Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Reporter’s Notebook - Haiti


The view of Port au Prince at dusk from the barricaded premises of Le Chateau Phoenix in hilly Pétion-Ville offers dust and haze. Here is where formerly exiled Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier would have, in January, fixed his first extended gaze at the shattered city he fled 25 years ago.

The view of the mountain from down below, at the foot of the bumpy, pot-holed route is however not as clear as it is captive to the unimaginable filth and disorder of city streets which, 22 months ago, had become an open, steaming morgue.

An irascible American-born hotelier chain-smokes through his greetings and offers a room that quite possibly served as temporary home to the returning political heir who led the country for 15 years following the death of his father, “Papa Doc” François Duvalier, in 1971.

Today, “Baby Doc” prefers to keep a low profile. Several leading Haitians, including a former spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon have filed charges of corruption, kidnapping and torture against Duvalier. Michele Montas is one. She is a journalist who served under Ban until shortly before the 2010 earthquake. Montas is also the wife of slain Haitian broadcaster, Jean Dominique, whose April 2000 assassination remains curiously unpunished.

From Pétion-Ville you see the sun set over a colourless cityscape. Over the short wall near the Phoenix swimming pool, the shock of green to the left frames other well-endowed structures that line the narrow, bumpy route to the peak. Along the street you only know these buildings are there because large, sheeted metal gates painted rusty red, and sometimes green, announce a different presence. But from the hills, they jut out almost guiltily through the green.

Down the hill, the road is narrow and dusty and dry. There are people everywhere; baskets, bicycles, chickens, children in tow. Young, beautiful women, their hair brilliant and orderly, are selling used clothing, food, bandages and hairstyles. Men sell mobile phone credits, tyres, cigarettes and water. Children run precariously between the lawless motorbike taxis and reckless, colourful buses packed to the brim with arms and legs and market animals. A proud student holds on with one hand, his uniform clean and starched – college tie like a proud flag behind him as the bus speeds by.

An overflowing stream rushes down a narrow lane onto the main road and the ladies take their shoes off and shuffle to higher ground. “Politics,” says the driver as the water takes litter downstream to other streets.

There are mounds of 22-month old rubble and 10-second old trash on almost every street. Local wags wonder why the United Nations’ blue helmet troops don’t trade their guns for shovels and brooms. Why the plane-loads of evangelists don’t spend less time saving souls and more time saving lives by clearing the mess and perhaps previewing the heaven they know so much about. Port au Prince, all agree, is a public health nightmare actualised but neglected.

It is a four-hour, carefully-executed drive to Les Cayes. On the way, there are more tent cities near Leogane located at the epicenter of the 2010 quake. There are portions of the road that will tear your under-carriage to bits if you do not notice the sharp drops and deep fissures on an otherwise decent highway through south-western towns.

When darkness falls, the flambeaux come out as people walk and talk and eat and preach and contemplate the future. Oncoming lights are deceiving – one light might be an oncoming motorbike taxi, a converted flat-tray truck/bus or a heavy duty construction vehicle with a sleepy driver and defective head-lights.

Nobody knows the speed limits and nobody cares and a polite police roadblock is a check for documents; not lights or brakes or passenger restrictions. The Highway Code is the law of necessity. There are two road accidents on the way to Les Cayes. A motorbike rider is writing in pain on the road and is comforted by a crowd. A truck has run into a ditch and men with instant bags run toward the cargo.

Then comes the seaport city of Les Cayes. It is said that Simon Bolivar came here to recruit freedom fighters for his South American incursions. It is bustling with street vendors and sweltering midday cafes with fish and conch and fried goat with plantains and rice. At night, the flambeaux come out and the hum and laughter of life are alight.

Here, a Canadian volunteer veterinarian says his work to immunise animals is a virtual con-job by a clandestine Christian charity to win souls. “I did not know what I was in for, until I came and I was taken to this church …” he mutters over breakfast. In the hotel car park, there are vehicles from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Organisation for Migration and a white van that has come to pick him up to deliver rabies vaccines to horses and mules and donkeys.

