Sunday, 18 April 2010

Owing Our People Better Journalism

This dispatch is extracted from comments I made on Saturday April 17, 2010 as one of the judges of the IICA/CARDI Excellence in Agriculture Awards ceremony in Port of Spain, Trinidad:

Those who keep a close eye on these matters, and they ought to include some journalists, are acutely aware of the distinction between the concept of food security and general agricultural development. In too many instances, the link between story content and the notion of food security in coverage of such issues in the local press is remote at best. This betrays a basic misunderstanding of the conditions under which food security for a nation is pursued and achieved.

It is however true that some of the experts themselves quibble over some key details, and it is perfectly acceptable to explore, through journalistic means, the main points of departure. The arguments are worthy of coverage, but they aren't. It makes no sense to parrot the current orthodoxy without a level of skepticism.

As has been the case with so many other journalistic awards, not only here but throughout the Caribbean, there existed wide gaps in the quality of print versus broadcast submissions. Stories in the print media category, save for one highly impressive television entry, far exceeded submissions received in the radio and television categories.

It is quite apparent that more has not been merrier in the area of broadcast media in Trinidad and Tobago. This is particularly so in the field of radio broadcasting. I am no old-timer mourning any golden age, but merely a consumer of radio content who now has a far wider range of choices than ever before. I must say there is absolutely nothing here that remotely resembles the most humble offerings of respectable radio broadcasters even in some other Caribbean territories.

There is a lot of work to be done in every single area. In researching, interviewing, scripting, editing and presenting. Sadly, television is not much better. To touch on just one point, people need to remember that one of the most indispensable assets of a journalist is his or her sense of humility.

I am pulling no punches on these issues, because the organisation I lead – the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers – not only has a commitment to ensure journalistic standards improve, but that we operate in an environment in which the mass media are free. The connection, in our view, is a very direct one.

Poor journalistic practices very often invite oppressive official behaviour, almost as much as excellent journalism does – the difference being that it is much easier to defend a journalist under fire for good work than it is to defend a journalist guilty of sloppy or unprofessional behaviour. In that sense, we as journalists, are very often our own worst enemies.

It is virtually axiomatic that the greater commitment to professional excellence in journalism the greater the chance that countries in social and political peril escape the worst consequences. On the question of food security, our societies in the Caribbean are in mortal danger.

In this respect alone, we owe our people better journalism. We derive our rights and freedoms only on the basis of this compact with our societies – not that we pursue some fuzzy notion of development support journalism - but that we empower our people through information and knowledge to make the correct decisions about what is necessary to resolve the challenges of the day.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Free Expression in Latin America and the Caribbean

A very important alignment of Latin American and Caribbean free expression voices has begun to unfold under the banner of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) which brings together organisations from all over the world committed to free speech, a free press and general freedom of expression.

It can be said that representative organisations of Latin America and the Caribbean have for long remained estranged cousins with little inclination to join hands in pursuit of goals such as the maintenance of human rights and our freedoms. The ambivalence has been exacerbated by the presence of states such as Cuba and Venezuela that have openly expressed and applied sanctions against free expression.

Mixed feelings on this aspect of the discussion occur because there have always been relatively close relations between these two countries and the English-speaking Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica were among the first countries of the world to officially recognise Cuba as a legitimate state run by a government which has as its supreme ambition the betterment of its people. Cuba has also been a generous benefactor in the form of educational scholarships and the ready availability of health care professionals in situations where other countries of the region have fallen dramatically short.

But, this does not reduce Cuba’s responsibility to honour commitment to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which specifically defines the parameters of this important freedom. People cannot and should not be imprisoned or harassed for expressing their views on matters of public affairs.

Persons on the so-called “left” of Caribbean public affairs are committing a grave error in not unequivocally condemning such an approach by Cuban officials, even as we all recognise the country’s contribution in the areas I have described.

Good feelings about programmes of direct and indirect financial aid from Venezuela to Caribbean countries under severe financial strain need also to be balanced against the designs of the authoritarian leader in Caracas. Too many in the Caribbean are prepared to provide blind cheerleader support for an anti-Americanism that has as its basis circumstances that have little to do with us.

For reasons such as these, Caribbean people need to spend more time attempting to understand what makes the countries of Latin America tick while we engage a similar exercise to come to terms with neighbours about whom we understand too little.

The participation of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) at the Annual Meeting of the IFEX Latin American and Caribbean Alliance in Lima, Peru on March 23-25, 2010 was one attempt to achieve the latter objective.

The ACM’s contribution to the meeting focused on defining New and Emerging Challenges to Freedom of Expression and Improving Collaboration on Free Expression Issues between Latin American and Caribbean groups.

The Association also contributed to and endorsed a conference statement which defined ten key challenges to freedom of expression in Latin America and the Caribbean. These included:

1. Illegitimate mechanisms of governmental control over the media that allow undue political interference. Political control is exercised via the discretionary granting of licenses or the regulation of broadcasting; through abuse in the distribution of State advertising to influence editorial lines; through the ownership or significant control of the media by political leaders or parties; as well as through procedures against independent media based on political motivations, including the defense of obsolete regulations - such as sedition laws or the requirement of "truthfulness" in the news – such policies are destined to criminalise the criticism of governments and public officials.

