Monday, 31 December 2012

Greetings to the Caribbean Media Fraternity

The Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) is wrapping up its busiest year since about a dozen of us assembled in Barbados in November 2001 and decided that we needed to re-invent an organisation of Caribbean media workers to carry the flags of press freedom advocacy, journalistic networking and the promotion of higher professional standards.

This year tested the abilities we have developed over the past 11 years in unprecedented ways. We undertook, for example, to function as local organisers in Trinidad and Tobago for the 61st World Congress of the International Press Institute (IPI). It was one of the biggest media events ever hosted in the Caribbean with over 400 participants from North, Central and South America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific.

I pay special tribute to Kiran Maharaj, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association who co-chaired the Local Organising Committee and made many things possible that would have otherwise not taken place. Nylah Ali, Adelle Roopchand, Naylan Dwarika, Wendy Sealy, Fazilette McIntyre and Frances Lakatoo also contributed meaningfully to much of the preparatory work that needed to be done.

This year, we also partnered with several international and regional organisations for subject-specific journalistic workshops on food and agriculture journalism, reporting development issues, the environment, international trade, reporting on violence against children and covering international human rights. Close to 100 regional journalists would have participated in these events sponsored by UNDP, UNICEF, UWI, CARDI/CTA, Caricom Secretariat and UNEP.

In 2012, we also participated in press freedom missions in Jamaica and Barbados led by the IPI, with which we have a meaningful cooperation agreement, signed in 2011. Special thanks to IPI Director, Alison Bethel-McKenzie, for ensuring that the Caribbean remains in international focus on matters related to media development. IPI remains an important resource for professional guidance and institutional support.

We also signed a cooperation agreement with the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) with which we share many things in common. We hope to work with PINA in 2013 specifically on development of journalistic training resources on covering food and agriculture issues and generally on information-sharing measures. Like the ACM, PINA is engaged in media development work in a region of island states facing very similar challenges. Unlike the ACM, PINA is on the road to financial sustainability through its dual role as press freedom organisation and news agency (PACNEWS). We have agreed that there is much to learn from each other and the ACM has shared information on our work with developing journalistic guides on covering elections and climate change and our effectiveness on press freedom issues.

During the course of 2012, we also continued our active engagement in the work of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) – another very important partner and generous source of institutional support. Through the IFEX Latin American and Caribbean Alliance (IFEX-ALC) we were able to contribute to the first publication of a report on impunity in Latin America and the Caribbean and also to launch it in Guatemala in time for international observance of International Day to End Impunity 2012. The ACM also sits as a member of the Council of IFEX and is currently engaged in planning for the next General Meeting of the body in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in June 2013.

We have also been elected as an alternate member from the Latin America and Caribbean region of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) which is an umbrella body of international media development agencies. Several Caribbean countries currently benefit from programmes extended by members of the GFMD. Our internal mandate has been to attract greater attention to the needs of Caribbean media outfits and their operatives. Most of these bodies are currently actively engaged in re-building media plant and operations in Haiti and several English-speaking Caribbean journalists have benefited from training programme and symposia hosted by other GFMD members.

But much more work needs to be done at home to build capacity and support for our national affiliates: Antigua and Barbuda Media Congress (ABMC), Barbados Association of Journalists (BAJ), Media Workers Association of Dominica - MWAD (dormant), Media Workers Association of Grenada (MWAG), Guyana Press Association (GPA), Association of Surinamese Journalists, Media Association of Saint Lucia (MASL, born in 2012), Media Workers Association of St Kitts and Nevis (MWASKN), Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) and Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ).

In the New Year, we hope to work more assiduously with colleagues in St Vincent and the Grenadines to help establish a national association; with journalists in Haiti to identify a new partner organisation and with the Colegio Dominicano de Periodistas of the Dominican Republic to determine the terms of its engagement with the ACM.

We have achieved much with very little in 2012. All of our work is done on a voluntary basis by persons otherwise engaged in journalism and other communication work. This is not easy.

