Saturday, 19 December 2009

Returning Home

I have perhaps spent too much time paying attention to the affairs of the wider Caribbean state and not enough on what has been happening in the country of my birth.

Much of this has been fueled by my conviction that the countries subscribing to the notion of a Caribbean Community should have long dropped their claims to individual self-determination in exchange for a broader notion of regional sovereignty. A single Caribbean country. A United States of the Caribbean - all five million of us, with Haiti and Suriname awaiting their respective turns.

Since 1994, I have been employed by institutions in St Lucia, Jamaica and Guyana and have undertaken various professional assignments or participated in conferences and workshops in almost every other English, Spanish, French and Dutch-speaking state in the Caribbean Basin.

In the process, I have come to know Kingston as well as I know Kingstown and Georgetown as well as I know Port of Spain. Moving around Castries is as easy for me as it is to weave through the narrow streets of St John’s or St George’s or Basseterre.

I am yet to identify any substantial distinction in the ethos of these places and their people. What is the difference between Gouyave and Anse la Raye? Is the conch in Nassau sweeter than the lambi St Vincent?

Some cultural antecedents vary through historical accident. The spell-check in the average Guyanese version of Word will not, for instance, include the word ‘parang’ and it takes forever to bury the dead in Jamaica even as Muslims in Trinidad and Guyana measure the time in hours. At one time St Lucian Hindus sent corpses overseas for cremation while in Trinidad and Guyana funeral pyres have been found for ages near waterways and beaches from where the ashes of the dead reach for other shores.

These are stories told by poets and musicians everywhere in these small islands and deceptively large mainland territories where people are joined, almost mystically, by both the past and by the present.

My own journey probably started with the poems of Derek Walcott in my youth followed by a visit with cousins in Barbados in 1979 and family in St Lucia a little later. Then, in the mid 80s, I met the vast rivers of Guyana I only knew through Wilson Harris and earlier Port Royal in Jamaica when I honeymooned with Celia in 1981 in the land of her birth.

But it can however probably be said that I only truly sailed away from Trinidad in 1994 when I took up the challenge of a job at the Caricom Secretariat in Guyana for one year. Since then, my concern about the state of our humanity has not revolved exclusively around the managed chaos of this wildly tossed human salad sprinkled recklessly across two small islands that seem, at times, like a million raindrops on an otherwise sunny day.

I grew to believe that by resolving the pain of all, the agony of the constituent parts would end.

It is the kind of mistake the old socialists made and that capitalism perhaps denies for all the wrong reasons.

Now comes the roguish behaviour and impunity of the Trinidad and Tobago government. On Friday December 18, trade unionist David Abdulah was carted away by the police during a peaceful march against the grossly unjust introduction of a new regime of land and property taxes. There has only been a whisper about its potential unconstitutional character, but the political strategists are perhaps awaiting a date in court.

Friday’s development needs to be placed alongside the new habit of using the Privileges Committee of the country’s parliament to silence dissent. Three journalists and a Senator have recently been referred to the Committee in an attempt to muzzle information and opinion of urgent public importance. In one case, the Committee proposed a ban on journalist, Andre Bagoo.

There is little to distinguish this behaviour from that displayed by the current parliamentary opposition, the UNC, which, while in office, proposed the most sweeping challenges to free expression the country has witnessed since the achievement of independence in 1962.

These two obvious wrongs do not result in something that is right, though the hypocrisy of some dissenters is painfully obvious to all independent observers. The question of moral authority in such matters also arises when it comes to the involvement of people who served in the UNC administration of 1995. I have neither forgiven them nor plan to forget what happened.

But the immediate question at hand remains the slow but definite descent into autocracy. David’s arrest, though not as traumatic as broadcaster Inshan Ishmael’s seizure and detention in 2007 under anti-terrorism laws, marks an important turning point in relations between the state and the people and emphasizes the unjust nature of what is being proposed and how it is to be introduced.

Some of us are concerned but not entirely surprised it has come to this. The culture of political intolerance is deep-seated and challenged only by the myth of a happy-go-lucky, freedom loving society.

The more I think about it, the more I think about truly returning home.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The ACM Story

It is now eight years since a group of journalists from all over the English-speaking Caribbean got together under a PAHO banner in Barbados and decided to launch the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM). The name was actually the idea of Terry Ally who thought we should simply play with the name of our predecessor organisation - the Caribbean Association of Media Workers (Camwork) so as to maintain some kind of connection with the group that had gone defunct.

We have ended up with a rather clumsy construction that has many new-comers use the acronym ACMW. We have in fact started using 'MediaWorkers' as one word and maintained the capital 'W'. A bit inconvenient and irregular, but we survive.

Some of our international friends have even asked about the term 'media workers' and why we don't simply say Association of Caribbean Journalists (ACJ) and done wid dat ...

I however think we need to maintain our description as an organisation of 'media workers' to keep the notion of a wider, more flexible arrangement for membership. This, in my view, makes perfect sense as we look at how the media are being re-arranged and reconfigured in the new digital age.

But, more about all of that another time. In a few days, we meet for the fifth time as an organisation and I am very proud of that fact. We have done this without the kind of significant resources Camwork once benefited from. We do not have a single significant financial benefactor and have been able to meet on a fairly regular basis through creative engagements with friends and institutional partners.

I look forward to Grenada over the next few days and our Fifth Biennial General Assembly. Will keep you informed.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Returning to the Charter of Civil Society

One of the more remarkable features of the two summits hosted in Trinidad and Tobago this year - (The Fifth Summit of the Americas April 17-19 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – November 27-29) – was the almost complete absence of frank discussions on the question of existing threats to human rights, especially within attending states.

In April, for example, a significant media clampdown in Venezuela and similar threats in adjoining client states of the Bolivarian empire as being tailored by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, were completely ignored. Talk about the re-admission of Cuba to the ranks of the Organisation of American States also proceeded boldly without reference to the continued harassment of journalists and bloggers there.

In this context, it was absolutely not expected that anyone would therefore utter a single word about emerging difficulties in some of the English-speaking Caribbean states where journalists do not face the same severe restrictions or harassment, but where bad signals concerning the diminution of our freedoms are being observed.

Then, in November, CHOGM 2009 came and went without any indication that freedom-loving leaders, in even the most obtuse fashion, raised the issue of disturbing trends on the African sub-continent, in South-East Asia and in Fiji in the South Pacific where the military clampdown on free speech continues.

For the countries of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) blindness to such transgressions is nothing new. We sat around the Caricom table for years even as Guyana sank into darkness and pain. Maurice Bishop’s reckless adventurism in Grenada was often at the expense of free speech and press freedom. Elsewhere, the state grip on broadcast media was used as a way of suppressing dissenting views and broadcasting bans on leading protagonists were par for the course in Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere; in earlier years now apparently being craved by insecure politicians in the 21st Century.

Now, in the midst of a re-examination of the Caricom process, the Charter of Civil Society – designed in 1997 as an instrument for guiding the nature of the development process in the Caribbean – has disappeared from the discussion.

Article 8 of the Charter says:

Freedom of Expression and Access to Information

1. Every person shall have the right to the enjoyment of freedom of expression including the right to:
(a) hold opinions and to receive and communicate ideas and information without interference and freely to send or receive communications by correspondence or other means;
(b) seek, distribute or disseminate to other persons and the public information, opinions, and ideas in any form whatever.

As Caribbean leaders run for protective cover under the umbrella of media laws and defective Access to Information legislation, to what extent has there been public recourse to this 12 year old undertaking?

Let’s put the Charter of Civil Society back on the stove. It is not even on anyone’s back-burner. Let’s remind the leaders of the commitments they once claimed would help bring not only the freedom of economic independence, but the liberty of modern nations.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Caricom Pre-Collapse

One of the most amazing things about the imminent collapse of the Caricom project is the continued state of denial of people who should know better. Hardly a skeptical journalistic brow appeared to have been raised at the recent announcement by Barbados Prime Minister David Thompson that claims of imminent Caricom doom were being "grossly exaggerated."

Who better than nervous Caricom travelers at the Immigration booths to testify that a narrowing xenophobic eye remains trained on the Caricom logo that now meaninglessly adorns our passports?

Official trade statistics remain steadfastly focused on systemic intra-regional imbalances but blind to far more extensive anomalies between our individual states and North America and Europe. Not too long ago, one Central Bank Governor, jealously eyeing Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaican jars on grocery shelves, had been moved to declare virtual 'foul' even as the other shelves of everything else were quite in order and par for the course.

"Caricom," declared former Barbadian diplomat Peter Laurie,"has exhausted itself." I actually met Laurie several times on the Caricom circuit during his many years of work with the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Barbados. I had heard him argue the Caricom case far more forcefully than almost every single current Caricom head.

"Caricom leaders have absolutely no interest in regional integration other than what petty benefits each can gouge out of it," Amb. Laurie writes. "Most of them, except for the cheapskates and freeloaders, are slowly realising that they get out less than they put in. Caricom is no longer a win-win situation,but a zero-sum game."

