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.

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