Sunday, 27 May 2007

CHALLENGES TO CARIBBEAN JOURNALISM

Overview of major developments affecting the practice of journalism in the Caribbean

Wesley Gibbings
General Secretary
Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers

Rodney Bay, St Lucia – May 2, 2007


The ACM has found that in order for freedom of the press to be pursued there need to be permanent institutions concerned with addressing issues of professional development, interested in developing mechanisms to promote institution-building and engaged in highlighting the need for enlightened commercial and political environments conducive to free expression.

It can be surmised that most difficulties currently associated with real and perceived threats to the free press emanate both directly and indirectly from these factors. For example, deficient professional performance and standards can be linked to oppressive official sanctions designed to rein-in elements in the media deemed to be reckless and recalcitrant.

Political pressure can take the form of actions distinctly commercial in nature. For example, the withdrawal of state advertising to CaymanNet News in the Cayman Islands in 2004 was in response to politically unfavourable journalism, so too the current withholding of state advertising in the Stabroek News of Guyana.

There is also evidence that commercial advertising is frequently used as an instrument of effective prior censorship and that the concentration of media ownership in some instances, particularly by business conglomerates, can lead to a high incidence of self-censorship to protect business interests.

There appears to exist a thread of connectivity among all these elements of the media dynamic in the Caribbean. Low professional standards, defective media institutions, adverse political circumstances and uncompromising commercial interests, conspire severally and collectively to create conditions that militate against the free press in the Caribbean.

Consequently, there cannot be a discussion on the current stream of restrictive telecommunications regulations in the Caribbean without also examining questions of professionalism in the practice of journalism and institutional capacity within broadcast media houses. This is not to suggest that the penalty for poor journalism or undeveloped media outfits should be punitive laws and regulations, but that an essential connection exists and should be recognised.

It is certainly preferable that, however imperfect, the media ought to be free to publish and journalists ought to remain unfettered in the exercise of their duties.

The debate on broadcasting regulations in Grenada is not, therefore, without strong relevance to the 2006 debate on the introduction of a Broadcast Code in Trinidad and Tobago. The objective antecedents appear to be the same. So too, must we regard a proposed media policy in Guyana and the effort by the government of St Lucia in 2005 to formulate sanctions within the country’s criminal code against communication that could have the effect of “injuring the public interest.” The controversial amendment was later repealed.

It is no coincidence that some of these new measures occur at a time when the broadcast media, in particular, have expanded at an unprecedented rate without a corresponding enhancement of professional capabilities. More has not meant better – though more always presents a better possibility of greater things emerging. The more frequencies you have, the greater the chance that the diversity this medium offers can be realised.

There is a way of making the point that more has not meant better which borders on resentment of the new voices that have emerged and the suggestion that the traditional platforms have recently played a superior role in advancing the cause of freedom and democracy. With few exceptions, can anyone tell the difference?

Now that we understand some of these basic submissions, we must consider what needs to be done to ensure that this combination of sometimes complex factors do not undermine the freedoms to which we are committed.

Should the cost of free speech remain limited to passive professional tolerance of the indiscretions and malpractice of some in lieu of official intervention?

Needless to say, censorship including situations of prior censorship through licensing regimes, needs to be resisted. There is no question about it and we should never yield to the temptation to release the cross that we bear – the high cost of a free press and free speech. There is no room for compromise on this.

Most certainly, this is not a prescription for anarchy since we also assert the value of longstanding legal principles which pronounce on questions of defamation, privacy and exceptions to the coverage of selected matters related to court and parliamentary proceedings and the safety of individuals and groups.

However, it must be our prerogative to challenge such provisions and to build rational cases to support our various contentions. For example, the modern world is finding less and less space for the prosecution of criminal defamation cases. Outright censorship of books and movies and music is also an anachronism not accommodated in the age of the internet and new multimedia technologies. Even so, the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago signalled in 2006 that its sights were also set on internet content for regulation. Nothing more needs to be said about this. The same language has emanated from the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica.

Some of our countries have correctly adopted ratings systems that are steps in the right direction. As far as the monitoring of media content goes, there are statutory agencies such as the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica and the various telecommunications agencies and non-governmental, self-regulatory mechanisms such as the Eastern Caribbean Press Council and the Media Complaints Commission of Trinidad and Tobago.

In an ideal situation there would be none of this. But such a condition does not now exist.

It is preferable that we find internally-generated mechanisms to provide the obvious direction we require. We must continue to insist that the best media law is no media law and the strongest, most effective regulation is self-regulation.

If we begin the debate from the perspective of how much freedom we need to surrender we miss the point of its inherent value in shaping better lives and better societies. There are too many examples of the failure of official regulation to create the conditions for more enlightened, democratic societies.

The best journalist is the free journalist, which is not to say that all free journalists are good journalists, but that those who are free are best positioned to excel and to serve the public interest in the way the profession was meant to do.

A VISION FOR CARIBBEAN PROGRAMMING

NOTES ON A VISION FOR CARIBBEAN PROGRAMMING – Wesley Gibbings, San Juan, Puerto Rico, February 11, 2006

It is extremely difficult to discuss a vision for regional media programming without addressing fundamental issues related to a broader vision for the Caribbean. The difficulties we have had in bringing indigenous media outputs to the broadcasting mainstream owes as much to questions of production values as to an underdeveloped sense of self.

It is not that we have been completely oblivious to the requirement of a new Caribbean aesthetic in the development of our own media, but that we have somehow always embraced issues of marketability in terms solely of what is externally acceptable. This now happens even as the global market is turning in on itself to the extent that internal/external dichotomies are fast disappearing. It would however appear that cultural products remain among the last bastions of continued discrimination … some say protection.

I have never, in this regard, supported official regulation as a device to guarantee airplay for domestic programmes and music. It contravenes basic principles of free expression and fair business practice and vainly attempts to legislate taste. Hopefully, greater numbers of Caribbean media people will strongly repudiate attempts to impose quota systems in their respective radio and television systems.

Current parochial formulations also willfully dismiss notions of a Caribbean paradigm. The current formulation in Trinidad and Tobago, for example, would place the music of Bob Marley – the greatest West Indian that ever lived - in the category of foreign content. No one has also thought about where we would place externally-located musicians such as Sean Paul and Heather Headley or filmmakers Horace Ove, Menelik Shabazz and Isaac Julien.

This belief that we can be in the world and not of it betrays a deficient sense of self-worth and our people would do well to snap out it sooner rather than later. 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. If you also 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 again. In the language of the Trinidadian school child, 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 also look now 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, satellite broadcasts 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, gladly, 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, to me, is our task. Not to write more laws that stifle free expression. But to reach the hearts and minds of people under siege from violence, inequity and poverty.

My vision for Caribbean programming thus embraces all that there is in the world, because we are in the world and the world is in us. Here in this oasis of movement and sound and colour and great love, it is a vision of a better place. A place that is free. A place the songwriter calls the land of hope and glory.

There is much for our cameras, sound recorders and pens to capture and much more for us to set free. It is time for us to move forward with far more confidence than we have in the past.

Pablo Neruda said these words when he accepted his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971:

“Each and every one of my verses has chosen to take its place as a tangible object, each and every one of my poems has claimed to be a useful working instrument, each and every one of my songs has endeavoured to serve as a sign in space for a meeting between paths which cross one another, or as a piece of stone or wood on which someone, some others, those who follow after, will be able to carve the new signs.”

Writers, producers, broadcasters, these are your marching orders for this century as a Caribbean people, engaged in building a future, committed, confident and free.