The current executive committee has established a series of sub-committees with responsibility for specific areas of activity. I wish to identify one sub-committee in particular, led by Second Vice President, Byron Buckley, which has focused on training. Through Byron’s fine work, we have been able to develop our own online training curricula for application in courses to be offered via the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in 2013. My personal congratulations to Byron for the work he has done in this area.

As a result of commitments made by an international partner in 2012, our Assistant General-Secretary, Clive Bacchus, is also leading an attempt to launch a concerted programme of training on the coverage of food and agriculture issues in the Caribbean in 2013.

After 11 years of existence, there are a few people who merit special mention. Hopefully, we will someday recognise these colleagues in more tangible ways: Peter Richards, Bert Wilkinson, Nylah Ali, Clare Forrester, Angelica Hunt, Dale Enoch, Julius Gittens, Marvin Hokstam, Michael Bascombe, Tony Deyal, Lennox Grant, Raoul Pantin, Desmond Allen, Adelle Roopchand, Naylan Dwarika, Theresa Daniel, Nita Ramcharan and Vernon Khelawan come to mind.

We know we have not done everything as well as we should have and it is no great comfort that our international partners often marvel at what we achieve on an entirely voluntary basis. We are also aware that there are detractors who believe that our widening focus on human rights and freedom of expression is misplaced in the Caribbean context and that we would be better placed focusing exclusively on networking and strengthening the stock of journalistic resources. The fact is these imperatives are all highly inter-related and inter-dependent.

The ACM platform is also a Caribbean space which acknowledges a changing media landscape in which the new players are not only knocking at the door, but are actually shaping an entire infrastructure for the future.

The agenda we promote proposes greater freedom for all. We consequently oppose more restrictions under the dubious umbrella of “responsibilities” which, in most instances, has been code for self-censorship.

Press freedom, you see, is not an esoteric principle borrowed from libertarian “westerners” but an actual condition shaped by tangible laws, regulations, principles and practices. It is also not subject to cultural-relativism, now used as an excuse for human rights blindness and the belief that we are all too poor, too small and too ignorant to be free.

This is the broader challenge of the ACM as we enter 2013 and beyond – raising awareness, both within and without the new and old media industries, of the immediacy and pervasiveness of the threats that abound.

I wish all our members, friends and associates the best for the New Year and look forward to even greater support in 2013.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Intervention at OAS Permanent Council

Washington DC - December 7, 2012

Everywhere in the Caribbean we now reflect on times when persistent social, economic and political challenges had not as much tested our will and resilience as a people as they currently do.

As an organisation of journalists and other media workers, our members are close witnesses to all of this and prepare the first drafts of history not as passive observers but as active subjects of such change - freedom of expression being our principal asset.

Our interest in ensuring a future built on the foundation of unqualified support for human rights and the conditions that assure essential freedoms is thus not open to negotiation. Our partners within the Latin American and Caribbean Alliance of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange all share this uncompromising position.

We all view the role of the Inter-American Human Rights System as indispensable. However estranged from its processes Caribbean member states sometimes appear, had there not been such a mechanism for mediating questions of con-compliance with accepted norms, we would have had, in 2012, to invent such an institution.

Indeed, there is perhaps space for greater professional Caribbean participation and more direct acknowledgement of the contributions we already make, but there is no excuse for indifference to the requirement of a strong, independent and appropriately resourced infrastructure for monitoring and reporting trends and violations.

We are, in this regard, particularly concerned that Chapter 6 (of the OAS) recommendations will have the impact of significantly weakening the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression by compromising its independence and weakening its resource base.

We in fact propose a more concerted effort to elevate such a function of the inter-American system to a position of greater influence and prominence. Recent actions to repeal criminal defamation in some Caribbean territories and growing recognition of the need for access to information laws provide us with some confidence that this sub-region is ready to reflect collectively, as we often do, on a question of grave relevance to our future as sovereign states.