Head due south-west and back along the coast headed north, you reach Port Salut where you will also find Pointe Sable – two kilometers of calm, blue water and white sand beach. There are no crowds this time of year … yet. The craft and food vendors take what business they can get. Straw hats and place-mats and wooden figures of kissing couples and women on donkeys. On the menu there is goat and fish and beef and pork and conch. It’s half the hotel price and comes with mild pepper sauce.

About an hour and a half from Les Cayes in the other direction, you can get to the cloud-crowned region of Salagnac that reaches an elevation of close to 1,000 metres. A red, treacherously unpaved bauxite-laden road leads to pine cone trees, a constant mist, a quaint mountain school, an agricultural research station and yam and carrot plantations.

Salagnac is where the contrasting pictures of Haiti are best recognised. The stuffy, sickening streets of Port au Prince, pretentious glory of Pétion-Ville, the gloom of the tents and “politics” of flooded streets are nowhere near the pristine foliage and gentle smiles of farmers’ children.

Tomorrow comes the drive back to Port au Prince, the hotel overlooking the haze, the constant hum and motion of people, blue helmets with big guns hustling to and fro, a chaotic airport where men with badges offer to help you jump the queue for a tip, endless employment-generating security checks and a flight among returning preachers counting souls.


Wednesday, 28 September 2011

REPORTING LABOUR ISSUES


Remarks at the Opening Ceremony of “Communicating Rights at Work" – A Training Workshop for Media Professionals. Port of Spain – September 28, 2011

The ACM is delighted to be associated with this activity over the next three days. This workshop is an entirely fitting intervention by the ILO. It comes at a time when the region appears challenged by the need to balance political and economic expediency against the minimum requirements of universally-accepted rights and standards that span virtually the entire spectrum of human, social interaction.

On this occasion, we focus on international labour standards and how best media professionals are able to communicate workplace rights. In many respects, this subject does not represent neutral turf. Labour standards are by no means non-contentious, politically-blind obligations. They meet the classical criteria of the news agenda; presenting opportunities for following conflict, tracking money flows, reporting intrigue, defining inter-personal and group relations and identifying the fulfillment or lack of fulfillment of human potential.

For this reason, what participants are being offered over the next few days constitutes a bountiful package of raw story material waiting to be further elaborated on the news and features pages and broadcast productions of our various media enterprises.

And what stories they are.

We will explore the unfolding canvass of globalisation and how rights at work have become a cross-cutting, pervasive issue ignored at the peril of countries such as ours. The quest for social justice in the face of changing paradigms and a growing sense that poverty and hunger entangle the humanscape like lethal, creeping vines.

The tripartite formula, even as changing circumstances continually challenge the mathematics of relationships across the labour aisles and bring into clearer view the algebra that leads to cohesion and social peace. The role of media as interlocutors in the developmental dialogue – as intermediaries between the governed and those who govern.

Indeed, these are all stories that already reach our front pages and lead our newscasts in the garb of crime and violence, industrial conflict, political intrigue and the terms of our peoples’ engagement with the world around them.

We are fortunate that our alliance with the ILO has led us to this point. Our societies cry out for counsel on the maintenance of freedoms and rights. They urge us on to provide a basis for understanding and appreciating the value of minimum expectations in a world of change.

Understanding labour standards and their impact on tangible economic outputs can provide a much needed nexus between aspiration and achievement – how societies construct tangible evidence out of otherwise elusive, unseen values and standards and goals. How rights and freedoms are indispensable, indivisible features of human progress, however grave the present reality, however urgent the need to abrogate them appear.

In this regard, we would do well to get these stories right. It is our obligation. It is an important requirement which substantiates the case for specific, discrete rights and freedoms for a sector upon which modern democracies continue to rely.
.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Improving Media Coverage of Immigration Issues


Report of Caribbean Working Group on Coverage of Immigration Issues
Austin Forum – September 8-10, 2011


The Caribbean Group comprised: Wesley Gibbings, Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers Trinidad and Tobago (Moderator); Colette Les Pinasse, journalist, Haiti; Gotson Pierre, Alterpresse, Haiti, Maude Malengrez, FOKAL/OSF Haiti and Maria Soldevilla, Listin Diario, Republica Dominicana.