What could have prompted Amb. Laurie to so decry what he once supported so passionately? He does not really explain, except to argue that Caribbean people had outgrown the Caricom project.

I do not entirely agree with him on the latter point. I believe Caricom people remain mired in the filth of colonial style authoritarianism just as solidly as their leaders. Where, today, is there a strong, independent and credible human rights organisation comprising competent, committed and fearless advocates - with perhaps the exception of Jamaica and Guyana?

How many Caribbean people believe that the media should be shackled by a regime of censorship? That journalists and their media houses should become subject to the authoritarian reins of Big Brother institutions to punish and reward accordingly?

There are few Caribbean people who hold a different view, unless their preferred political party is in opposition and do not support, during that period in opposition, notions of state censorship of the media.

I will wager that in the vast majority of Caricom states, the people who occupy political space would eventually attempt to muzzle the media if they were in power. Who in power, in this space, has not - the efforts of Bruce Golding in Jamaica on the question of defamation notwithstanding?

What does this have to do with the success or failure of the Caricom project?

Well, if the founding ideals of the integration movement, as eloquently captured in the now largely forgotten Charter of Civil Society for Caricom, continue to be ignored, the best integration architecture is guaranteed to crumble and eventually disappear.

I do not agree with Mr Laurie that international trade and liberal arrangements for the movement of goods and services pose the greatest threat to Caricom. I believe the irrelevance of the current movement emerges strongest from a failure to recognise that our greatest strengths reside in the freedoms we appear so willing to trade for bright, shiny but meaningless trinkets.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

No Plans to License says CARICOM SG

During a telephone conversation with the Caricom Secretary-General Edwin Carrington today, I was informed by the Secretary-General that the licensing of journalists has never been raised at any meeting of any official organ of the Caribbean Community.

He said he knew nothing about such a proposal and that any suggestion that the licensing of journalists was envisaged by the Secretariat "is not true."

I told him that a statement on the issue was made by Timothy Odle of the Caricom Secretariat at a workshop in St Lucia on October 13 at which the heads of several media organisations and institutions were present, including the ACM, CBU and CARIMAC. Media representatives from about 10 Caricom Member States were also present. I am aware that the presentation was also recorded.

Mr Carrington has given the assurance that such a measure has never been contemplated by either the Community or the Secretariat.

He said any proposal to set standards and to better facilitate the free movement of media workers in the region had to be generated by the media themselves.

I am relieved to hear this from the Caricom Secretary-General. Hopefully, this means the end of any such soundings from the regional secretariat and that it is never contemplated by any Caricom Member State in the future.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Licensing of Journalists - Feedback

A story in the Trinidad Newsday of October 24 quotes Attorney General, John Jeremie, as saying the proposal to license journalists would be "ridiculous" if it were in fact true and not an "urban myth".

I suppose having only weeks ago returned to the post he could not have been briefed on every single thing. But this is a good sign that at least in one CARICOM country the proposal offered by regional technocrats will not reach very far.

There has also been very supportive feedback from some leading Caribbean personalities.

Here's hoping this battle ends soon.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Licensing of Journalists

A few misguided people at the CARICOM Secretariat will try soon to get Caribbean governments to agree to model legislation that will have the effect of imposing a licensing regime on journalists and other media workers.

The move is actually part of an attempt to 'regularise' the status of professionals in a wide range of disciplines in the context of the CSME in the mistaken belief that this will somehow improve the 'marketability' of Caribbean professionals.

Apart from this premise being absolute nonsense, there is the dangerous suggestion that the licensing of journalists will help lift standards, especially if minimum training and other conditions are met.

The Model legislation is entitled the 'Model Professional Services Bill'.

The subject was raised by a CARICOM official in a rather routine manner at a CSME workshop in St Lucia on October 12.

I immediately advised that this matter is not subject to negotiation and that it will have to be contested and withdrawn as a proposal with any impact on media workers.

It is a well-established fact that the licensing of journalists constitutes an outright threat to freedom of the press and other rights. There is also useful judicial opinion on this through the Costa Rica case of 1985 and several other matters that reached the US and other courts.

The ACM is moving quickly to nip this in the bud. We are inviting a senior CARICOM official to discuss this matter with us at the forthcoming Conference and Fifth Biennial General Meeting in Grenada on December 10-12, 2009. Hopefully, the outcome will be a very clear message to have this withdrawn as a proposal to CARICOM Member States.

This is dangerous territory and I am urging everyone use the tools at our disposal to publicise this issue and to act decisively to ensure the model Bill, especially as it relates to media workers, does not reach anywhere near our parliaments.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Media and Elections in the Caribbean

Delivered in Mexico City - September 29, 2009

It is now generally recognised that the mass media play an important role in ensuring that the conduct of elections and their outcomes are legitimised and enjoy broad public support. Poor media behaviour or deficient media outputs at election time almost always lead to disaffection and turmoil and questions regarding the validity of the process. A well-informed, vigilant media however ensure that high levels of transparency and accountability prevail.

Electoral systems in the English-speaking Caribbean have traditionally recognised the value of this phenomenon, setting both general and media-specific guidelines regarding the conduct of polls. It is important that the independent work of the media is recognised and that efforts are made to ensure that its outputs reflect reality. It is among the more important roles of electoral management boards to facilitate this process.

It is also the role of the state and the wider community to maintain conditions that facilitate the unfettered work of the press. Not only must there be access of the press to information on the progress of the electoral process, but there must be unhindered access by all political elements to the media, including the state media.

State-owned media too often operate along partisan lines, depriving opposition elements of access to both paid and earned media. Private media also correspondingly respond too frequently to the lure of advertising income and pay little attention to the equitable allocation of advertising time across the political spectrum.

It is important that electoral boards encourage conditions that facilitate such access, however distant such an aspiration might be from the core mandates of such bodies. In Guyana, for the elections of 2006, the Elections Commission there successfully led the development of a Code of Conduct that pronounced strongly on the need for balance, fairness and equity in media coverage of the election.

The work of the mass media in covering elections in the English-speaking Caribbean has also over recent years taken on a level of importance that would position it as one of the more important features of the electoral process. Among other things, it is noteworthy that the liberalising of the broadcast media landscape over the past 20 years has followed closely on the heels of a wave of political change that placed longstanding opposition forces in power.

As we have noted in the ACM’s Elections Handbook for Caribbean Journalists, durable political organisations in Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia, Guyana and The Bahamas were placed in unaccustomed positions as opposition parties during the period. The late Sir John Compton’s United Workers’ Party (UWP) of St Lucia had ruled for 14 consecutive years from 1982 to 1996. Eric Williams led People’s National Movement (PNM) administrations between 1956 and 1981 when he died; Guyana’s Forbes Burnham also died in office after serving as prime minister, then president of the country, between 1964 and 1985.

The late Sir Lynden Pindling of The Bahamas (Progressive Liberal Party) was prime minister for 23 consecutive years between 1969 and 1992; and the Antigua Labour Party ran Antigua and Barbuda for 28 years between 1976 and 2004.

Between 2006 and 2008 regime changes also occurred in Belize, Jamaica, Barbados, The Bahamas, and Grenada.

In almost all instances, broadcast media systems had moved from state monopolies to vastly expanded private media landscapes. In some cases, the liberalising of the broadcast media sector arose out of the view that the political parties that had now come to office had been victimised by restricted access to radio and television. Almost everywhere, the liberalising of the broadcast media occurred without regard for the important pre-requisites of an appropriate regulatory environment and an enlightened approach to the treatment of media content.

Today, the debate in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Jamaica is the extent to which self-regulation is preferred over official regulation and censorship. In most other countries of the English-speaking Caribbean the question often arises, to a large degree, in the context of state dissatisfaction with media content.

An increasingly hard look is therefore being taken at media performance at important times, especially during the holding of elections. There has always been the perception of a somewhat linear impact between media content and the outcomes of elections. So, political parties and civil society have been paying keen attention to time and space allotted for both paid and earned coverage of political parties and their activities at election time.

In Guyana, for example, a Media Monitoring Unit was established in 2006 and was able to measure column inches and broadcast time while conducting qualitative research into media performance during the election held that year. It has been suggested that the relative peace of that election, following a tumultuous poll in 2001, was at least in part attributable to mass media behaviour during the period of campaigning, guided by the work of a Panel of Media Referees who administered a widely-supported Code of Media Conduct.

Clearly, the work of the media in election campaigns is as infuriatingly imperfect as it is absolutely necessary to ensure the success of such exercises. By the same token, we continue to be challenged by a pervasive official predisposition to consider the media to be a necessary evil at election time.

The truth is the media offer the best opportunity to portray the free and transparent nature of elections. If elections are considered to be free and transparent, and citizens have confidence in their execution, their results are, more or less, held to be representative of the will of the electorate. A government installed under such conditions will more likely than not enjoy the support and confidence needed to promote social cohesion and peace.

If, however, elections are not conducted in a manner that provides for the free exchange of ideas and solutions among candidates, their parties and the population; and if the process of voting and declaring results is not transparent, the outcome can and will impact negatively on the ability of the eventual victor to govern.

