Friday, 24 February 2017

Calling Out the Online Fakes

As an information free marketeer, I am instinctively not as panicked about what is currently being described as “fake news/information” in the public sphere as many of my colleagues in the free expression and press freedom communities, because I think there are paths to addressing some of its worst effects.

It is understandably concerning to bona fide professional journalists that one of the core functions of the fake news phenomenon is the deliberate undermining of otherwise legitimate sources of news and information in order to command political or corporate market space.

For instance, one of the paths to the sources of this category of public information would be an easily recognisable and explicit campaign to diminish the value of old or legacy media, and their operatives, in the eyes of the consumers of news and information. This includes personal smear campaigns against journalists, among other strategies.

Keep your eyes on the people clearly engaged in achieving this objective, and not far away you would more likely than not find a “new” or emerging outlet offering the “real” news, presumably unfiltered by political or corporate interests. If you barely scratch the surface of these “alternative” sources of opinion, news and analysis you recognise the raw backbone of campaigns conceived to prop up the agendas of sectional interests.

These activities also ride on the backs of legitimate programmes to widen access to public information, protect informal and unauthorised sources of such information and provide platforms for the expression of people and interests otherwise marginalised by traditionally skewed, oligarchic mass media environments.

Exponents employ the techniques of traditional news coverage to offer deliberately misleading information by integrating opinion with fact and verifiable data with false statistics.

Investments in such operations span a variety of business models though, more often than not, they tend to be lacking in easily recognisable operational viability and must be sustained by non-core sources of revenue. Ask then the question. Who is paying for this?

For the consumer, there are some other simple, basic questions to ask. Who are the proprietors of the enterprises offering not only “alternative” perspectives but “alternative” facts and information?

In most instances, nowadays, we are speaking of shady online operations. Traditional “mainstream” media don’t usually have such a challenge. Some are publicly-listed and have boards of directors whose members are well-known to everyone. In other instances, there are private companies whose owners are known and whose business records are, by statute, capable of being assessed.

Legacy media operations also have editorial hierarchies, small and large, and liabilities for professional and other misconduct are clearly established. There are teams of journalists who are known to everyone and routinely operate under guidelines that have implications for their continued employment.

Newer, credible online-only operations offer a similarly transparent corporate profile and we usually have a clear idea of ownership and professional responsibility.

The “fake news” strategists are also usually easily found behind the dissemination of salacious content to bolster other assertions. In Jamaica, where I am currently, some of the content being circulated via WhatsApp, Facebook and other platforms about the systematic harvesting of human organs for international trade is known to be the same material being distributed among T&T audiences.

The ensuing heightening of public concern about this new form of criminal behaviour fits easily into the frame of politically-motivated actions to establish the failure of politicians in power to conquer the undeniable plague of criminal violence.

Human trafficking as an area of legitimate and serious regional concern is also gaining prominence as a similar source of material for the strategists involved in the “fake news” business.

In Jamaica, where some of the features of cyber-crime legislation being considered in T&T are already in place, the difficulty with policing such provisions has come to the fore well ahead of justifiable concerns about their constitutionality. It is my view, by the way, that imposing laws that criminalise an expanded variety of public expression, in this case online content, is a blatant contravention of the guarantee of free expression.

Additionally, only last weekend, Jamaican police spokesperson, Supt Stephanie Lindsay, bemoaned the fact that having a law against online information leading to “annoyance, distress or anxiety” was “overwhelming the police services” by causing a diversion of resources that can be otherwise employed.

The “fake news” phenomenon, fuelled by voyeuristic online audiences and functional media illiteracy is of understandable concern to legislators but their official interventions should not be solely a response to the political damage such material is capable of inflicting.

This situation should instead provide the impetus behind more stringent application of existing civil and criminal law, the validating and strengthening of legitimate new and old media operations and a concerted programme to promote higher levels of media literacy.

At a workshop I attended on the subject in Jakarta last year there was insertion of concern that media literacy could not be reasonably advocated in an environment in which “old-fashioned” illiteracy prevailed. But media literacy is a huge part of the solution to the bigger issues.

For the moment, discerning consumers of public news and information can begin by asking the questions I have proposed in order to determine the bona fides of their sources on information.

Enemies of the free press are not all proponents of the new “alternative” forms but are wont to favour the demise of legacy media, in the process affirming their complicity in undermining one of the more important pillars of the democratic process.

All of this places an additional onus on trusted sources of news to try to always get it right and to set higher standards for professional performance. This is not always easy to achieve but its pursuit is vitally important, especially under current circumstances.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Facing 2017

January 1 - Today, we reflect on a year that presented to the media some of the sternest challenges of the modern era. It was a period during which, internationally, the forces against press freedom gained oppressive and, occasionally murderous ground.

At the regional level, though we escaped the worst effects of growing violence and grievous attack, a combination of internal and exogenous factors led to serious challenges to the flourishing of independent, professional journalism and media practice generally.

In response, we have seemingly failed to convince all stakeholders that the best route to development through information and enlightened action is the viability of an industry founded on a commitment to fair, balanced and professional journalistic performance.

This, to me, represents the most critical challenge to the formal media industry, and associated structures for professional practice based on longstanding principles and instruction. The ensuing conundrum offers up a variety of emerging options that have contributed, more than anything else, to the discussion on post-truth output and the dominance of opinion and propaganda over fact.

It remains our belief that journalism presents to our societies the best available opportunity to capture the truth of our Caribbean existence and that by strengthening the media’s institutional structures and enhancing its stock of professional resources, the region will be better equipped to engage the critical development questions.

