power and influence is already in evidence. Who would have thought that through all its wealth and political power, Europe (as was the case 1500 years ago with the Bubonic Justinian Plague) would grind to the screeching halt we are now witnessing?

Who would have guessed that the mighty USA would have found itself stuck on the crease, on the back foot, with a bouncer en route with pace to its unhelmeted head?

But all of this is not a new or original contemplation. Our planet has experienced life-changing pandemics in the past that have caused gigantic shifts comparable to the incidence of global warfare and accompanying dramatic changes in geo-political power and influence.

Europe’s 14th Century Bubonic disaster, which claimed up to two-thirds of the population of the continent is thought to have contributed to the eventual dissolution of the feudal state. There were also significant impacts, positive and negative, on farming practices and the process of urbanisation.

Could it be that COVID-19 has played a role in the carbon emissions discussions more than any global commitment of the past 20 years? Could it just be that the value of virtual workspaces has, by force, been finally established? Likewise, the unavailability of schools has not necessarily meant the absence of schooling.

It is also advisable, at this stage, to consider what happened when the HIV/AIDS pandemic peaked in the latter part of the 1900s and took the lives of tens of millions of people.

We have already had to address issues of social stereotyping, stigma and discrimination, harmful disinformation, and compliance with a reorienting of behaviours – “protection”, the role of clinical testing and other lasting features of our response to the virus.

It has also proven inadvisable to focus purely on fatality rates (as important as they are), especially now that current interventions at national levels, guided by the timely acquisition of knowledge are more likely than not to save countless lives and minimise suffering – providing people in the regular conduct of their lives take basic precautions.

There still are too many who do not accept that, at one level, it’s simply a matter of claiming adequate social space, washing your hands, and avoiding contact with eyes, nose and mouth - personal responsibility as the ultimate solution.

Beyond that, workers, employers, parents and citizens, are being called upon to make changes in the ways they have conceptualised their relationships with their natural and social environments.

Governments are now being forced to recalibrate revenue and expenditure estimates in the face of assured fiscal crises while addressing critical and otherwise under-served needs in the social services sector. Food import substitution remains a compelling option along with reduced reliance on imported consumer durables, even as aviation and shipping lanes close.

It might just be that we are all in a rendezvous with economic disaster, but maybe, just maybe, the flattening of the curve also brings with it a new dispensation in which hope can find space through which to shine more brightly than it has in recent times.

(Published in the T&T Guardian - March 18, 2020)


Saturday, 14 March 2020

Guyana – the agony of independent journalism


Today’s column is inspired by the agony of independent journalism in Guyana in the midst of the current post-election turmoil.

My interest in this extends beyond the fact that I have lived and worked there and have been a frequent visitor as a journalism trainer and journalist covering a wide variety of areas for a very long time. Up to last January I was there as part of a training team for journalistic coverage of the elections.

I have also served as editorial consultant for Insight – a public affairs magazine published in Guyana - and have worked alongside the people at the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) on the development and application of media guidelines for coverage of elections there.

That experience inspired inclusion of the now-abandoned GECOM Media Monitoring Unit and system of media refereeing as part of a media best practice chapter in an Elections Handbook for Caribbean journalists edited by Lennox Grant (a former media referee in Guyana) and myself in 2009.

I am saying all of this because people are entitled to raise questions about my personal credentials as a Trini on this issue. But I think I know about what I am speaking when I say that the challenges to independent journalism in Guyana represent a grossly magnified version of what we face in T&T and in most of the English-speaking Caribbean.

For example, the challenges confronting my colleagues in Guyana today result in part from deliberate campaigns to undermine the work of professional journalists over recent years and to insert in their stead regimes of social media led misinformation and disinformation, popularly known as “fake news.”

It is a modus operandi with which established, independent media all over the world are now very familiar. Set political and sectional partisans upon professional journalists – women journalists are particularly targeted – reduce their influence, contaminate their messages, and (hopefully) commandeer the public discourse.

We have seen it here in T&T and in my work up and down the Caribbean region I have witnessed it. In some instances, even the exigencies of industry competition serve the purpose of reducing the credibility of the free press. The fact that poor media practice is so often on display also does not help.

The confusion over professional credentials in the media also adds to the messy scenario. The Guyana Press Association is made to confront this on a daily basis and, in a sense, because of the highly formal nature of the process there, people pretty much know who are the part-timers and posers with absolutely no interest in the professional requirements of transparency, balance and accountability.