The common factor is all of this is an unfettered flow of information, analysis and opinion. Notwithstanding the logistical and regulatory imperatives, a successful election is one that is conducted in a transparent and open way, and brings an electorate to the ballot box with a proper grasp of the issues and proposed remedies that characterise the countries in which they live.

There must also be real choice among candidates and parties. They must be permitted to campaign openly and without hindrance and the rules of the game must be known and respected by all.

The practice of journalism has the potential to reinforce the pre-requisites of properly run elections. The basic journalistic tenets of accuracy, impartiality and sound judgment are important assets within the framework of democratic elections. Good election reporting, then, simply means good journalism.

Perhaps more than ever before, a spotlight of critical scrutiny is falling upon journalists covering elections. Changes in the social, cultural and political environment in the Caribbean have brought into sharper focus the media’s role in the reporting of election campaigns. For election campaigns themselves have been gaining a new and even dramatic historical significance.

Thankfully, election results in the English-speaking Caribbean have generally been widely accepted. There have, of course been the exceptions. Doubts and partisan claims regarding the integrity of the electoral process have led to post-election disturbances in Grenada, Guyana and St Kitts and Nevis. Unstable political conditions also followed the 18-18 election deadlock in Trinidad and Tobago in 2001.

Relationship with Electoral Management Boards

Journalists typically consider the relationship they develop with electoral management boards to be almost as valuable as the connections they establish with contesting parties. Though the activities of the political parties constitute the backbone of electoral coverage, dispatches from electoral boards in the Caribbean are generally accepted as authoritative and credible and are used in a routine manner.

It is perhaps a shortcoming of journalists that a greater degree of scrutiny is not usually applied to information generated by these bodies. It is also not generally recognised that the responsibilities of electoral boards are capable of generating far more critical information on the conduct of elections than is otherwise recognised.

The range of story possibilities includes functions such as:

• The delimitation of boundaries
• Voter registration
• The registration of political parties
• Nomination of candidates for elections
• Training of electoral staff
• The conduct of polling
• Vote counting and declaration of the Counting of the final results

It is probably true to say that the work programmes of electoral boards constitute a blueprint for the news agenda for elections. Most of the news and information generated for an election are associated with the processes that apply between the setting of boundaries and the final count and declaration. The boards as the implementing agency for these processes are the single most important sources of credible information. If an electoral board is considered to be compromised in any way, the entire elections process loses credibility and the support of the press.

In most instances, electoral boards employ media liaisons to maintain contact with the press. This is a most important function that is ignored at the peril of the relevant body. The role of these professionals should be considered to be facilitative and not obstructive. Too often, media liaisons attached to quasi-state institutions, consider their role to be to ensure there is arms-length exposure to the press. It is important that transparency is maintained throughout all processes associated with the work of the board.

Observer Missions

Over recent years, regional and international observer missions have become rather standard players in elections throughout the English-speaking Caribbean. They have added a new dimension to coverage of elections. In addition to electoral boards, these missions in most instances are sources of information on the voting process.

The presence of high-profile international personalities, chosen because of their expertise, knowledge and independence, also provides an opportunity to enhance the credibility of boards by providing a presumably independent source of information validation.

The mandates of observer missions also provide a cue to journalists on areas of attention and possible coverage. Though some areas appear routine, they play an important part in the smooth and efficient conduct of elections. They include:

• Locations of polling stations
• Seating arrangements at polling stations
• Accuracy of the list of electors at polling stations
• Distances travelled by voters to polling stations in rural areas
• Time voters waited to cast their votes
• State of readiness of polling stations
• Availability or otherwise of adequate supplies of ballot papers, sealing wax, etc.
• Security of ballot papers prior to the elections
• Steps taken (if any) to ensure the secrecy of the ballot paper
• Performance of election officers at the polling stations visited
• Procedure followed at the opening of the polls
• Adequacy or otherwise of polling stations’ facilities
• Comments of contesting party agents on the electoral arrangements
• Procedure for the use of indelible ink
• Incidence of loss of voters’ cards
• Procedures in place to ensure proper security of ballot papers, ballot boxes and official seals
• General environment at the polling stations visited
• Intimidation of voters by security officers and/or others

Public Opinion Surveys

A debate exists whether public opinion polls play a role in determining the outcomes of elections. The media now routinely include publication of survey results as part of their election coverage. It is important that media houses apply more rigorous standards when it comes to their acceptance of survey results and their eventual decision to publish such surveys.

In many instances, as well, newspapers commission their own surveys. It would be important to accompany these surveys with a level of public awareness and education on the value of such exercises so that media audiences are in a position to make their own assessment of their acceptability.

Media Monitoring

The value of media monitoring and refereeing cannot be underestimated. This ensures that media coverage plays a role in validating electoral processes and outcomes and uncovering transgressions when they occur.

The Guyana experiment of 2006 provides us with a model that has the potential to improve relations between electoral boards and the media, heighten public awareness of the work required to execute and election and produce more acceptable levels of media performance at election time.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Why Media Self-Regulation in Guyana

Georgetown, Guyana – September 11, 2009

The growing demand for media self-regulation in the Caribbean has, over recent years, been largely motivated by the need to obviate the need for further overt state regulation. Somewhere in the already densely-wooded terrain of official censorship, regulation and legislation has emerged over the past 15 years or so, a dreaded Dementor – known by Harry Potter for its ability to sap the soul and happiness of those gone astray – drawing the fiery line between freedom of the press and its presumed responsibilities.

This is, indeed, a dense jungle cultivated over many years of colonial rule and an authoritarian culture that has followed and flourished at the hands of leaders who appear to have dropped the baton of leadership and have instead chosen the whip of authority.

It is difficult, in this context, to make a clear distinction between what is being proposed by state actors (not by us) as voluntary media self-regulation, and the application of regulations, laws and conventions that impose a range of checks on free expression – under whose banner resides freedom of the press.

The Legal and Regulatory Framework

First, let’s see what already exists as official regulation and law and what prevails as open restrictions on free expression – freedom of expression being not only the right to express oneself, but the right to seek and receive the expression of others.

In our countries, there are laws and regulations that impose restrictions and accompanying penalties with respect to: sedition, state secrecy, defamation, obscenity, incitement, privacy and intellectual property, and restrictions that have to do with media coverage of parliament, elections and the law courts. There are also regulations that govern the actual conduct of media enterprises through the right of establishment and prior censorship.

In Guyana, you have a Publication and Newspapers Act, Cinematograph and Video Act, Defamation Act (1959), a Summary Jurisdiction Act that deals with what is described as ‘indecent advertisement’ and ‘profane language’ and a Racial Hostility Act which speaks of the publication of material that can be described as willful excitement of hostility or ill-will against persons on the basis of their race.

What is evident from this cursory glimpse of the regulatory environment within which the Guyana media operate is that there is no shortage of official regulation. This is not a statement of either support for or opposition to what exists. Much of this is standard fare in other Caribbean jurisdictions and, in some instances, there is a level of legislative enlightenment not evident elsewhere in the region. For example, some of the shortcomings of the 1964 Racial Hostility Act are eloquently addressed in the Prevention of Discrimination Act of 1997. The corresponding legislation in my own country, the Equal Opportunity Act, intrudes far more gratuitously into the arena of free speech.

However, this presentation is not to pronounce on the existing regulatory framework regarding the work of the media in this country, except to say it is both abundant and pervasive.

As a consequence, the notion of co-regulation as a formula for addressing perceived shortcomings in the performance of the Guyana media is not only a conceptual anomaly but inherently redundant as a model for taking this challenge further. State policing of media is already well entrenched in a wide variety of areas. In fact, the outlook is for further official incursion with the imminent introduction of broadcasting regulations which should end the state monopoly on the operation of radio enterprises but which at the same time will certainly include prior restraints on some content.



The Media Compact

To add to the brew, sections of the national community aggrieved by perceived media shortcomings or transgressions are inclined to demand a greater say in the designing of the regulatory infrastructure. In many respects, this is justifiable if we assume that the protection of media rights is predicated on a notion of the media’s ability to contribute to the public good, employing the assumption that a free press is inalienable in the pursuit of democracy, transparency and public accountability. For this reason, a self-regulatory mechanism must include provisions for public feedback and a process for responding to such feedback.

This has often led to the conclusion that an abdication of this role signifies a surrender of the right to exist as free and independent entities. But it is not as simple as that. Media responsibility is impossible without press freedom. But being “responsible” is constantly promoted as a pre-condition to being free.

It has become fashionable nowadays to adorn censorship with the crown of media responsibility. This, of course, is an authoritarian trap fueled in part nowadays by growing feelings of public insecurity and the fear that the new wireless technologies signify a loss of official control. The concept of cultural relativism has also re-entered the picture at a time when the conclusions of the New World Information and Communication Order have long lost their legitimacy.

In short, we are talking about the argument that the nature of a country or community’s censorship arrangements is dependent upon its cultural antecedents. It is the kind of argument that has been used to support everything from female genital mutilation in some communities to the existence of child brides and substance abuse in others. “This or that is okay, depending on where you are,” the argument goes.

