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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