Development achieved in the absence of freedom and rights is guaranteed not to persist over the long term. This is especially so when we recognise the interdependent relationship between economic, social and cultural rights and the civil and political rights we cherish and are prepared to strenuously defend.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Is Press Freedom Under Threat in Trinidad & Tobago?

There has not been a period in our history that the free press has not been threatened or under attack. This has to do with our essentially authoritarian culture – a predisposition we find not only in the rulers, but in the ruled. I cannot say with confidence that we are all opposed to the notion of censorship. I cannot say that people, in general, are in agreement with the view that a free, unfettered press is good and not bad for our society.

Were we to possess such an orientation, we would have been greater inclined to attend to matters of the media in a much different way – by considering the value of information as a social good, by believing that the potential impacts of media content are best measured using science and not guess-work, by knowing that better societies are built upon the foundation of diverse views, analyses, perspectives and truths.

What we have before us today in Trinidad and Tobago through the voices of the political leadership has been heard before. It is the assertion of authoritarian control. It is the result of the view that opinions, information and analysis are the exclusive preserve of those who govern. It is the conscious undermining of a belief in freedom as the basic condition under which citizens assert their places in society.

If people understood what freedom of the press and freedom of expression mean to us as a developing country, we won’t have to engage this constant struggle to assert rights we should have long taken for granted. 

Friday, 2 November 2012

Impunity and Free Expression in the Caribbean

Efforts to encourage Caribbean journalists and others to observe the Day to End Impunity in 2011 were spectacularly unsuccessful. This owes much to the fact that the word “impunity” is not one that resonates very clearly in the public domain in this part of the world.

This is not because freedom of expression and other freedoms are not successfully curtailed without any recognisable consequence for perpetrators, but that our authoritarian culture, derived from a repressive colonial past and dysfunctional political culture, does not readily predispose many of us to easy recognition of acts of impunity.

For example, when a newspaper editor is threatened and defamed via a concerted email and online campaign in Trinidad, there aren’t high expectations that the person suspected of being behind it will ever be brought to justice. It is written off as a joke.

Likewise, concerted efforts to smear the characters of two female investigate journalists in the same country are dismissed as intolerance by the media for the views of anyone but their own.

This year, the campaign to end impunity will focus on the plight of Guyanese newspaper columnist, Freddie Kissoon, who has been physically attacked on more than one occasion, including instances in which he has been punched and had faeces thrown on him. There is hardly a body of public opinion signally outraged that despite very good clues, no one has ever been brought to justice for these crimes.

Recognising that freedom of expression does not only include the write to express oneself, but the right of others to seek and access such expression, an act of impunity can also said to have prevailed when the state broadcaster in Guyana deprived persons from one part of that country from accessing its radio and television signals because of contentious budget cuts owing much to the interventions of the political representatives of that region of the country.

Acts of impunity may also occur when labour laws, the right to associate and the right to assemble are breached. For example, there was the recent case of a senior journalist in Grenada who was dismissed by his Barbadian publisher on highly-contestable grounds related to a story he refused to retract and which was later found to accurate. The conditions of his dismissal appeared clearly to conflict with existing industrial relations norms and there is the view that a level of passive complicity has been displayed by the government of Grenada as a response to what some contend is an act of injustice.

Many in the international free expression community sometimes also have to be convinced that someone need not be killed, kidnapped, tortured or jailed in order to be silenced. Silence can come from the loss of a newspaper job, the fear of public castigation or shame when the threat of embarrassing personal information looms and the manipulation of otherwise valid regulatory conditions related to the operations of broadcasters.

A culture of impunity can be said to be in existence, according to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) “when those who seek to control the freedom of expression of others do so knowing that it is unlikely they will be held accountable for their actions.”

The impact of such a culture of impunity can be recognised in the Caribbean environment without searching very far. Despite our claims of public candour and overflowing creative expression, there are taboo issues many would not touch, many of which challenge existing political orders.