There is also the fact of our various social crises. Where in the Caribbean is there not the plague of violence and crime? Where has the economic crisis not accentuated systemic inequity and social justice? Where have the media not been accused of complicity in all of the above? Where have our societies not attempted to shift blame to external factors? And what have been the proposed solutions?

I recently reminded our colleagues in Jamaica that we cannot censor ourselves out of our current situation. Our condition is a classic instance of needing to build a capacity to recognise the truth – a truth that has the potential to set us free.

So, we come to today’s question of getting our act together as journalists and as media enterprises.

If self-regulation is not to become self-mutilation it cannot and must not signify engaging in self-censorship. For it to be meaningful and effective, media self-regulation has to represent the will of media enterprises and their key functionaries – journalists in particular – to commit to applying a variety of voluntary editorial guidelines.


Media Accountability

Any such arrangement must also meet the basic requirement of media accountability – a veritable social payback on account of the special dispensation under which the media claim unique rights. Media accountability represents a pact with our audiences with the potential to promote higher standards while fostering greater public confidence and trust.

This relationship is based on the premise that free and independent media constitute the best guarantee of open, democratic, transparent and accountable governance. As a consequence, people are empowered to make public and private decisions on the basis of reliable, unfettered information, analysis and opinion.

The success of this arrangement relies heavily on mass media systems being committed to high professional standards through adherence to codes of professional ethics and application of media accountability systems that promote open scrutiny of the work of the media by consumers of media products.

This can take different forms and, in the case of Guyana, an effective media accountability system can have said to have applied during the general elections of 2001 and 2006. To quote from the ACM’s Election Handbook for Caribbean Journalists:

Media organisations had signed on to their own Code of Conduct, and had recruited two senior journalists, Harry Mayers from Barbados and the late Dwight Whylie from Jamaica to serve as Independent Media Monitors and as a Refereeing Panel.

In the judgment of Mayers and Whylie, that 2001 experiment failed. They concluded: "The self-regulation which the Media Code of Conduct represents failed dismally during the election campaign. It was ignored or violated far more than it was complied with."
Guyana did not, however, give up on media self-regulation.

As the 2006 elections approached, Guyanese media people came together again to draw up what they hoped would be an improved model of self-regulation.
In a historic January 2006 exercise, 39 media leaders and representatives signed their adherence to a Code of Conduct. Extensively debated beforehand, the document was formally titled, “Code of Conduct for the Media for Reporting and Coverage of Guyana Elections 2006 for Owners, Publishers, Editors and Journalists, including Associated Guidelines.”

Suffice it to say, the more elaborate arrangements in place for 2006 were assessed as having worked successfully and produced a working model for broader application in the wider Caribbean.

One of the more important aspects of the project was the ability of both media professionals and the public to take their grouses about coverage of the election to the Independent Referees recruited from Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica.

A more permanent mechanism will have to produce independent referees from within Guyanese society and there would probably be the need for the various media enterprises to designate their own in-house juries to entertain and respond to complaints from media consumers. It calls for a level of maturity and candour in excess of the 2006 project and a mechanism that transcends the daily competition for readers, listeners and viewers.

Actual in-house mechanisms can begin with acceptance of clear, unambiguous guidelines for professional behaviour and a system of enforcement that may or may not reside within work contracts or other interventions that enforce a variety of penalties.

Among the major objectives of these mechanisms would be to ensure that errors are corrected and that content which violates rights or accepted community standards is sanctioned internally instead of in the court or through other undesirable means such as advertising and sales boycotts and the like.

Industry-wide mechanisms can include media ombudsmen jointly employed by the media industry with a “name and shame” mandate such as applies with the Media Complaints Council of Trinidad and Tobago.

The Media Complaints Council of Trinidad and Tobago

It might be said that MCC was born in sin in 1997 when the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPA) attempted to head-off threatened state sanctions by hastily establishing a mechanism that would keep an increasingly agitated government at bay. The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT), which represents media workers, refused to be a part of what it described as being a half-baked attempt at keeping the government at arms length from the media industry.

It was that very year the Basdeo Panday administration published a Green Paper on media reform which had as its objective the development of what was suspiciously described as a “free and independent media” that accepted responsibility for the promotion of national unity and economic and social progress. Under such a regime, the external image of the country would be suitably tidy to facilitate new investments, tourism and a better business environment.

The MCC was also established under the banner of media accountability with a reporting mechanism in place to entertain what the government at that time described as overwhelming public dissatisfaction with the performance of the press. Through the financial support of TTPBA members, the MCC has been able to perform this function and has even established a toll-free hotline.

Council Chairman, former Senate President, Michael Williams, has however repeatedly noted an extremely low number of complaints – most of which are generated by political activists and repeat complainants. This is despite frequent advertisements in the press, the presence of the hotline and generally magnanimous responses to complaints by media houses.

The only other experiments of this kind in the English-speaking Caribbean have not survived. The Caribbean Press Council (CPC) was born of the Caribbean Publishers and Broadcasters Association in the 1980s and folded quietly in 1990. In 2003, an Eastern Caribbean Press Council (ECPC) was launched, studiously ignoring the presence of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) which was inaugurated in 2001 with a mandate to promote press freedom in the region. The ECPC now appears to have followed the path of the CPC.

A Prospective Model

In these experiments may well be found a home-grown model upon which similar efforts elsewhere can be founded. There will be, importantly, the opportunity to learn from some significant mistakes:

1. Voluntary self-regulation by the media should not be in response to the prospect of forcible official interventions. Self-regulation mechanisms should arise from an understanding of the requirement to function at acceptably high professional standards and to be accountable to media consumers from whose interests arises the inalienable right to function freely and independently;

2. Self-financing avenues, seeded by media industry investments, can mean the difference between a project that is sustainable and one that is not. Corporate and state financial support should not be direct;

3. National media worker organisations, insofar as they are institutional protagonists of press freedom and freedom of expression, must be embraced and form an integral part of the resource infrastructure of the mechanism;

4. The state media should come to the table as equal partners with private media;

5. Public awareness and education on the work of the media and why they need to be free and independent should be among the functions of national media industry and media worker organisations;

6. An attempt should be made to engage the support/endorsement of a majority of media enterprises.

The Role of the State

Countries that express an interest in media self-regulation should be aware that the larger context required for such a pursuit to be successful must exist. The state should not be engaged in administering, either in whole or in part, any aspect of media self-regulation mechanisms. However, the state can play a facilitative role by ensuring that the legislative and regulatory environment is conducive to greater press freedom.

To some degree, there already exists in Guyana and other countries of the Caribbean the constitutional basis for this to occur. Section 146 (1) of the constitution of Guyana states: “Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, that is to say, freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference and freedom from interference with his correspondence.”

In Trinidad and Tobago there is a guarantee of freedom of thought and expression. There is also a specific guarantee of freedom of the press. Over the years there have been attempts to assert its superfluous nature, given the existence of freedom of thought and expression.

Most other Commonwealth Caribbean countries, like Guyana, have maintained the formulation employed in their independence constitutions and include freedom of expression, with standard limitations related to defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, privacy and the protection of reputations.

Another area in which the state can foster an environment conducive to high professional standards in the media is through the passage of access to information laws. We should however be reminded that there are good examples of these laws and accompanying regulations as well as bad examples. Beware of that list of exempted persons and institutions and the ease with which it can be amended.

There ought to also be protection for whistle-blowers and journalists with information acquired from confidential sources against demands for disclosure. In addition, laws and regulations related to the establishment of media enterprises should be uniformly applied and transparently administered.

The state, in many of our countries including Guyana, is often also a significant employer of journalistic resources. There should be contractual and other guarantees to ensure that these media workers are not subject to arbitrary behaviour especially as they relate to the vagaries of partisan politics. The state media are owned by the country, not by the party in power.

The Role of Journalists

The professionals most directly affected by the absence of an environment of freedom and independence in the media are the journalists – the broadcasters, reporters, photo-journalists and technicians that pull everything together.

Journalists are also relied upon, under conditions of media self-regulation, to exercise their rights in an ethical manner. They can do so by recognizing and observing a commitment to the truth; being loyal to the citizens they serve; practicing the journalism of verification; maintaining independence from those they cover; serving as an independent monitor of power; providing a platform for public criticism and compromise; striving to make news and information interesting and relevant; keeping news comprehensive and proportional; be willing to exercise personal conscience.

Journalists also need to get themselves organised and to unite in defence of press freedom and freedom of expression. This has to cut across competitive commercial lines. An attack on one journalist or media enterprise must be interpreted as an attack on all. Only through solidarity will the objective of free and independent media be realized.

Monday, 24 August 2009

I had the privilege of meeting the extraordinary Mexican journalist, Lydia Cacho, at the IFEX meeting in Oslo last June.

Earlier this month, she wrote the following piece for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Cacho, a top Mexican reporter, describes a life under threat

Lydia Cacho (CPJ)

A month ago I sat next to a cop, turned on my computer, and opened my blog. The threats were there: "My dear lydia cacho get ready to be found soon with your throat slit, your pretty head will be left outside your apartment if you think you are so brave bye."