The subject of improving media coverage of immigration issues in the Caribbean was addressed by (i) identifying issues that required further journalistic investigation and (ii) proposing mechanisms to more efficiently achieve improved coverage.


Areas for Further Journalistic Investigation


  1. The incidence of re-migration;
  2. The processing, re-integration and treatment of criminal deportees;
  3. The role of the Caribbean Diaspora in influencing politics and economic life;
  4. Evolving means of moving money between borders in the form of financial remittances;
  5. Closer examination of the incidence of intra-regional migration;
  6. Work on assessing the impact of recent trends involving new groups of immigrants such as Asians and Africans into the Caribbean;
  7. The integrity of institutional support for immigrants including the provision of vital services;
  8. More diligent monitoring of immigration laws and their impact on emerging humanitarian concerns;
  9. Examination of the impact of outward migration on children;
  10. Avoidance of the use of stereotyping in the treatment of immigrants;
  11. Attention should be paid to the “feminisation” of the immigration phenomenon;
  12. The need to verify official immigration statistics;
  13. Recognition of the multi-dimensional nature of immigrant engagement in the life of host countries;
  14. The use of new technologies as immigrant communities communicate with their home countries and as their families and friends communicate with them;
  15. The incidence of transient groups that move continually from one country to the next;
  16. Language and cultural shifts as a consequence of immigration;
  17. The incidence of “paperless” immigrants;
  18. The economic impact of the splintering of families in the face of outward migrations;
  19. Coverage of new money flows as a result of immigration

Mechanisms for Improved Coverage
  1. Development of online platforms for the sharing of official immigration data within the region;
  2. Establishment of a multi-media/multi-lingual repository for news stories and information on regional immigration;
  3. The greater use of social networks that aid in the networking of Caribbean journalists for information sharing;
  4. A mechanism to facilitate greater cross-border collaboration on media productions;
  5. The use of journalistic exchanges among countries across the language groups in the Caribbean;
  6. Greater collaboration among NGOs/academia/community media and mainstream media in the coverage of immigration issues;
  7. Mechanisms for advocates to more efficiently influence media managers;
  8. Development of more comprehensive databases for accessing sources of opinion and information on immigration;
  9. Introduction of an annual Caribbean Forum to explore immigration and other relevant media issues;
  10. Mechanisms to promote journalistic training.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

A Death By Suicide



Freedom of expression is not under threat in Trinidad and Tobago. It simply does not currently subsist as a right upon which we can rely in the face of the state of public emergency. If something does not exist, it cannot be described as being threatened.

The real tragedy, though, is the extent to which a people who rely so heavily on the fruits of our collective and individual expression to establish our bona fides in the world are now prepared to ignore its absence. Almost everything that means anything to Trinidad and Tobago has been founded upon the renegade, pioneering, irreverent, creative genius of our people.

Yet, freedom of expression and the regulatory means to achieve its lawful derogation reside in the basket of current restrictions with precious little publicly-stated discomfort. In fact, there are those who are insisting on more active pursuit of their punitive application. No dissent, one partisan commentator went so far to remark, must be entertained.

The impact of the suspension of free expression has also not been a passive, benign threat, as has been suggested by some, but an active factor in the prevailing climate of awkward and unpracticed vulgar defiance, self-censorship, silence and undue restraint fuelled by fear. 

It is simply not true to say that only the criminals are affected by the state of emergency and that “freedom” can be a possible outcome of a derogation of freedoms. This is crooked thinking and a misuse of metaphor. Such an assertion is dangerous political sleight of hand often witnessed in established autocracies.

Indeed, even the ruling coalition has been minded to close its own doors to online expression. Its Facebook, Twitter and listserv dispatches have been shut down on the grounds of possible transgression. Could it be an inducement for others to do likewise? 