I recall my own queasiness over expanding the membership base of the Media Association here some years ago. But that’s another story. The fact is that the accreditation process in Guyana provides a useful starting point for uprooting potential malpractice and identifying the pretenders.

It is of course true that not all of us have been faithful to all tenets of the profession both here and in Guyana. You can usually spot them from a mile. But the problem, by and large, is exogenous in nature and driven by elements inspired by a need to subvert the work of mainstream media.

This is no idle conspiracy theory. It is something that is being monitored closely by press freedom and human rights organisations all over the world. We essentially concede the combined impacts of declining economic fortunes and the rise of “free” media, but at the same time recognise the debilitating effects of concerted campaigns to undermine journalists and the media for which they work.

In T&T, we are also witnessing the resurrection and introduction of social media operations purporting to be legitimate news operations that cleverly combine valid and fictitious “news” reports. All in time for election 2020. Be vigilant.

Similar operations did quite a job in Guyana, and there are prices being paid for that as we speak. Our neighbour’s house is on fire, folks. This is not the distant flicker of an offshore oil platform.

(First published in the T&T Guardian on March 11, 2020)

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Privacy, surveillance and free speech in T&T


The public alarms rather belatedly activated by Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie’s revelations about the company’s purported work in T&T several years ago offer an opportunity for anyone with a genuine interest in human rights and freedom of expression to nuance the discussion into a more informed one than is currently on offer.

I am initiating this modest start, because I have so far not seen much by way of informed public commentary on the implications of threats to privacy when it comes to other rights, and the degree to which we in T&T are already partially submerged in the resulting quagmire.

The fact of the matter is that, in a fundamental sense, attempts at gratuitous derogations of the right to privacy have long been active pursuits of political administrations across the aisle in T&T, and this part of the world.
Now, this is not to render anything disclosed in Wylie’s Mindf*ck or last year’s US Senate Judiciary Committee hearings or the earlier revelations of a UK Guardian investigation of lesser concern or interest, but just to say that the predisposition of our political parties and the people who support them have never sturdily equated privacy with other inalienable human rights.

The international body on whose Council I currently sit, IFEX, accommodates Privacy International alongside organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation which looks at digital privacy, free speech, and innovation, and journalism organisations such as the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and others.

This combination of specialised interests converges at the point where there is recognition of the inter-connectedness of human rights.

It is not inconsistent that the people involved in these organisations advocate for greater transparency on the part of officialdom while at the same time insist that breaches of personal and collective privacy can have the impact of undermining the ability to operate freely as citizens and as communities of interest.

This is among the reasons why it is entirely conceivable that journalists and their representative organisations can fuss over the current wave of data protection and cyber-crime laws in this part of the world which enjoy bipartisan support and can reduce the capacity of journalists and whistle-blowers to play active roles in delivering truth to power.

Mindf*ck is earning bestseller status in T&T, for instance, not long after the Media Association has had to less spectacularly argue (against strong resistance and passive opposition) that data protection legislation as conceptualised here stands in the way of the conduct of untrammeled information flows.

We are also in the throes of the imminent imposition of surveillance activities to regulate the online conduct of citizens (about which there are legitimate concerns and are perhaps already actionable under common law and existing statute) but through which a chilling effect on free expression is more than likely to prevail.

The problem with many of these ad hoc, knee-jerk measures is that they, at their core, refuse to recognise the nature of free expression as not only the right to disseminate information, entertainment, views and news, but also an entitlement to seek and to receive such content.

It is, in this context, always irksome to hear people talk about freedom of the press as a matter only concerned with the activities of the media, without regard for the fact that such a freedom intrinsically includes the rights of the consumers of mass communication.

It is true that increasingly popular governance frameworks for the operators of online platforms can have the impact of restraining unbridled technological power, and there is a very sophisticated international discussion on this issue. But there is always a danger of over-emphasising the role of state power in the reining-in of such influence and even control.

For further illumination we may turn to the guidance of international conventions that prescribe a right to communicate privately without interference, except under the most limited circumstances.
How good it would be to have the most recent cohort of graduating attorneys pay attention to such matters. Senator Sophia Chote forgot about this in her wise counsel to them last weekend.

Anyone challenging or gloating over Wylie’s revelations must also embrace an introspective on how we truly feel about such matters. This is more than just PNM/UNC business.

(First published in the T&T Guardian in November 2019)


Understanding T&T's Procurement Debate

It was while thinking of an information/connectivity metaphor for this week’s column, last Monday’s internet blackout descended upon us like...