2. Criminal laws against defamation, such as contempt of court laws or those that criminalise libel and slander are often used to restrict freedom of expression. The abuse of such laws and the existence of excessively severe sanctions, such as imprisonment or suspended sentences, result in the loss of civil rights.

3. Violence against journalists remains a very serious threat to the freedom of expression; particularly against those journalists who cover social problems, including organised crime or drug trafficking; who criticise the authorities or others in positions of power; who cover violations of human rights or corruption; or who work in conflict zones. An increasing number of violent attacks on journalists remain unpunished and not enough resources are allocated to prevent them or to investigate them and seek justice when they do take place. This phenomenon often leads to journalists' self-censorship and therefore diminishes citizen access to information on matters of public interest.

4. Limits to the right to access information, despite having been widely acknowledged as a basic human right. Most of the region's States have not approved legislation to ensure full compliance.

5. Discrimination in the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, against historically disadvantaged groups (women, indigenous people, among other vulnerable groups and other minorities) who are still struggling for their views to be taken into account and to be able to access information that is relevant to them. Among the principal violations are obstacles to the creation of media outlets for these populations, and the minimal representation of their members in the newsrooms of the major media, including public outlets.

6. Economic pressures that threaten the media's capacity to cover matters of public interest, due to the increasing concentration of media ownership, with serious consequences for the diversity of sources and content. The strains on the advertising market and other commercial pressures have led the media to take cost-cutting measures that are detrimental to the coverage of local issues and to investigative journalism, and instead promote low-level intellectual entertainment. These factors increase the risk of only existing media outlets reaping the benefits of the transition to digital frequencies, thus preventing greater diversity and access to public interest media.

7. Lack of support for public and community-based stations, which can play an important social role, face increasingly frequent obstacles to public financing access and suffer the lack of specific legal recognition with appropriate criteria in fair and democratic conditions that guarantee their development and prevent discriminatory measures based on technical or sustainability based issues.

8. Using national security as a guise to restrict the freedom of expression, which has historically been used to impose unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression through overly broad definitions of what constitutes "apology" or "promotion" of terrorism or violence.

9. Governmental control of Internet use, to control or limit this outlet of free speech through the blocking of websites. Also, certain corporations that provide search, access, messaging and publishing services, among others, do not make enough efforts to respect the privacy rights of users to access the Internet without interference.

10. Restricted access to new information and communication technologies. Although most of the population still has limited or no access to the Internet, States in the region continue to maintain pricing structures that prevent the use of the Internet by the least privileged sectors and fail to extend connectivity to all their countries' territories, leaving rural users, in particular, with less information and diminished spaces for free expression.

The Caribbean context on the question of free expression was framed by a presentation on defining the Caribbean and exploring its socio-political antecedents. It was expressed that in the English-speaking Caribbean, defined as those countries that are member states of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), threats to free expression are often not readily evident, did not always include violence or the threat of violence, but are very much a feature of modern life in the region.

It was explained that, unlike many areas of Latin America, there is a long tradition of democracy and Caribbean societies are known to be open, with a free press that pre-dates the region’s achievement of political independence, beginning with some states in the 1960s.

State monopolies in the Caribbean broadcast sector started coming to an end in the 1980s but, in 2010, not all countries are currently at the same level. However, by and large, the state no longer dominates broadcast media in most countries.

In the Caricom countries there remains direct censorship in the form of official censorship of movies and some broadcasting content – mainly on grounds of decency, security and protection of the public interest. There was also censorship that came in the form of judicial edicts and the rulings of presiding officers in parliament. There also existed widespread self-censorship often influenced by commercial and political factors.

The ACM pointed out that criminal defamation and criminal speech are on the books of all English-speaking Caribbean countries and there have been recent examples of the use of these provisions in countries such as Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda. Civil defamation awards are often heavy and in Grenada, recently, one newspaper was forced to close its doors under the burden of a defamation award.

The challenges to free expression have come via the chilling effect not only of the presence of strong defamation laws, but the presence of social attitudes toward what constitutes “decency” and issues of good taste. There is also a sense that free expression should not harm children, offend religious practices or promote social discord.

In Jamaica, for example, the Broadcasting Commission has a no-play list of music. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Board of Film Censors has more than once banned movies and on more than one occasion, the police have stormed theatre stages for the use of obscene language. In many countries, broadcasters will not play music that appears to offend the ruling party.

State advertising and government fiscal prerogatives have been used in some countries to punish errant media, performers and other social groups.

Importantly, the ACM indicated, a vulnerability to natural disasters has led to temporary and permanent media closures and has created a level of vulnerability since state support can be selectively applied post-disaster.

The ACM also pointed to the fact that disparities in access to online media/mobile technologies continue to exist in some states. This meant that the freedom to seek and access expression was often not honoured. The Association also pointed to instances in which state officials have expressed a desire to impose restrictions on internet content and had, in at least one instance, been cited as a measure possible under telecommunications regulation.

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