Lurking agents of suppression meanwhile dutifully share casual online banter and ole-talk for further action and voices of even the most remote flavour of dissent are cast in the dungeons alongside criminal suspects, dreaded trade union activists and the political opposition.

Suddenly, freedom of the press is viewed as eminently dispensable even by some in the press; as long as the curfew permits and advertising flow, I suppose. Who from among us, in this masochistic fantasy, dare fly a flag of freedom?

Freedom of expression is not remotely equivalent to Trini freeness and license. It is a foundation upon which modern societies erect democratic structures to ensure that laws bring justice, creativity brings solutions and dialogue brings action. Much of this is captured in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which asserts the application of such a right not only with respect to those who impart information and ideas, but also those who seek and receive it.

Free and unfettered dialogue is also important in building social consensus without which societies cannot go meaningfully forward in peace. But how many more from among us are there who are satisfied that free speech is acceptable only when it is their own clearly partisan speech?

This is nothing new. Short-sightedness and blinkered sycophancy are longstanding, enduring features of our political life. The situation would not have been tolerated by current proponents had the political balance been different.

None of this, by the way, has anything to do with the validity or invalidity of the current constitutional intervention – however unconvinced I remain about it. My advice from those far from the haze of the emergency is that this country may have a lot of explaining to do to its international partners regarding arbitrary use of emergency powers and the militarisation of civilian functions. Diplomatic good manners do not signify approval.

This also has nothing to do with the desirability of firm action to counteract extreme behaviour. I have heard no one attempt to defend the thugs, murderers and deviants who roam this land and no tears are to be shed by me for brutes and sub-humans who kill, rape and maim. 

The problem is in the midst of the storm, independent spaces remain almost completely unoccupied – victimised by the black and white of political under-development and under-achievement. Witness the futility of debate on the emergency in parliament. We all knew the outcome and we all could have written the script for the proceedings in advance. Nobody listened to anybody else.

This is more than a crisis involving our rights and freedoms, I fear. It is a death by suicide.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A State of Emergency


So it has come to this - a state of emergency to address the shortcomings of the police, judiciary, executive and people of Trinidad and Tobago. A solution to the violence and crime is thought to exist through the suspension of rights. The boots and guns are now in charge – a virtual takeover of the state by the state.

On the radio, the partisans present their respective, predictable cases. It is not a time for independence in the month of Independence. It is a time to be silent and to wish and hope that the boots don’t somehow come your own way.

In the background we hear the applause of the mob and the nervous, muted disapproval of the others. Should I or shouldn’t I? This is the chilling effect of prison bars and boots and guns and garbled official announcements – the silence of those with questions and the pronouncements of those with answers.

It has come to this. Who is really surprised?

Friday, 17 June 2011

A Caribbean Spring?

Some thoughts at a seminar on the 10th Anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter  at UWI, St Augustine on June 17, 2011

To the surprise of many, press freedom advocates usually recoil defensively when the words “role” and “support” follow reference to the work of the mass media. This is so because there is a belief that active, explicit promotion of notions of development and the processes that drive it tends to lead to a path paved with many dangers that may undermine journalistic independence and free expression. This is especially so when we consider the increasingly fashionable suggestion that the best way to a version of development is through the suppression of the democratic process. Which would you prefer, the question has been asked, food or freedom?

Recent events have also raised difficult questions related not only to the true meaning of democracy but the precise nature of the modern media themselves. Are the new media of the Arab Spring the same as the old media we have known for all our years? Is the work of Wikileaks an act of intrepid journalism or the product of reckless, vindictive and lawless voyeurism?

Such questions are being actively engaged by many of us who propose that the fundamental tenets of free expression remain unambiguous and, in their juridical and other applications, indivisible. Such an approach finds as much space for the bloggers of Damascus as they do the duty editors in our newsrooms.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter we pay special attention today, assists in negotiating this somewhat difficult terrain. Article 4 defines five essential components or characteristics of the exercise of democracy - transparency in government activities, probity, responsible public administration on the part of governments, respect for social rights, and freedom of expression and of the press.