Haiti is not representative of the rest of the Caribbean in this, but the unresolved murders of Jean Dominique, Brignol Lindor, Jean-Rémy Badio, Robenson Laraque and Ricardo Ortega send a very ominous signal. In Guyana, broadcaster/political activist, Ronald Waddell was killed six and a half years ago with neither a prosecution nor conviction forthcoming.

IFEX warns us that all of this can lead to a world in which people are afraid to speak out. Where criticism is stifled. Where the hard questions don’t get asked. Where the powerful don’t get challenged. The result is a world where free expression is silenced.

This is the scope and scale of the challenge for us in the Caribbean.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Hijacking of Caribbean Journalism

The recruitment of journalists for both open and covert political work in the Caribbean is a longstanding practice that has spanned many years. No current political administration should feel overly targeted or victimised by the claim that they engage in this practice, either openly or quietly. They’ve all done it.

For journalists, the lure of better salaries, a sense of job security spanning at least a five-year political term and work in an area about which they are acutely aware are attractions that too often prove irresistible.

The subject was debated at the last International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress, hosted in Trinidad, without clear direction in the end, on the feasibility of moving freely from one such vocation and back.

But it has happened in the past and will continue to happen. If change comes at the end of a five-year term, journalists often swap places between the newsroom and the state house.

What is unacceptable, though, is the fact that some working journalists, broadcasters and media functionaries are known or suspected to be, with some degree of certainty, to be on discreet political payrolls.

This worsens the already bad situation in which small societies with close-knit communities are inherently prone to a high degree of self-censorship. So, journalists omit important facts, de-emphasise the importance of some developments in their reportage and provide advance warning of imminent journalistic interventions, even without the promise of a cheque.

This happens on all sides of the political battle-field.

Today, more sophisticated means are being found to mask the corrosive incidence of journalistic dishonesty. New media platforms are hijacked by partisan commentary, media phone polls are flooded by well-financed activists employed mainly to undermine the integrity of already unscientific opinion research and influential journalists are rewarded to offer manipulated views of the reality.

All of this poses, in my view, the most critical challenge to journalistic independence in the Caribbean at this time.

Much of the press freedom advocacy, training and media literacy work that need to be done can virtually come to nought if the hijacking of journalism by money and deals wins in the end.

So far, independent journalism, flawed and brittle as it is in this region is standing its ground. But only just …

Wednesday, 29 August 2012


This is an op-ed published by the International Press Institute

Criminal libel law was born in Elizabethan England as a means to silence unwelcome dissent. Today, while the press plays an essential role in shaping public discourse worldwide, in many Caribbean nations these same archaic laws live on.

Often there is no clear demarcation or standard for determining the line between fair criticism and criminal offense. In the past two years, Caribbean criminal defamation cases have included a government official who charged a previous campaign opponent with the crime, as well as a lawsuit which resulted from accusations made at a town hall meeting.

These cases exemplify the elasticity of laws wielded by those in positions of power, and underscore the capricious nature of their implementation. The mere threat of prosecution often chills investigative journalism and free speech. It also helps to sustain corruption, unnecessarily protects public officials, and is used to deny the fundamental human right of freedom of expression.

In short, criminal libel law is one of the most pernicious media constraints in contemporary society. Implemented at the will of any “insulted” public official, it frequently leaves no recourse for the defendant.

In response, the International Press Institute (IPI) has been actively campaigning for the removal of criminal libel laws, along with numerous civil society and media partners throughout the region.  Banishing these unnecessary and arbitrary laws, and utilising civil remedies as alternatives are the goals. 

Substantial progress is being made, even as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of American States, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights joined together recently to name criminalisation of defamation as one of the ten biggest threats to freedom of expression.

For example, via a series of IPI press freedom missions in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, the governments of each of these nations have now publicly re-stated their commitment to an independent press.

In June, IPI hosted a World Congress event in Trinidad, whose delegates collectively endorsed the Declaration of Port of Spain. Calling for the immediate abolition of "insult laws" and criminal defamation legislation throughout the region, the Declaration also states that "the Caribbean urgently needs a strong, free and independent media to act as a watchdog over public institutions".