A series of similar threats and insults prompted the officer to recommend I leave Mexico. The young policeman is one of my sources and, at least for me, one of the few people in the country who can be trusted. Instead I gave him a description of the armed men who had been watching my house, of their cars, and of the license plates that, according to authorities, don't match the vehicles. The evidence is indisputable and yet I am left helpless.

Over a long 18 months, 17 other journalists have been threatened in my country. Quietly, I go over my security routines every morning, hoping only that I will not be the one to stain the numbers with blood this month. Many of my colleagues do the same thing. The best reporters in the country live every day as if they were covering the war in Iraq. But unlike foreign correspondents that go back to a safe home to tell their horror anecdotes, to talk about what happens to other people, here we record the reality of a country that has normalized violence to the point of showing off a merciless war that has cost the lives of more than 10,000 people. One Sunday, nine people were found beheaded in Tijuana, near the border with the United States. Beheadings have become a ritual for drug cartels.

I wonder which of the powerful individuals I have named in my investigations into organized crime is the author of the threats against me. Or who paid the hired gun who is threatening to behead me. I am fully aware that it is not the businessmen and politicians who have avoided prosecution and have become my enemies. They are not street crooks. They are child traffickers and users of child pornography, millionaires with tight links to the Mexican Supreme Court, who are legally untouchable. They filed a defamation suit against me, and I won the trial. I sued them for corruption and torture, and they bought off the justice system.

I don't believe in heroism. I have used all the legal resources at my reach to defend my right to investigate and reveal my country's reality. As I write these lines, I am protected in my own city, at a colleague's house. My home, for the moment, is not safe. While writing a book on global networks of human traffickers, I talk to the lawyers who are taking my case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Mexican government has denied me the right to justice, and authorities are the ones who have put me in real danger. Impunity is a criminal's best ally.

A few days ago, around midnight, my neighbor called me on the phone to warn me that, once again, a car was parked outside my apartment. A man was prowling and had walked up to my door. No one dared go outside to check if he was armed. Nobody calls the police anymore. We don't know if they are accomplices, and no one takes the time to find out.

As Barack Obama and Felipe Calderón enjoyed a typical Mexican meal this week, they both celebrated freedom in Mexico and "the protection of human rights." In the meantime, thousands of Mexican soldiers go into homes without warrants, hundreds of women and men are jailed without trial or evidence against them, 365 journalists have been intimidated, and 142 have been subject to attacks and torture.

All we have left are the international bodies, the Inter-American Commission's precautionary measures, and eventual trials in the court itself. To stay alive without fleeing the country, when there is no justice in our own land, there is nothing left but to stand up for the whole world to see us, to remind friends and foes that freedom is not gained by kneeling or in silence.

Cacho is a prominent Mexican journalist and human rights activist based in Cancún. Among many honors, she received the 2008 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Covering Elections in the Caribbean

On July 3, the Election Handbook for Caribbean Journalists, published by the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), was launched in Jamaica. It was the first in a series of launches, some of them to be accompanied by training in the coverage of elections.

Here are some of the remarks I made on the occasion:

I bring greetings from the ACM network of journalists and their representative organisations in the Caribbean region on the very significant occasion of the launch of the Jamaica Press Institute. There are also few better qualified persons to deliver the Institute’s inaugural lecture than Claude Robinson and I pay tribute to him this evening as an icon of Caribbean media practice and as a leading light in the ongoing work of crafting a Caribbean media aesthetic and frontier.

But this is hardly the brave new world our forebears thought would accompany notions of equity and freedom and political independence. Instead, the decay and decline Huxley envisioned in his novel of the same name more closely fall into alignment with present day reality.

At the core is a people seemingly gone astray and lost. Around the outer crust the declining superstructure of First and Second and Third and Fourth Estate. If there was ever a time for us to re-create ourselves it is now. If there was ever a time to take a new mark at the wicket and survey the field it is now. Caribbean society resides in the kind of pre-collapse civilizations greater than ours found difficult to negotiate.

Somewhere in all this is a brave new journalism waiting to enter the arena and to influence the kind of change needed to rescue us from ourselves. It is a journalism unfettered by the past, however valuable many of its antecedents. It is a journalism that promises to bring the brashness and irreverence of the iPod generation together with a grasp of our reality that transcends otherwise simplistic formulations that have led to a diminution of our rights and freedoms.

We cannot censor ourselves out of our current situation. Our current condition is a classic instance of needing to build a capacity to recognise the truth – a truth that has the potential to set us free.

This is the context within which the ACM approaches our mandate to network, train and advocate on behalf of Caribbean journalists and media people. It is an approach to addressing our present condition that recognises, in this particular instance, the ineluctable connection between democracy and the practice of journalism.

We also introduce our Election Handbook for Caribbean Journalists in the knowledge that the independent work of journalists in covering elections can serve as a catalyst for promoting the democratic conduct and outcomes of such exercises.

As you would recognise, especially from very recent experience here in Jamaica, the coverage of elections is much more than reporting on campaigns and the counting of ballots. Adequate coverage of elections is very much a part of the process that instills confidence in democracy and spans a much wider variety of political interaction than we sometimes care to believe.

It is our hope that this Handbook will prove useful in attempts to improve on our coverage of elections in the region. It is by no means an entirely adequate resource, nor is it the only of its kind. But is the only one that I know of that has been produced by journalists for journalists.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

DROWNING OUT THE LOOMING STORM

Journalists, writers and activists in the Caribbean confront a creeping but determined wave of silence as the tide of social and economic instability and decline advances. New-born, almost still-born nations have walked before they have learned to creep in the stark absence of ancient cultural habits that often, though not always, strengthen democratic instincts and systems.

Mexican journalist and writer, Lydia Cacho, was raped in 1999 in an attempt to intimidate her out of writing about the exploitation of women and children in Mexico. She was later arrested and charged following her fictional treatise on the sexual exploitation of children entitled ‘Demons of Eden’.

She now tours the region and the world speaking out on the need for journalists and writers everywhere to hold their ground. Addressing the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression in Oslo on June 3, Cacho recognized that among the obstacles to achieving the ideal of unfettered journalism was unenlightened media ownership and management.

Thoughts then ran to my home in Trinidad and how Newsday had conspired with our cultural predisposition to shut out a voice with which we often disagreed – that of Kevin Baldeosingh. They came for the columnists, I thought, and no one spoke out because it was not they who had been silenced.

As German theologian, Martin Niemoller, who faced imprisonment and the threat of execution during the Nazi regime, declared for eternity: we remained silent on the crimes until it was our time “and there was no one else to speak out for me.”

The Global Forum brought together a diverse and sometimes unlikely variety of people, all prepared to speak out on each other’s and our behalf.

Malalai Joya (once known as “the bravest woman in Afghanistan”) is currently in exile, often in hiding in accommodating countries that are not her own, because she spoke out on behalf of the people of her country as an elected member of parliament. It would have been easy to have been misled by her slight frame and gentle manner, had she not opened the Forum with a stinging assault on countries that preach democracy and openness but who remain silent in the face of massive, murderous treachery and pain.

Ethiopian journalist, Serkalem Fasil, who was apparently denied a European visa and could not attend the Forum, sent a note describing her ordeal as a pregnant prisoner denied proper health care and attention while serving a prison sentence in 2005 for publishing articles critical of her government. She, too, spoke of the international condemnation that followed and how those who spoke out on her behalf, however far away, saved her and her prison baby.

Then there was freed Guantanamo prisoner, al Jazeera journalist, Sami el Haj of Qatar who turned to poetry behind the barbed-wire fences and who now heads the Human Rights Desk of the international news network – a job he holds so he can bring attention to human rights abuses around the world. He spent six years in prison without ever being charged for any crime.

So many of these people could have gone back home and changed jobs and perhaps turned the other way.

Like poet and academic, Jack Mapanje, of Malawi who still isn’t sure why he was sent to jail without charge and without sentencing for three and a half years. Today, he lectures in the United Kingdom on the literature produced by prisoners and speaks out on injustice everywhere.

It took Oslo to remind me of the importance of keeping the struggle going in order to halt the rising tide of silence. I thought of the panic attack of censors in Jamaica, the broadcast legislation in the OECS, the broadcasting code of Trinidad and Tobago and the “exiles” of Caribbean media who now use their blogs and websites to speak freely when newspapers and journals shut them out.

It is true, no one has been shot or detained or killed. But the backlash has been swift and the intention has been to silence. There are those in exile who have gone nowhere. Their souls remain hidden in computer hard-drives and copybook pages and sometimes nowhere else but in their hearts and minds.

It is a lie that our calypso and reggae and dancehall and rum-shop candour express our freedom. They simply drown out the looming storm that awaits us all.

Friday, 22 May 2009

A LITTLE CONFESSION

Confession.