This, of course, is reinforced within the inter-American system through the OAS Charter itself, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and several leading judgments at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. They all guide us to the essential principle, expressed in the Democratic Charter, which subordinates state institutions in all their manifestations to civilian authority – or, put another way; which prescribes a process that places power in the hands of the people.

In the English-speaking Caribbean we do not - unlike most of our neighbours of the Americas - concern ourselves with any form of autocratic relapse, having escaped the phenomenon of military dictatorships of the recent past. But the ability to relocate the core axes of power remains a relevant concern.

For this reason, it is not inconceivable that our winters of discontent will someday lead to our own Caribbean spring. And where would this find the estates of power and influence? Practitioners of new media have displayed a striking ability to offer timely, unrestrained coordinates and traditional media are wrestling with ways to meaningfully join the dots.

It is the expectation that even as we embrace new ways of doing business, the fundamental principles of fairness, balance and accountability emerge as dominant features of the media landscape.

Article IV of the American Declaration reminds us of the right of communicators to investigate, to express opinions and to disseminate ideas through any medium, while Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly establishes freedom of expression as not only the right to communicate but also the right to seek and receive information and ideas.

Freedom of the press thus presents itself not only as the preserve of communicators, but also of those who seek such communication and those who wish to receive it. The media are therefore not only an instrument for the achievement or sustaining of democracy, but are themselves an integral function of the democratic process.

Seek out those countries in which uneasy conditions prevail between the governed and those who govern and you will find the role of the mediators of the relationship in jeopardy and under constant threat. It is as much true to contend that a free press is hard to find under conditions in which democracy does not thrive as it is to conclude that democracy is unlikely to prevail in the absence of free speech and a free press.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Approaching emerging policy interventions with a cool head

The following was part of an address delivered to Dominican media workers in March 2009 as they faced the prospect of new telecommunications legislation that appeared to seep over into the delicate area of media content. As Caribbean societies frantically attempt to address pervasive crime and violence, social disorder, inequity and a lack of social justice, the temptation has been for officialdom to contemplate the withdrawal of freedoms - freedom of expression in particular.

I thought it fitting to sound an alert in Dominica as I have continued to do in the rest of the region:


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.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Press Freedom Challenge in the Caribbean

World Press Freedom Day 2011 is special for more than one reason. Not only is it 20 years since the endorsement of the Windhoek Declaration in Namibia that gave birth to these observances all over the world, but this year also marks the 10th anniversary of the inauguration of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM).

In many respects, the circumstances that led to the assembling of international journalists in the southern African state in 1991 were not much different from the imperatives that brought Caribbean journalists together in Bridgetown, Barbados in 2001. Neither can we discern many fundamental differences from the world we meet in the year 2011, with respect to the over-riding concern that freedom of expression faces stark challenges in the face of wider social, political and global military conflict.

There is the unfortunate tendency in this part of the world to assume a level of global insulation - that it is possible to erect some kind of impervious shield against approaching outbreaks of democracy and liberation. There is also the assumption that a defence of cultural relativism is sufficient to address hybrid versions of free societies that provide the right to choose political administrations but restrict the right to hold them up to wider and deeper inspection through the work of a free and unfettered press.

For this reason, World Press Freedom Day provides a worthwhile avenue to stress the indivisibility of the right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – freedom of expression in all its manifestations. It is important to note what Article 19 actually says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Relate this now to the year 2011 and the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day observances: “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers.” It is clear the social and political requirements to achieve the ideals of free expression declared in 1948 remain absolutely pertinent to the challenges of 2011. In the Caribbean, there is particular relevance, especially within the context of our essentially authoritarian, post-colonial culture.

Regional telecommunications regulators whose political genetics predispose them to command and control, wish to explore new barriers to the new frontiers of smart phones, tablet PCs and a tireless, besieged worldwide web. Politicians insist on retention of criminal defamation statutes despite the evidence that they pose a danger to free speech and freedom of the press.

