Thursday, 21 June 2018

Eyes Wide Open for Disinformation

Disinformation and propaganda disguised as truth constitute more than a minor threat to social and political stability. This has been found to be so everywhere such practices are evident.

Responsible authorities and non-state institutions have been keeping a sharp eye on this, within the context of the use of new and social media, for about two decades now. Free expression rapporteurs from the United Nations, Europe, Africa and the Americas have issued more than one joint communiqué on the subject. There is also a lot of literature on traditional propaganda campaigns and how they work.

In the meantime, there is a growing body of direction on how this problem can be significantly dealt with – particularly when it comes to addressing the quality of traditional and new media audiences – without substantially threatening free expression.

The basic modus operandi behind the most recent versions of this phenomenon are now well known and understood and the direction flows of such information are becoming easier to track.

We know that both elements supportive of governments and those in opposition are routinely co-opted to facilitate and to enhance flows of disinformation. There are also non-state private actors that may for a number of reasons attempt to sway public opinion on a variety of matters, some criminal in nature.

I have repeatedly argued in fora examining such issues that a primary, durable intervention would be to focus on improving the discerning eyes and ears of receivers of news and information. “Media and information literacy” is the fancy term employed by development people nowadays.

Let’s break this down a bit and assume someone in a Whatsapp group posts a social media message ostensibly emanating from a senior police officer.

Let’s also say there is reference to a “Home Affairs” department of government and “upcoming elections” in the country.

What we would need are people to start asking some basic questions and to apply a more naturally sceptical pre-disposition. Firstly, do we have a “home affairs” department in T&T? Secondly, what “upcoming elections”?

Then, armed with an abundance of scepticism, portions of the message from your inbox can be entered into a search engine or one of several websites now used to identify “fake news.” Snopes is an easy one to use.

Voilà! “Home Affairs” and “upcoming elections” together with other key terms used in the Whatsapp message will yield an October 17, 2017 missive from South African officials regarding ANC leadership elections there last year – replicated almost word for word in the Whatsapp message. Takes a few minutes.

The next, slightly more difficult exercise, would be to work out ‘who’ might be behind what appears to be a coordinated effort to generate panic and concern about a visitation from some “home department” to verify elections-related information.

Many times, the person who innocently posts clearly bogus information on the group, would try to later diminish the potential harm by stating that such information can serve as a useful warning about the possibility of fake state operatives making the rounds.

Inquisitive sceptics (a condition to which some journalists are prone) would then position the finding alongside prevailing disinformation on, let’s say, the application of the property tax - to cite one possible, non-exclusive lead - and a variety of complementary online resources, including shady “news” outlets and supportive Facebook groups and pages.

Now, be clear, there is an essential difference between misinformation and disinformation. What online propaganda campaigns do is promote intentionally false (and often malicious) information through the use of people and channels that have the potential to innocently disseminate false information to wide and diverse audiences.

Additionally, one of the other main features of coordinated campaigns of disinformation is the effort to weaken the value of countervailing, authoritative sources of authentic information, of which the so-called “mainstream” mass media are but one.

It is therefore not surprising to often witness a high level of hostility toward and slurs directed at journalists and their media houses by politicians and their surrogates. This has been proven to be the case up North.

It’s almost axiomatic that disinformation campaigns embrace attacks on journalism and individual journalists. What is needed is a mainstream and social media consuming public that more readily diagnoses some pretty self-evident symptoms. Keep your eyes wide open!

(Originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian)

Thursday, 3 May 2018

A state of media confusion

So, we observe World Press Freedom Day. It's usually only journalists who believe this has anything to do with them. It always seems that so many people along the communication spectrum do not understand that the interests of journalists and journalism run so wide and deep in any society.

Much of this has to do with the fact that people don’t often realise that good media practice is a social asset. Its value is way in excess of the ability of the industry to thrive on the production of meaningful content.

It was Washington Post journalist Paul Farhi who once argued, in an obvious state of pique, that a generic, amorphous entity called “the media” did not exist and that the label was in fact an all-purpose smear used by people not moved by any obligation to make intelligent distinctions about what they read, see or hear in the public space.

Today, in T&T, we suspect this to be a fact of our own existence. Journalists have become used to the observations of both the well-meaning and those inspired by ill-will that “the media” are capable of stimulating utmost evil, despair and destruction.

Now, don’t get me wrong; all institutions such as these are capable of causing harm. In fact, an overarching commitment of the journalist’s creed implies a requirement to cause no harm.