I have lifted this entire entry from the blog produced by Barbados-based writer B.C. Pires (bcraw.com) who cut and paste the entire piece from a column written by novelist/journalist Kevin Baldeosingh but which was not printed by its intended publishers.

These two gentlemen are Trinidadian satirists whose work has, at different times under different circumstances, been clinically excised from the pages of newspapers in Trinidad and Tobago in order that Church and State remain unshaken and at peace. Perhaps B.C. and Kevin are lucky. In some countries, they have you shot or hacked to death in the street or in your car as you park outside your home.

Twenty years ago, the access of local audiences to their work would have been virtually severed. Today, their readership need not disappear at all.

Hopefully, the thousands and thousands and thousands of you who read this blog will now help grow Kevin’s readership in ways the Trinidad Newsday could not achieve.

One more confession. I have not asked Kevin whether I can reproduce his column in this space, so read it quickly before this post suddenly disappears.

God and Constitution

By Kevin Baldeosingh

First, let me apologise to readers for the non-appearance of my column over the past two Fridays. I don’t know if it was technical glitches, but some people might well believe God was punishing me for exposing a plagiarist priest. Of course, anyone who believes that also believes in a God who does not favour truth and transparency. Which brings me to the preamble of our Constitution.



“Whereas the People of Trinidad and Tobago (a) have affirmed that the Nation of Trinidad and Tobago is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God,” it begins: which instantly exiles people like me, who acknowledge no such thing. Indeed, this phrase formed no part of the original Independence Constitution but was inserted, as Dr Eric Williams said in an address to Parliament on May 11, 1962, because of the urging by religious organisations that there “should be in some appropriate place a preamble in the Constitution which would include a suitable reference to Almighty God.”



Now mentioning God is one thing, but it escapes me how asserting that all the people of T&T believe in a Supreme Being can constitute a “suitable reference”. After all, even in 1960, over 4,000 persons (or just 0.5 percent of the populace) said they followed no religion or did not state their religion in the national census. The 2000 census has just over one percent of the populace not stating a religion. That’s at least 15,000 persons who are not acknowledged by the Constitution (although a 1993 survey by Patrick Johnstone puts the percentage of non-religious persons in T&T at nine percent, which is over 100,000 persons). So, if some religious fundamentalist claimed that atheists have no rights under the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago, he would have an arguable case. These rights, remember, include equality before the law, privacy, and freedom of thought. And since all these are transgressed even for believing citizens, it would theoretically
 be easy for the State to oppress non-religious persons.



Now, admittedly, this is unlikely to occur in any formal fashion. But the Constitution’s preamble, which is reproduced in the Draft Constitution, goes to the heart of the question of what principles should inform such a foundational document. On the one hand, since the vast majority of citizens would not disagree that they acknowledge the “supremacy of God” (in word, if not always in deed), it can be argued that the Constitution rightly reflects the prevailing norms of the society, as insisted by the nine organisations which got this phrase inserted into the preamble 47 years ago. On the other hand, the protection of minorities is generally considered a crucial guarantee in modern constitutions, and the preamble contradicts, even if it does not actually undermine, the rights enshrined in Clause 4 (h) and (i) – freedom of conscience, and freedom of thought and expression. (The legal question, if it ever arose, would hinge on whether the rights
take precedence over the preamble or vice-versa.)



America’s founding fathers faced this very issue when drawing up their constitution, with Thomas Jefferson being the most insistent that there should be “a wall of separation between Church and State.” In holding fast to this position, Jefferson and his colleagues were not necessarily reflecting common opinion. Indeed, his political opponents utilised accusations of atheism in order to demonise him, indicating that such an attack had a constituency. Nonetheless, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans Congress from passing any law “respecting an establishment of religion”, or any which would “prohibit the free exercise” of religion. And, perhaps even more significantly, the U.S. Constitution states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public Trust.” It must be noted, however, that in respect to this issue the founding fathers essentially failed: America has the highest proportion
of believers of all developed nations, and atheists are considered by most Americans to be more unfit for public office than Muslims or homosexuals. But, in another sense, this proves Jefferson’s wisdom, for perhaps the constitutional guarantees have prevented religious conflicts that would have sundered the fledgling federation.



The inclusion of the supremacy of God phrase in our own Constitution creates a conflict for strictly ethical non-believers, for if such an individual is appointed to the Parliament they must swear to uphold the Constitution. Yet the oath itself acknowledges non-belief, since it allows the phrase “I affirm” rather than swearing on a holy book. Still, why should our Constitution create any conflict at all, especially when non-believers are likely to be more educated and ethical than born-again politicians?

Sunday, 3 May 2009

World Press Freedom Day 2009

The Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) extends its greetings to media colleagues throughout the international community and the Caribbean on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2009.

This year’s observances meet our region in a state of crisis in several critical areas of public life. Growing violence and crime, economic instability, environmental threats and a decline in social and political cohesion have left the Caribbean open to questions regarding its continued viability as a region of relative peace and stability.

The search for solutions to the growing threats has led to important interventions at the level of integrating regional resources, negotiating and securing geo-political compacts, and actions at national levels to address issues of social injustice and economic imbalances. These have not been easy tasks to engage and our media have played a role in fostering greater public understanding of the nature of the challenges being confronted.

The ACM has consequently been engaged in collaborative attempts to instill greater awareness among journalists of critical areas of human development. We have collaborated on the development of a handbook on Climate Change for journalists, contributed to regional discussions on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, human and humanitarian rights and, very soon, we plan to launch an Elections Handbook for Caribbean Journalists written and edited entirely by a team of Caribbean journalists.

The ACM also currently sits on the CARICOM Information, Communication and Technology Steering Committee where we have consistently argued in favour of an information and communication environment characterized by the right of citizens to communicate and to express themselves freely.

It is our view that free expression and greater access to information provide our citizens with important tools to make the critical decisions that shape their lives and the existence of their societies.

This is the philosophy we take to discussion tables throughout the Caribbean. It has informed our approach to proposed broadcasting legislation among countries of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). It has brought us in conflict with the telecommunications authorities in Trinidad and Tobago where censorship is being viewed as an antidote for social decline. It is a view that has led to the concern that the banning of songs by official censors in Jamaica makes room for other forms of attack on free expression.

It is also this philosophy that guides our opposition to the continued radio broadcasting monopoly by the state in Guyana and has led to visits to several countries over recent years to discuss areas of conflict between journalists and the authorities.

United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has also noted the growing tendency to extend the hand of official sanction to the “new media” available via the Internet. This is an issue we continue to keep a close eye on, especially as regional regulators have left critical windows open for later intrusion into this area.

It is however also true that we have supported calls for the lifting of professional and ethical standards among Caribbean journalists and for the retooling of our newsrooms to guarantee better quality outputs. This provides the greatest assurance that consumers of media are provided with accurate, relevant and reliable news and information to employ in private and public decision-making. Media owners and managers must make the necessary investments to ensure this goal is achievable.

In pursuit of these ends, we have launched a Young Journalists Mentoring Programme which is an attempt to pair the new and young and bright with experienced, trained and competent journalists. This ambitious programme is challenged by territorial distance, a lack of finance and the fact of its own novelty, but during the course of the current year we propose to re-ignite the flame lit in 2008.

Our online and direct training programmes have over recent years spanned several countries and we are thankful for alliances with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Information Centre for the Caribbean Area, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, the Caribbean Institute for Media and Communication and the International Center for Journalists as these institutions continue to support our initiatives in the area of professional development.

Worldwide, journalists continue to be attacked, injured and killed in the line of duty. We do not routinely face these dangers. But we are always mindful of the growing potential for conflict, out of which can spring greater dangers for the journalists of our region. Our colleagues in Haiti continue to be challenged by such danger and Guyana has experienced its share of it.

On such questions, we continue to collaborate with important partners such as the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and, in 2008, we were admitted as members of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) and as interim members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX).

Hopefully, we will be admitted to full membership of IFEX in June. This will provide us with important access to the resources of this global network, but it also places a greater obligation on us to monitor abuses of free expression and to report on them at the national level.

Finally, we are happy to report that the ACM has now established a permanent secretariat in Trinidad and Tobago. This has been a longstanding ambition of our organisation. It is our hope that this facility will assist us greatly as we move toward the professionalizing our work as a press freedom and media development institution in this part of the world.

Our national affiliates and focal points throughout the Caribbean have their work cut out for them this year and we offer them our unreserved support.

Wesley Gibbings
President
Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM)

May 3, 2009

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Coping Through Censorship?

I was invited by the Media Workers Association of Dominica (MWAD) to address journalists there on the issue of proposed broadcasting legislation on March 9.

The draft law has been in circulation for some time now, but the Government of Dominica has accelerated the process of taking it to parliament by signaling an intention to produce a White Paper for discussion and also to convene public consultations.

There is serious concern by some media workers and others in civil society that the proposed law is an attempt to muzzle political opposition. Here was my contribution to the debate:

I wish to commend MWAD for taking the initiative to organise this consultation on the Broadcasting Authority Bill ahead of further consultations to take place at the behest of the Government of Dominica.