In this regard, we call on the government of Jamaica and all other Caribbean community countries to take action to erase the common law offences of criminal libel including blasphemous, obscene and seditious libel from their statute books. It is a position endorsed by a Joint Select Committee of the Jamaican parliament in 2008, following submission of the Justice Hugh Small Report that very year.

Though the media landscape in the Caribbean is undergoing a measure of change, such change is not being matched by a corresponding revolution in official mind-set. Despite repeated promises, the government of Guyana persists in its refusal to award new radio broadcasting licenses and has used state advertising revenues as a tool of media punishment and reward. The state media in Trinidad and Tobago still wrestle with the spectre of political control and there is evidence that a coercive broadcast content quota system will return, courtesy state regulators, to the front burner in due course.

The majority of Caribbean Community countries have also not passed access to information laws. The presence of such laws is a prerequisite to declaration of the bona fides of a Caribbean country as one committed to transparency and accountability. In instances where such laws exist, it is also important to ensure they are truly providing unfettered access to official information in the way originally intended.

We would further urge political figures to shun the inclination to blame media messengers in an attempt to vilify the media for stories unfavourable to them.

Finally, the ACM also finds cause to note the extent to which factors within the media industry itself are providing obstacles to the achievement of a truly free press. Poor media performance, oppressive industrial relations environments, endemic self-censorship, incompetent media leadership and a lack of professional commitment by media practitioners provide a tragic basis for erosion of free expression and a free press.

We note with concern that the loss of jobs in the news media industry can serve to weaken the fabric of press freedom and free expression. This is particularly disconcerting when we witness declarations of increased corporate profits even as poor financial performance has been cited as the reason for layoffs and cutbacks.

The ACM and its national affiliates and focal points are building a platform for media workers to undertake the work necessary to address some of these shortcomings. It has taken us 10 years to reach where we are.

We look forward to the day the regional media leadership takes up the challenge as well.

We note the work of the Media Association of Jamaica, the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers’ and Broadcasters’ Association and the fledgling Guyana Media Owners’ Association. Hopefully, like the media workers, the captains of the regional media industry will someday provide a united, cohesive front in the face of the new and old barriers to new and old frontiers, as they did in the past. In the ACM you will in fact meet a worthy ally. We wish for the people of the Caribbean to find in us some assurance that the freedoms we fought for in the past remain lived realities and do not slip from our grasp.


Thursday, 28 April 2011

What do you mean "media convergence"?

I think while a lot of fuss is being made and has been made about the issue of media convergence in the Caribbean, there is a need for it to be disaggregated according to the key constituencies – media enterprises, media workers and media consumers.

The main advantage of convergence to media owners and managers, based on precedents I know of, simply reflect the use of a smaller group of journalists to produce more content. The bottom line has been that for the price of, say, a radio newsroom, media owners and managers hope to use the banner of media convergence to receive more radio, television and even print content.

The advantage of all of this to media workers would include improved marketability within the context of this trend through the acquisition of a more intimate acquaintance of mass media across disciplinary platforms. Today, for example, more journalists are aware of or have worked across media disciplines throughout the Caribbean. Journalists who started out in the print media now do radio and television and vice versa.

However, the combination of enforced convergence in the newsroom and new technologies – smart phones, digital media, online media – means that journalists are now routinely expected to produce much more than they have in the past. In days past, the newspaper was put to bed and that was that. Today, for example, online versions of newspapers are updated at anytime.

Output has however increased in a situation not reflected by upgraded industrial relations practices. Trade unions, where they exist in the media (and media are under-represented by trade unions as a sector), are not in tune with recent developments and work contracts are routinely discussed in the absence of such a consideration.

Media consumers have benefited through the increase in productivity. However, because of the exploitative nature of the process, there has not been a corresponding increase in quality. More has not necessarily meant “better.”

We must however conclude that media convergence is not an aspiration, it is already a lived reality. But our media and other social institutions have not responded to engage questions related to its impact on media workers and general quality of content. This is the responsibility of all constituents to address for the sake of a free press and a free society.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Traditional Media Join the Dots

New social media in the form of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others are unfolding as important primary sources of news and information on life in Trinidad and Tobago.

