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.

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