It is important that consultations, both officially convened and organised by non-state actors, are becoming regular features of national law-making processes throughout the English-speaking Caribbean. This has not always been the case. Official edict has traditionally been viewed as a defining characteristic of governance in these former colonies. In some instances, that bad habit has been hard to kick.

It is therefore encouraging to learn that your government has chosen to initiate wide-ranging public discussion and debate on the scope and intent of this draft legislation. That a civic organisation has led off the process on its own, without official or other prompting, is an important sign that some fundamental tenets of the democratic process are features of public life in this country and that civil society is recognising a leadership role in the pursuit of development.

No one remotely interested in Dominican public affairs over the years can pretend to be surprised. Civic intervention has been a hallmark of your history and has, in the view of some, been among the fundamental pillars of the process of adaptation to new and more challenging times.

The ACM also views the formulation of the Bill at the sub-regional level as a triumph of the integration process (this is an OECS-initiated Bill) and the result of genuine concern that change requires a level of civic and official management to ensure it redounds to the benefit of all.

The Bill however comes at a time of acute challenges to the foundations of modern Caribbean society. Our societies are now more violent, less well, more vulnerable, characterised by an absence of social justice, more polarised and virtual sitting ducks in the face of international social and economic crises.

It has not been easy for some of us. In my country, Trinidad and Tobago, more than 90 young men have already been killed for the year. There are criminal gangs in our secondary schools and teenage pregnancies and STD infections are growing, not declining.

Our internal responses clearly require interventions that are as clinical as they are fervent. It is clear we need, as a region, to reconcile the practices of the past with the requirements of the future. By and large, our political and civic leadership appear to understand this well.

It is however necessary, in the view of my organisation, to ensure that that the greatest enabling factor, freedom, is preserved both as a developmental objective and as a pre-condition to the achievement of targets we set ourselves as we forge ahead.

This is the context I would wish to register as a starting point to the debate. When viewed this way, laws and rules and regulations are enabling and empowering interventions and not obstacles and shackles.

The Broadcasting Authority Bill should therefore seek to inject greater orderliness in the conduct of broadcasting enterprises in order that the goal of greater freedom and independence is achieved. This would be the yardstick I would use in measuring the potential impact of the proposed legislation.

Would the people of Dominica experience conditions more conducive to the exercise of free speech when the law is passed or would they experience a diminution of their freedoms?

In the midst of urgent interventions to counter social decline and chaos, is more information and greater exposure to competing views more or less helpful to the process?

It is significant that the Preamble to the Code of Conduct for Broadcasting Services in the Bill stipulates the founding principle of “the right to be informed and to freely receive and disseminate information.” This is important because it acknowledges the value of the free flow of information in both directions. It also implicitly promotes the view that freer conditions are superior to restrictive conditions.

In an ideal environment, the Code could have stopped right there – the rest left to professional prerogative and judgment. In fact, it can be said that much of what is expressed as broadcasting standards are basic tenets of good media practice.

(a) the observance of good taste and decency;
(b) the maintenance of law and order;
(c) the privacy of the individual;
(d) the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view, either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

It must however be noted that issues of good taste and decency; law and order; privacy and balance are subject to levels of interpretation that can challenge the acceptable practice of free expression. These, indeed, are areas of concern that are not easy to legislate and I would thread very carefully when it comes to these issues. The concept of privacy, for example, can be used as a check on legitimate attempts to monitor the behaviour of public officials.

Additionally, the issue of balance in the reporting of public issues becomes problematic in the face of official silence. What, in the face of this, do we add to the other side of the scale to represent the other view when issues arise? Is there the suggestion here that silence on one side of the scale can only be balanced against silence on the other?

Quite sensibly, the Bill proposes that fairness is achieved only by judging each case on its merits and not through application of a blanket formula. In my view, much of this ought to be the function of a regime of self-regulation administered by the media industry as a whole.

It is important in this respect that media owners and managers forge alliances to ensure that some of this resides in their own hands and are not the exclusive preserve of a state-sponsored entity.

There ought also to be alliances of consumers of media content to address issues not already actionable by choice – the right to change the channel or to turn the television or radio off.

So far, the representative organisation for media workers has led the way in promoting greater awareness of what is being offered, but there is a great need for the industry and its consumer base to become actively involved. But such involvement must be informed by sound information on the actual impacts of media on human behaviour (an area of social research we have studiously avoided) and a belief that more information, more opinions and a greater variety of sources is superior to the old monolithic models of information control.

We must also avoid the pitfall of seeking cure-all responses to challenges that are far more complex than the fabled linear contribution of media content to behaviour change; far more discomforting than the morning sermons of talk show hosts but far more entrenched in the way we have conducted our public and private lives in the Caribbean.

Could not the criminal violence be more effectively addressed by reversing the trend of social exclusion and more effective policing and prosecutions against those who need to feel when they do not wish to listen? Could it not be that what is viewed and heard in the home and in the communities between parents and adults plays a far more important role in shaping behaviour among children than what is seen on the television or listened to on the radio?

This is part of the humanscape to which this draft legislation belongs. We are witnessing the unfolding of a world of collapsing borders but in which new parameters are being defined that have the potential to reconfigure old boundaries.

How we set rules for ourselves will in large measure determine the terms of our engagement with the rest of the world.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

More Carnival Trash

It was the usual garbage for Trinidad and Tobago Carnival 2009. Fun garbage, creative garbage, artistic garbage, music garbage. But garbage all the same.

Don’t get me wrong. Carnival is essentially about having fun and people appeared to have had a good, safe time in 2009. Women took over, as usual, and for a change felt safe and had fun on the country’s streets. There is no such thing as being “too fat” or “too ugly” to have fun. I am not among those who feign outrage at the sight of chunky, scantily clad women having fun and being proud of themselves.

What irks me most about Carnival is the pretence that its outputs are something of creative value that must be in some way, by official edict, honoured. Hence the call for broadcast content quotas to force the playing on radio of the tonnes of garbage heaped on listeners by untalented calypsonians and soca singers.

It is true that about 5% of what is produced has some creative value, but the vast majority of it is forgettable nonsense, in my view. I will continue to rail against efforts to shove garbage down our throats through content quota regulations.

Most of what was presented by way of soca and calypso will not be remembered a year from now. The Mighty Chalkdust won the Calypso King competition with what passes for satire in calypso these days. An infantile play on the word (Calder) “Hart” along the lines we once heard only at intra-mural college competitions somehow convinced the judges and the crowd that this was something worthy of a substantial financial prize.

Then there was the so-called Road March which was won by Faye-Ann Lyons singing (?) a song that repeated the line “hands inna de air” no fewer than 100 times. More rubbish substantially rewarded is difficult to imagine.

Then there was ‘the mas’. There was no improvement here over recent years. Brian Mac Farlane won with something that vaguely resembles mas’ I saw 40 years ago at small-time Carnival in Tunapuna. It was, admittedly, a different story for the King and Queen of Carnival prizes which he won with genuinely creative work. The rest was recycled, obscure, geographically inauthentic garbage.

As usual, the only thing worthy of any lasting memory were the performances of steelbands at the Panorama competitions. Because of my son, Mikhail, I followed the Junior Panorama competition this year. There is hope that pan – the best thing we do as Trinidadians and Tobagonians – will continue to play a role as music, as community consolidator and as a valuable asset to the country.

The Bishop Anstey/Trinity College East Under 13 band came second while the Under 16 slipped to third after winning the competition last year. There was such joy in the presentations that I promised to continue following the competition in the coming years.

Then there were the competitions in the single-pan, small, medium and large categories. This year, I followed the prospects of Curepe Polyphonics in the single pan category. They placed low down. Sforzata in the medium size bands. They won. And, of course Exodus in the large band category.

There is no doubt that the Port of Spain oriented judges and crowds possess an inherent prejudice against Exodus. I sat in the stands and listened to drunk and well-fed Pan Trinbago ushers and other paid assistants talk about Exodus as if they were complete outsiders. Of course, these folks ought to have been working, but they chose instead to talk right through selected performances at the top of their drunken voices.

Pan Trinbago has proven, once again, by their complete disregard for patrons, to be the worst thing for pan!

The Panorama faithful are also being cheated by the absence of a proper facility to host the annual competition. It should also be the place to go anytime of the year to listen to good pan.

I am impressed by the work of the new and upcoming steelpan arrangers and look forward to their emergence over the old and tired veterans in the coming years. Silver Stars, this year’s Panorama winners deserved the trophy and $1 million prize. Well done!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The ACM on the Move

One of the more painful things for me within recent years has been the denial by some that the modest organisation launched by a handful of us in Barbados in 2001 has blossomed into an authoritative, credible and responsible organisation of Caribbean journalists.

We have at various times been described as "an email organisation", "irresponsible" and a "paper organisation." by colleagues who continue to nurse the wounds of a previous experiment that died when international largesse and freeness dried up.

To our credit, all the eggs of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers have not resided in the same basket and we have been able to distribute the risks associated with running an organisation such as this evenly throughout the global media development community.