They have played a vital role in unveiling important information on a number of recent, high-impact news stories. These have included issues such as the Reshmi Ramnarine assignment and developments linked to the work of the Tourism Development Company (TDC).

International media development experts are beginning to agree that while social media have been able to identify the “dots” on the social and political landscape, traditional, mainstream media are best placed to join those dots.

A discussion convened by the Washington-based Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) last week explored the issue.

The context of the discussion was the pervasive and effective use of social media during what James Deane of the BBC World Service Trust, described as “democratic outbursts” in North Africa and the Middle East.

Most speakers suggested that the “new” media can be used appropriately as content in mainstream media but that more needed to be done to establish the bona fides of the new platforms.

Luis Botello of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) for example said the challenge of social media usage resided in being able to sift through a growing mass of citizen-generated content.

His said his own organisation, which promotes journalistic development and press freedom globally, continued to ask hard questions about “who gets to be trained” in order to promote greater credible use of social media as a source of news and information.

Deane suggested it might well be a case where the benchmarks of performance by the bloggers and other social media users would be the extent to which there is “self discipline” and a “commitment to peace” on their part.

He said it was clear “we will need to go beyond what we have seen in the Middle East” since both repressive governments and organised criminal networks are equally capable of using the new media to their advantage as propaganda tools.

Veet Vivarta, Executive Secretary of the Brazilian News Agency for Children's Rights (ANDI), argued that whatever the new media brought to the table, “old style journalism” was still “a very important tool” in telling the stories of societies.

He pointed to the reliance of the “old tools” on values including accountability and transparency.
The debate is however tempered by the realisation that Deane’s “democratic outbursts” are essentially the product of social movements with tentacles that extend way beyond the reach of the new media.

It was a point stressed by A.S. Panneerselvan of Panos South Asia and India who said it was the “power of Tahrir Square” in Egypt that brought the Mubarak regime to its knees and not the influence of the new media. He said a lot of time was being spent on looking at something that was simply the expression of a much deeper-seated process taking place throughout the globe.

Gabriel Baglo of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) operations in Senegal said, for example, that “what is happening in North Africa today is what happened 20 years ago in the rest of Africa.”

He said it was important that the momentum of the movements in North Africa and the Middle East expand since there was a recognisable “democratic recession” throughout the African continent. A similar comment was made about democratic “roll backs” in some parts of Europe including countries such as Hungary.

There was general agreement that the facilitative role of the social media was becoming increasingly difficult to reverse since, in most instances, digital media are an integral part of the digital economy.

This made it difficult for repressive governments to tinker with free expression in the new media without hampering the greater use of online technology in the development process.

The general conclusion was that the social media are not only here to stay, but will continue to be an important source of potentially revolutionary change, reinforced and validated by old fashioned newspapers, television screens and radios.


* Originally published in the (Trinidad) Sunday Guardian - http://www.guardian.co.tt/news/2011/03/20/social-media-takes-place-alongside-old-media

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Impending Closure of BBC Caribbean Service

January 25, 2011 - The Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) is saddened by the announcement by the British Broadcasting Corporation that its popular Caribbean Service is to be closed.

The ACM wishes to pay tribute to the West Indian men and women and their British counterparts who strove for more than 40 years, and more recently, in more than 15 years of unbroken service to present a balanced, comprehensive and intelligent picture of life in the Caribbean. The Caribbean Service has also been an invaluable source of insightful analyses and commentaries on the effect of world economics and politics on the region.

While the BBC has created several incarnations of the BBC Caribbean Service going back to the Second World War, the ACM honours the contribution of the late Hugh Crosskill, who as editor of the modern Caribbean Service shaped the unit into a significant source of regional radio news. We pay special tribute to the fine work of his long-standing successor, Debbie Ransome, a veteran journalist who increased the Caribbean Service's output and made it an essential part of radio listening diets across the region.