This in no way devalues the impact of other, informal sources of information flows, but represents the consolidation of an indispensable pillar of civil society. There is no reason why these two streams cannot reside alongside each other and to intersect, whatever their essential differences in purpose, structure and eventual aspiration.

Media owners and managers need at this time to create better conditions for the continued growth of professionalism. Representative media and media worker organisations also need to pursue more enlightened paths to development. There is, as well, the imperative of personal, professional development.

Issues related to the advent of cyber-crime legislation and other related laws will continue to engage our close attention and a network of hemispheric and international support has already been activated to provide critical legal and other assistance. There also continue to be concerns related to recent broadcasting legislation.

In 2016, the ACM attempted to play its part through efforts involving our national affiliates and collaborators and our international partners. This occurred at the level of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), a seat on whose Steering Committee we currently occupy, and through the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) on whose Councils we sit both at the international and wider regional levels. We were also elected to serve on the inaugural executive board of the recently established African, Caribbean and Pacific Press Clubs Federation (ACP-PCF).

We have also collaborated with the United Nations system, through the Caribbean Broadcasting Union and UNICEF and with UNESCO to execute two important projects to first develop and launch a guide to coverage of Children and their issues in the Caribbean and also to continue our work on building a regional framework for Media Self-Regulation.

Among our ongoing concerns are the shortcomings of national representative organisations in the 10 countries represented by the ACM, in addition to our national Focal Points. For 2017, our priority list must pay greater attention to the building of a more supportive institutional infrastructure, both as a regional organisation and as individual national associations, to achieve greater viability on the ground.

(Excerpt from my statement as President of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers)


Thursday, 15 December 2016

Evil and the Faces of Death in Trinidad & Tobago

There in the Deaths and Memorials section of the newspaper was the face of someone I had known. At 25, a newspaper reader tends to spend less time on that page than Grandma and Grandpa who would spread the Guardian out wide on the dining room table and read each line: “Son of so and so … Brother of so and so.”

The picture was the kind you took for your passport at the time. Pretentiously officious specifications – no glasses, eyes fixed on the camera lens, face occupying between 25 and 35 mm within a frame of 51 by 51mm. Do not show your teeth, please.

I remembered him. He was a short guy, very churchy. He liked cricket and bowled impressive right-handed off-breaks. We met at church camp and, thereafter, occasionally along the parade of life as young men. We hugged and routinely related the same anecdotes – he had clipped the bail between the off and middle stumps, zooming at 90 degrees around my bat. Hahahahaha …

But there he was; in the Deaths and Memorials section, looking past the camera straight at us. I still don’t know how he found himself there. Since then, I rarely skip that page and I look more carefully at the pictures that tell stories.

Last week, I had occasion to piece together the stories behind a few faces I had not seen before. Never met these folks, but there was something in those faces.

Page One and there was picture number one. Mark Lyndersay and Andrea De Silva would have noted the heavy re-touching on her beaming face, hands wrapped around her neck as on a cup of hot Chinese tea. Facebook perfect. Or was it for a mantle piece at home? An interested suitor? A smile held a second away from being lost as the photographer maddeningly fiddled for control. Klatak! Klatak! Steups.

That day, she would have fretted with her hair – a friend, mom, an old aunt, the lady at the beauty salon drawing gratuitously from the numerous gels and other hair products. She had bagged the job and this was her moment away from the facelessness of the congregation.

On Page Five, a more mature woman in black and white. The smile of the proud. Someone had taken that shot perhaps at a family gathering, a party, some get-together valued as highly as her carefully plotted curls and big, looped earrings and measured smile. The kind of smile that blots the sad curve of your eyes. Look at the picture long enough, though, and you cannot quite capture the precise emotion.

Back to Page One and inset, two guys. One younger than the next. Keep your eyes on the camera. Don’t move. A drivers licence, no doubt. The next one the kind of shot that goes behind a laminated workers ID. The one you display proudly to family having bagged the job. Klatak! Klatak!

The day before, Page Three and grief. Sleepless eyes, bloodshot from tears. Hair pulled back hurriedly, grey strands like sun-flares around her head. Is that a tear on her cheek? A mole? An imperfection captured by the camera in her house some unwelcome hour of the day?

Same page. Three faces near the crumpled car. Two wore chains. The cock-eyed one had a silver chain his mother probably did not like and the other young fellow wore beads, his eyes brimming with the confidence of youth. A struggling goatie for effect and what looked like a cigarette-stained lower lip. Below him a defiant face. I bet he played football and was good at it.

Pages One and Five tell stories that have invoked, in the public domain, use of the word “evil” – a moral rather than a legal construct, thereby requiring, for some, a response beyond the realm of human responsibility and accountable society. Yet, there is seamless resort to such a description in the context of pervasive violence and death and grief and a dichotomy that contrasts “evil” with “good”.

The late (great) author/poet, Wayne Brown, once wrote many years ago in a newspaper column headlined ‘The Child of the Sea’ that he had known people “so evil that, when they hated, a literal stench would come from them.”

Then, Page Three and the crumbled shell of metal, glass, rubber and speed – lots of it. The end probably came loud and quick. About 15 years ago, there was the slow, crunching sound of car on asphalt and my grip on the steering as if turning wheels in the air brought direction and control and … life.

In this case, those faces were the faces of death. There is a deep sadness in all of this that yields as much paralytic anger as it does tears. The kind of emotion that spins the steering wheel even in mid-flight.

In my country, there are faces of death and we witness the passing parade even in the noise and the haze of revelry and mindless strife. Turning the pages has thus become an even more arduous task.

First published in the T&T Guardian on December 15, 2016