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.

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