Thursday, 12 September 2019

Disasters and the Journalism Challenge

Daily, the unfolding catastrophe in The Bahamas is providing instruction for communicators on some of the most important features of managing the persistent nightmare of our geography and state of relative under-development in the Caribbean.

It is much too early to focus on a finite “toll” or anything of the sort – whether it be lives or property or economic or humanitarian opportunity. But it is always a good time to re-visit some of the things we have learnt through experience and observation over the years. This is especially pertinent as we in T&T remain firmly implanted in the middle of a hurricane season and can all remember last year’s flooding and 6.9 earthquake.

One of the first things diligent professional communicators learn about disaster management is the importance of verified information. Though disaster officials are often aware of the likelihood of greater numbers and more dramatic statistics, it is important for them to ensure a high level of orderliness and precision based on what is known and not the latest round of speculation.

On Monday, one Bahamian publication, relying on information gleaned from “a (single) hurricane rescue worker” who cited unnamed “officials”, claimed that more than 2,300 people had been killed by last week’s hurricane. This may or may not have prompted the country’s police force to later announce that, as at Sunday, 45 bodies had been discovered in the Hurricane Dorian affected areas of Abaco and Grand Bahama.

The news story came from a publication that had earlier reported that people described as “Haitian mobs” had been responsible for widespread looting, home invasions and robberies in Great Abaco.
Don’t get me wrong. The figures can and will change, and there is certain to be a “Haitian” issue, but for the moment it is highly irresponsible to present the unverified as fact.

At a workshop organised by the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) last year, following the 2017 hurricanes, we discussed some of these phenomena. (By the way, we have factored in a climate crisis perspective on all this.)

It was remarkable, I noted, how the purveyors of “disaster porn” are attracted to the unverified; how they are also strong devotees of conspiracy theories, capable of spotting the most remote flavour of partisan favouritism, and are far more prone to entertaining irresponsible, inflammatory language to describe people and things happening around them. We have them here for sure.

The “mainstream” media are typically and haplessly victimised by this, perennially being accused of conspiring with officialdom to withhold important information – before, during and after bad things happen.

Yet, when push comes to shove, people expect radio and television stations to be on the air, newspapers to be published and journalists to be presenting unvarnished fact.

This leads to another thing we discussed in Barbados last year: How quickly the online trolls and mischief-makers disappear and re-appear at times of crisis. On the eve of Hurricane Maria in Dominica, for example, the island was in the throes of sharp political conflict.

The online warriors were hard at work. Category 5 defamation, false accusations and damaging propaganda were in abundance. Then Maria landed. While media workers reported for duty, the online combatants remained under their beds. All that remained was journalism … until the water settled, and the usual suspects were back at it again when it was safe.

In examining this, the focus for some of us has been and continues to be on the plight of working journalists operating in the so-called “mainstream media” at times of disaster. This is so because while social media buffs can be helpful, there is a validating role played by established media that has been determined to be indispensable.

Additionally, media workers in the Caribbean have displayed a sense of professional duty that is almost completely absent on the part of many others at times like these.

This is particularly so when it comes to the independent verification of information (and, yes, mistakes are made), the maintenance of plant and equipment to assure operational continuity, and a level of selflessness many media professionals consider to be a part of their job specifications.

All of this to say that at a time when journalism is under constant attack, there is a necessity for precisely what it sets out to achieve – the validation of potentially life-changing information, a strong professional commitment to present accurate news and information, and a rare level of courage.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

The flickering light of free expression

Using the opportunity here to raise multiple issues, instead of the usual one – not that they are unrelated.

Every now and then you see a social media post (none of which will be repeated here) and you wonder whether the marketplace of public opinion is indeed having the impact of leveling off extremes – of separating wheat from chaff, sheep from goats, lambi from freshwater conch.

The idea behind freedom of expression is that out of the unmediated exchange of news, information, creativity and opinion, there emerges an eventual equilibrium that takes people closer to rational conclusions, facts, and enlightenment.

This is the exact opposite of what propaganda seeks to achieve – especially when it seeks to stifle dissent by creating conditions for an imbalance in information flows. This is also the dynamic that disinformation sets out to undermine and destroy.

Our authoritarian instincts clearly also do not sit comfortably with rights and freedoms. Freedom of expression is thus not readily recognisable, in such a context, as a multi-pronged process involving not only the dissemination of expression, but an ability to seek out and to access expression.

Recent discussions on the nature of our Freedom of Information Act exposed a lack of understanding of such a scenario. Access to information is, in fact, a freedom of expression issue insofar as such a right identifies an ability to also research and to acquire information – official information in particular.

The Media Association’s (MATT’s) nuanced response to the challenge was thus spot-on, and the ensuing official responses indicative of an instinct toward the authoritarian.

All of this long-windedness to come to another, as I said not unrelated, point: The perpetual exclamation that “Caricom is ah waste of time” and has achieved nothing in its 46 years.

I have spoken with multiple regional decision-makers in the Caribbean who have, in not so many words, expressed such an uninformed view – despite the existence of over 20 institutions, and numerous areas of functional cooperation that keep some of them in office.

Two developments reminded me of this recently. The first relates to online responses to the news that internecine conflict arose during a caucus of Caricom heads of government in Saint Lucia last week when the subject of the Caribbean Development Fund (CDF) came up.

The other has to do with the fact that the people at the Carifesta Secretariat in T&T had lumped Caricom journalists with “foreign” journalists in tailoring the event’s media accreditation process.
First, the CDF issue. It is disturbing that people who know more than I do are not chiming in on the question of imbalances (“disparities” is the word used in the official literature) in the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME) process, and what the CDF was designed to achieve.

There is need for a mature discussion on this – for all 15 member states to take a “deep breath” on this issue, as Dr Rowley put it, because Jamaican intransigence (even as the Golding Report proposes a strategic opting out of it all) can provide an opportunity to revisit the old MDC/LDC formula.

More on that another time. Now on to Carifesta XV. It has taken the patience required of my very first point – acknowledging a marketplace that mixes sense with nonsense – and an understanding of point two, regarding the ignorance that prevails on things Caricom, to have not lost my cool when I realised that the Carifesta folks in Port-of-Spain had not instinctively recognised the event as a quintessential Caricom activity.

Further, that the region’s single market process, to which we are bound both by domestic legislation (the Caricom Act and others) and international law (the Treaty of Chaguaramas) accords (qualified) equal treatment to all nationals of countries signed on to the revised treaty.

This forms the basis of the advocacy some of us have engaged in over some rather hard years to promote recognition of categories such as media professionals and entertainers (“artistes”) as worthy of such status. But there is also an accompanying moral obligation.

Thanks to Keith Subero, in particular, for helping to have the initial Carifesta error corrected – if it was considered to be an error based on ignorance in the first place.

This country’s gradual passivity on Caricom affairs over the years has indeed been taking its toll. So much so that the marketplace of free expression on things Caricom is served by rather dim lighting at the moment, both here and in our immediate neighbourhood.

Originally published in the T&T Guardian - July 10, 2019

Monday, 29 April 2019

'Passages' for Guyana Launch

Trinidadian journalist/poet, Wesley Gibbings, will launch his new collection of poems, 'Passages' in Guyana on Friday May 3, 2019.

The event will be hosted at Moray House in Georgetown from 6.00 p.m. to 7.30 p.m.

This is Gibbings' fifth collection poems. His first collection was published while he was a secondary school student.

He is also an award-winning journalist and press freedom advocate whose work on media development has been widely published.

Signed copies of 'Passages' will be on sale at the launch at an introductory price of $3,000.