But I have even heard and seen broadcasters and newspaper columnists and others employing mass communication platforms complain about the impact of “the media” on behaviour, on official policy, on the price of bread. “The media”, of course, comprising everybody else except them.

There continues to be a kind of intellectual sloppiness which renders people incapable of disaggregating media content and recognising the media’s implicit complexity as the sum of many diverse, inclusionary and constituent parts.

It is thus the role of those now committed to promotion of media and information literacy – currently conceptualised as a discrete programme under the banner of UNESCO – to begin the hard work of explaining to people that while a media industry exists, and journalism remains a function of such an industry in all its current manifestations, there is actually no such thing as “the media” in the sense employed by many.

Confusion over the essential qualities of media also earns special credits amid what is now being widely described as “fake news” – aka propaganda or, more accurately, deliberate untruths implanted on mass communication platforms seeking traction by the unsuspecting. The fact is, the term is also an oxymoronic expression also meant to be a slur on journalism with which you disagree.

It’s a phenomenon connected to the situation in which opposition politicians somehow beome convinced that press freedom is a requirement of modern society while their colleagues in government belatedly discover a false balance between freedom and responsibility.

It is however true that to be responsible, you must first be free. How, for example, can better journalism thrive in the absence of open access to officially-held information? How can such information flow if protections for those with information to share in the public interest do not exist?

The freedom enlightened media legislation and regulation bring can contribute more than anything else to responsible behaviour by journalists and other media players.  

Yesterday, the Media Institute of the Caribbean (MIC) convened a regional training initiative in Jamaica for media professionals with an interest in investigative journalism and those who are attempting to gain a foothold in this special branch of the profession.

This is a singularly important exercise in the context of a communication environment that does not routinely conduce to either openness with the provision of information or to enthusiastic candour with the resulting revelations.

This year’s global theme for WPFD is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law.” Within this is an open acknowledgement of the need for more, not less, journalism and a better understanding of what constitutes “the media” and all they purport to bring.

(First published in the T&T Guardian on May 2, 2018)

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Media and the Role of a Public Ombudsman

This is a presentation made in Saint Lucia on June 30, 2003 - 15 years ago - when I was asked to talk about the interface between the media and offices such as that of an Ombudsman. I believe it urges early contemplation of a variety of media issues currently of major concern.

There is not a lot I would revise, but there are certainly issues I have thought much more about over the years. 

Nature and dimensions of the media industry in the Caribbean

This aspect of the discussion requires an exploration of several internal and external dynamics and the manner in which they relate to each other and would require a far greater amount of time and energy to adequately address. It is, however, a most important element of our examination of the role of the mass media in entrenching the functions of official institutions such as the Office of an Ombudsman. And so, I would prefer, to offer just a few general comments.

An initial set of observations we may wish to make would include comments on: the changing media landscape with special reference to the use of new technologies and the corresponding emergence of non-traditional media institutions; patterns of media ownership in the context of neo liberal government policy; the impacts of these developments on access to the mass media by Caribbean people; standards of professional performance in the media and the direct and indirect impact of emerging social policy initiatives on the free press.

The Changing Media Landscape

The rapid growth of new information technologies has served to dramatically diversify the existing range of mass media platforms. There are now debates, for example, on where Internet-based media ought to located on the national media landscape and whether persons involved in such activity can be considered a part of the cadre of mass media professionals.

There are also issues related to intellectual property and access to the material being disseminated via these media. Development communicators, in particular, have been concerned with the possible linkages between these new media and their traditional counterparts.

Patterns of Media Ownership

This area of concern owes much to the traditional dominance of broadcast media in the region and the manner in which neo-liberal macro-economic policies have recently influenced a widening of access to ownership of radio and television systems. The current worldwide debate on the use of broadcast ownership policies, as opposed to direct content regulation, in order to promote diversity is not entirely irrelevant, but is certainly not an immediate concern in most Caribbean jurisdictions. In many instances, though, the continued insistence on state dominance of the broadcast sector poses a singular threat to promotion of diverse views and the development of alternative sources of information and opinion.

Standards of Professional Performance

There has been intense and recent debate on the building of higher standards of professional performance in the Caribbean media. This relates only in part to the emergence of new technologies, but is by no means exclusive to it.

Governments, private enterprise, social organisations and the media themselves have often initiated such discussions. For the most part, media institutions have not responded very proactively to redress striking deficiencies in the quality of resources resident in their newsrooms and production departments. This stresses the need for journalists and media workers to intervene on their own behalf through the development of professional organisations with a mandate to pursue new opportunities for training and professional enhancement. The ACM sees this as among its major priorities.