The Caribbean Service's journalists and producers deserve the highest commendation. They also deserve the unequivocal assurance that their names -household names for thousands of Caribbean people - will not be lost to egional broadcasting. The ACM believes that this is an opportunity for bold, collective ction by Caribbean media owners and managers to ensure that the careers of en and women who contributed significantly to regional information and nderstanding can continue.

It is in this regard that the ACM calls on the Caribbean Media Corporation and the Caribbean Broadcasting nion, whose mandates and functions mirror that of the Caribbean Service, to move immediately to create a viable alternative. The CMC, especially, which has inherited the Caribbean News Agency (CANA), a trusted and independent organisation that gave so many of the BBC Caribbean staff their start, must now seize the opportunity to ensure that the region does not skip a beat in making the transition from a London-based Caribbean news organisation to a Caribbean-based news agency.

While the ACM applauds the sterling work of its colleagues in London, it has long believed that only a truly Caribbean institution that is to the region what the BBC has been to the world can be a vital part of the communications mix in a Caribbean single economy and a Caribbean single marketplace of ideas.

The Caribbean needs a distinctive service of high quality news and information that is collected, distilled and explained by some of its veteran journalists, not a hodge-podge of duplicated copy from national media houses.

Let it not be said that in a moment of adversity, the Caribbean media failed to shed considerations of parochialism and profit to create a trustworthy source of Caribbean news and information.

It would be a sad commentary on the fruit of regional independence and integration and the greatest possible disservice to the people of this region if the Caribbean broadcast media, who do possess the resources, lack the will to do what the moment demands of them.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Organising Caribbean Journalists - The Journey

After nine years of existence, the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers has defied the doubting Thomases (and there have been many) and has been able to engage the multi-faceted tasks of networking journalists, promoting professional development in the Caribbean media and holding fast to the principles of free expression and a free press.

This has not been an easy journey. For one, we have attempted to accomplish our tasks largely through the volunteer efforts of resourced-starved national associations and focal points and the vision of a group of elected individuals functioning at the regional level and who serve on our executive board.

This, though, is not exactly the right model. Our counterparts who form part of the Global Forum for Media Development and the International Freedom of Expressions Exchange are both professionally outfitted and also receive the regular support of international media development agencies. Perhaps in the Caribbean we have too successfully sold our image as a tropical paradise to many who continue to believe that the threats to our freedom are imagined, if not over-stated and that “we cool”.

However, because of the partnerships we have forged through international partners who are finally getting the message, the ACM has been able to complete assignments over the years that have included a journalism mentoring programme, more than 20 training workshops and projects, collaboration on the publication of a handbook on covering climate change and production of our handbook on covering elections in the Caribbean.

The ACM serves on the steering committees of the Latin American and Caribbean operations of IFEX and GFMD and sits on the IT Sub-Committee of CARICOM. We also have working relations with the International Press Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in the Americas.

Our agenda is transparent and obvious. It is what I often describe as the “freedom perspective” – meaning that we need to maintain constant vigil over freedoms and rights that cost us dearly through our experience of slavery, indentureship and colonialism. It is incredible that in a part of this globe characterised in the past by these phenomena on such a large scale, human rights NGOs are so sparse and, where they exist, are of questionable value in the context of the right to maintain hard-won freedoms – freedom of expression in particular.

Such a task has fallen to those of us who believe this is something worth fighting for, however much it challenges the fashionable instinct to opt for personal privilege over the collective good.

This, of course, is not altogether an altruistic aspiration. Media workers insist on press freedom so that media enterprises flourish and grow and create environments in which we thrive and achieve professional rewards and satisfaction.

Press freedom calls on those who wield economic and political power to account for their decisions and their actions. It not only pursues the facts, but relishes the truth. It is an important pillar upon which we can build our true independence.

This, perhaps, is not the season to dwell too much on these lofty, esoteric matters, but it is certainly the time for us to focus on where we go from here. It’s almost like that star more than 2,000 years ago when those who believed in something came up against those who did not believe. They fixed their gaze upon that star and never gave up.

It might be as we approach 2011, we are being called upon to re-dedicate ourselves to a cause that is not always popular - one that costs us money, time and, sometimes, friends.