We are already responsible for two major journalistic publications: "The Looming Storm - State of the Caribbean Media Report 2005" and the "Climate Change Handbook for Caribbean Journalists." Soon, we will launch our "Handbook for Election Coverage".

We have initiated and hosted courses, workshops and a pilot mentoring programme and intervened effectively in free press issues throughout the Caribbean.

Here is a little update on my own activities as President of the ACM.

St Vincent and the Grenadines

On the invitation of the ACM’s Focal Point in St Vincent and the Grenadines, Theresa Daniel, I visited St Vincent on January 24 against the backdrop of the police detention of Jeff Trotman of The Vincentian newspaper on December 21, 2008 and talk of the formation of a new national association of journalists.

I was able to secure a meeting with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves on the morning of January 24 and we discussed both the Trotman incident and government relations with the media in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

At the end of the meeting, I was satisfied that a serious effort was made to investigate the circumstances surrounding Trotman’s detention and that an appropriate expression of “regret” in writing had been prepared and financial compensation offered. Up to that time, the response of the Attorney General to Mr Trotman via his attorney was still being considered.

Other issues discussed included the role and modus of radio talk programmes, the existence of criminal libel and levels of professionalism in the national media.

I later addressed a meeting of senior journalists in Kingstown. It was a very impressive turnout of print and broadcast journalists. I explained the role of the ACM in relation to national associations and urged them to move expeditiously to establish their own organisation.

A steering committee, on which Theresa Daniel would serve as advisor, was nominated and timelines for follow-up discussions and activities were determined. I offered ACM assistance in this process.

I also offered to consult with our international partners to see whether some kind of professional development activity can be convened in St Vincent. We agreed that an activity linked to journalistic safety and reporting under difficult circumstances should be arranged.

Since that meeting, I have consulted with Luisa Rangel, a media trainer associated with the International News Safety Institute (who is also a member of this listserv and a longstanding friend of the ACM). She has indicated that there is a very real possibility of hosting such an activity in St Vincent and she has started looking into the matter.

I think our colleagues in St Vincent and the Grenadines need our collective support as they make the bold move to establish a strong and vibrant representative organisation for journalists and media workers in the country.

Barbados

On the invitation of the Interim Committee of the Barbados Association of Journalists and the ACM’s Focal Point, Julius Gittens, I visited Barbados on January 25-26.

On January 25, I attended a general meeting of the BAJ. It was very well attended and attention was generally paid to two main issues: (i) regularising the affairs of the organisation and (ii) the proposed increase in state registration fees for freelance journalists.

On the first point, I am confident that Amanda Lynch-Foster (interim President) and Julius Gittens (interim Vice President) and their team will do what is necessary to re-build the BAJ and to take it to a level of strength it did not have before.

On the point of registration fees, it is my view that this provision runs counter to the freedom of expression guarantees of the constitution and the American Convention on Human Rights. I have forwarded some of the articles on this subject to the folks at IFEX for interpretation.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has also appointed someone to pay attention specifically to Caribbean issues. He will also be brought into the picture soon.

Thank you, Amanda and Julius, for your hospitality. On the morning of January 26, Julius and I also appeared on the CBC morning television programme to discuss the registration issue.

Trinidad and Tobago

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago convened a meeting of senior journalists and editors on January 21 in an attempt to assess the training needs of journalists. The discussions were very useful.

I am concerned though that the current focus on journalistic standards in TT stems directly from the recent incident involving the Prime Minister’s inappropriate visit to a radio station to complain about the behaviour of two broadcasters.

However, the issue of raising professional standards has been a longstanding concern of the Media Association and those present shared the view that training was one way of addressing the shortcomings.

The meeting was also called on the prompting of the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) which comprises media owners and managers, and which has sought guidance from MATT on the precise training needs of journalists.

Dominica

Draft broadcasting legislation is again on the table in Dominica and the ACM has been approached by the Media Workers Association of Dominica (MWAD) to assist in analysing and shaping a response to the proposed law.

We have been successful in getting IFEX support for this exercise and Article 19 has also expressed an interest in participating in an activity in Dominica to carefully examine the legislation in the context of a free expression guarantee in the country’s constitution and via international covenants.

We are currently making arrangements for such a workshop and a date is expected to be finalised soon.

Render your verdict on the ACM now.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Even More Stupidity in the T&T Parliament

Parliament is not a favourite news location for many Trinidad and Tobago journalists. Hours and hours of talk and talk and talk need to be translated into less garbled language. Parliamentarians phone and write editors complaining about absent concepts, ideas and sound bites. The Press Gallery is small and cramped. The narrow staircase leading to the Press Gallery has claimed several journalistic ankles and the absence of nearby telephones and a proper working press area has tempted reporters to break the rule regarding the use of mobile phones in the parliament chamber.

Some years ago, the United National Congress dominated parliament, under the late House Speaker Hector McLean, banned the use of recording equipment by the print media. Some of us tried to lead an argument against this unenlightened, idiotic instruction and resorted to ignoring it with impunity later on. I think, over time, parliamentary officials have resigned themselves to the fact that a foolish rule is a foolish rule and almost everyone now uses electronic recording devices in the chamber without much of a fuss. So I hope, at least.

I have been off the parliament beat for years now. My last assignments in parliament were in the late 90s when I freelanced in parliament mainly for the Trinidad Guardian and, a little later, covered a few assignments for one or two radio stations.

But a large part of my journalistic heart resides in that old parliament facility in the Red House. I was among the journalists caught in the cross-fire of July 27, 1990 when a murderous band of hooligans attempted to take over the country (and held parliamentarians, journalists and a few innocent bystanders hostage for five days both in parliament and at the state television station).

Fortunately, I was able to escape to safety, leaving behind an old Marantz recorder owned by my then employers, NBS Radio 610.

Since then, I have kept tabs on parliament and its goings-on. I have observed opposition MPs suddenly become government front-benchers. I have seen some folks become comfortable in jackets and ties. I have observed changes in speaking style. How some MPs have matured. How others have regressed. How some remain hopeless as representatives of people at the highest level.

Now comes the latest round of idiocy in the form of a regulation on the use of laptop computers in the parliament chamber. The new rule dictates that only two persons at a time are permitted to have their laptops open – the person on his or her legs and the person next in line to speak.

This absurd and contentious ruling stems from last year’s suspension of Opposition Leader, Basdeo Panday, for contemptuous and disrespectful behaviour against the Speaker of the House, Barendra Sinanan. This was the culmination of an exchange over Panday’s use of a laptop during parliamentary proceedings. The suspension, it is my understanding, was not because of the laptop use but because of Panday’s outburst in response to the Speaker’s instructions about the use of his laptop. But that is another story I am not prepared to deal with.

The Speaker was later quoted as saying in response to questions about the laptop rule: “What would prevent 41 members from using laptops during the sitting? One doesn’t know if they are looking at pornography or chatting on-line.”

Has anyone, reading this blog, heard more rubbish in their lives?

Well, it seems that a parliamentary committee (no one has cared to release the names of the members) agree with the Speaker that the little boys and girls of the House of Representatives and Senate will not be able to resist the temptation to log on to their favourite porn sites if they are allowed to use their laptops in parliament.

Maybe, they are afraid that members will be busy having cyber-sex on MSN Live or Yahoo Messenger while the Prime Minister is pronouncing on serious matters.

The fact that other parliaments around the world, including, (at one time) the US House and the Australian parliament, have had similar restrictions are no reason why we should follow suit on the grounds declared by the Speaker.

Did members of the parliamentary committee consider an eminently sensible paper written by Australian Senator Kate Lundy entitled: “Cyberdemocracy and the Future of the Australian Senate” in which she questioned the absolutely foolish restriction on the use of new technology in the Australian Senate?

On the question of the possibly disruptive nature of laptops and other devices in parliament, Lundy wrote: “The possibility that online services would cause disruption and diversion was a factor in the US Congress’ decision to prohibit the use of such services on the floor. It was argued that it would be `discourteous' to a politician making a speech if other members were glued to their computer monitors, answering emails or researching legislation.

“According to the US Subcommittee on Rules and Organization of the House (21 November 1997), ‘If electronic devices are permitted in the chamber, lawmakers may be so engrossed in their “electronic office” that they are unlikely either to be “hearing” or “studying” the viewpoints of their colleagues.’

“On the other hand, there is nothing to prevent similar ‘distractions’ of members and senators conducting their own work while in the chamber. Noise is not a valid argument for banning computers from parliament.

“Anyone familiar with the level of ‘activity’ in either the House of Representatives or the Senate would be hard-pressed to argue that either computers or electronic voting devices would disrupt proceedings any more than is the current situation. In some respects, electronic technology might result in a ‘quietening down’ of parliament, as members would be able to work during normally inactive periods.”

I second the motion.

In fact, a little cyber-sex on the side might work well to lower the political temperature on the Floor and present us with more smiling faces in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

But seriously, how long again before this absurd rule is changed? How long again before the Speaker realises that the twiddling of thumbs in the House are Blackberry busy fingers reaching the world?

How long again before we have a real parliament?