Emerging Social Policy Initiatives

The several social crises that have accompanied Caribbean societies into the new era have been met by a string of corresponding social policy initiatives. Many Caribbean societies are, for example, debating cultural policies and new directions in training and education. New policy frameworks are also being devised to attend to issues such as conflict and the disintegration of so many of our societies.

These initiatives have not been having a neutral impact on the free press. Cultural policies to counter the impact of what is described as the penetration of non-Caribbean cultural value systems have led to the proposed imposition of measures such as broadcast content quotas and other such threats to the free operation of media enterprises. The ACM is, in this regard, keeping a close eye on official content-related interventions in the broadcast media including the somewhat misguided attempt to impose indigenous content quotas.

Matters of social cohesion also, for example, led in Trinidad and Tobago to formulation of equal opportunity legislation which, in its initial design, dramatically threatened notions of free expression and, by extension, the practice of the free press. In Jamaica, proposed anti-corruption legislation was eventually amended when it was brought to the government's attention that restrictions on media reporting on corruption investigations considerably hampered the work of the free press.

The region has also recently been characterised by a new era of politics with an unprecedented string of changes in government and, in some instances, a rotating of roles between government and opposition. Exposure to this apparent level of political vulnerability is, in my view, partly responsible for what can only be described as a new wave of subtle but dangerous threats to free expression and the free press in our countries.

Implications for enhancing the work of the Ombudsman

Now, where does all of this leave the Ombudsman? For one, I believe the unfolding scenario pretty much leaves us on the same side of the information fence. If there isn't a sufficient and effective basis for asserting a change in the culture of silence and secrecy afflicting our societies then we may as well just pack up and go home.

The truth is, notwithstanding our creative candour as expressed in the calypso and chutney and other cultural expressions, our small, essentially authoritarian societies all eventually resort to silence over the risk of change. Witness the conspiracy of silence over the abuse of women and children. Witness the institutionalisation of discrimination. Witness the presence of the untouchables in our societies. We know them all very well. They run free and they run rampant. They cross the political divide. They are among us. We see them on the television and they are in the newspapers all the time.

In some respects, the role of the media and the role of the Ombudsman are almost identical. Some jurisdictions have entrenched free press and free expression provisions to ensure that, at least prima facie, the media enjoy the benefit of constitutional cover for their work. By comparison, such constitutional protections are not in all instances provided Ombudsmen and their equivalent.

The fact that there are these mutually inclusive objectives but uneven capabilities ought to mean the emergence of a level of collaboration which does not now exist. But this cannot happen if there is not a greater level of confidence in and respect for our respective roles.

Regional networks and outlets

I am assuming that this sub-heading of the task I have been assigned refers to regional media outfits that might be pre-disposed to outputs from the respective Ombudsman's offices. But it might also relate to existing information networks with explicit developmental objectives and which bring professional communicators with their counterparts in the regional press.

I can be of much more use in making suggestions with respect to the latter group. In this regard, the Information for Action group ( devised by development communicators in environment and health and Caribbean journalists about three years ago, might be a useful platform for messages related to the work of the Ombudsman.

There are also several international efforts that routinely feed information to regional and international journalists and communicators on development issues that can be of use. The Drum Beat Forum ( of the Development Initiative partnered by institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation, BBC World Service Trust, The CHANGE Project, CIDA, Exchange, FAO, Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs, OneWorld, The Panos Institute, PCI, Soul City, The Synergy Project, UNAIDS, UNICEF, USAID and WHO can also be quite useful.

Regional and Individual Country Issues

This sub-heading would require a session of far greater duration than this current one to do justice to the subject of free press issues in the region. What I can offer though would be a general comment on the state of the free press in the region.

I am convinced that even as there exists relative peace between the major social actors and the press, there is a pervasive, underlying ambivalence on issues of the free press that will eventually land us in a lot of trouble very soon. I am observing the diplomatic, official silence on the recent jailing of journalists in Cuba; the absence of any direct reference to attacks on the press in Haiti at multi-lateral discussions with this new CARICOM ally and I am very uncomfortable with the ease with which it had been possible to use immigration regulations, that are ostensibly in transition pending a CARICOM single market, to expel journalists and media workers from some of our jurisdictions.

As mentioned before, we also need to be equally nervous about the slew of social policy objectives supportive of notions of development that threaten free expression and the unhindered work of the mass media, based on misguided notions of an explicit developmental role for the press.