Governments often argue their need for strong measures as a defence against scurrilous journalism, however free societies are founded on the open exchange of opinions, popular or not. Certainly, while repercussions for careless or slanderous speech are necessary, they should, if necessary, take place in civil courtrooms, not jail cells, and as the result of regulations which both allow for, and encourage, active dialogue within a safe public marketplace of ideas.

We’ve evolved a great deal since the 16th century origin of these antiquated criminal libel laws. However, in the 21st century, stifling public discourse and institutionalised repression cannot stand in nations which adhere to democratic principles. And so while many Caribbean countries have already publicly repudiated criminal libel, we now call upon these same governments to join in the progress of freedom of expression, to recognise their existing criminal libel laws as detrimental, and to finally remove them from their books once and for all.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Journalism, Globalism and New Technologies

The introduction of new information technologies to the communications industry has significantly changed the media workplace and applicable business models. Worldwide, media proprietors and managers are wrestling with new approaches to pervasive and irreversible mass media phenomena.

One unfortunate outcome, for example, has been the shrinking share of finances now being devoted to newsgathering and dissemination within media organisations.

However, throughout the years, while some important modalities of production and distribution have changed, the basic value systems driving the practice of journalism have generally remained constant. What is different is the degree to which the continued commoditising of news has influenced a standardising of production values in the print, broadcast media and, now, online and social media – the latter now ironically contributing to a virtual “de-commercialising” of news and information.

Time-worn news values are also now increasingly being met by a standardising of lower production values, facilitated by much faster, more pervasive, less expensive means of transmission. The recent IPI Congress in Port-of-Spain explored the challenge this poses to the traditional media industry and found that a variety of successful and unsuccessful coping mechanisms are being employed.

The ‘fit’ between domestic Caribbean media outputs and international media content is now much more technically snug. This not only facilitates the easier implanting of externally-produced content, but the more efficient exporting of domestic material. I am not, in this respect, impressed by xenophobic pronouncements on “rescuing” indigenous creative content. Trinidad and Tobago has much to gain because of open, liberal conditions.

This situation has clearly offered a variety of challenges and opportunities.

There is now a greater degree of multi-tasking and a resulting elimination of some human tasks. The implications for journalism are also recognisable through much more easily accessible non-indigenous content and the net negative impact of multi-skilling in the production of both print and broadcast media products.

There is growing concern about authors’ rights in the face of changing relationships between content-providers and media operators and the greater efficiency with which news outputs can now move across national boundaries. Not much has however changed with respect to work contracts in the traditional media and their appropriateness in the new era is often questionable.

What remains clear, though, is that enhancing the production and flow of reliable, journalistically-mediated, news and information to our societies can considerably address concerns related to the strengthening of democracy and the need for transparency in the conduct of public affairs. The free press, acting in concert with open government can have the effect of instilling greater degrees of confidence in the future. This certainly constitutes benefits way in excess of clear challenges.

The Caribbean mass media are, however, no newcomers to globalisation and the revolutionary nature of new technologies. Newspapers were first established in the English-speaking territories as far back as the mid 18th Century at a time when primary production for export to European markets, under conditions of colonialism, dominated the socio-economic landscape. Mediated information flows generally pronounced on the relationship between productive capacity in the Antilles and the state of a European market in the throes of dramatic change.

The Industrial Revolution had already begun to change the way Western Europe conducted its business. In trend-setting Britain, the drive to industrialise was fuelled in large measure by the availability of captive markets for manufactures in the colonies and a state of relative peace at home and in the overseas territories.

Newspapers provided a way of reinforcing a status quo which, by and large, co-existed well with rapidly changing circumstances. They served as efficient advertising vehicles for new products, reinforcing geo-political alignments and ensuring the smooth flow of information between the colonial homelands and their overseas operatives. So important was this role that by the mid 1800s, there were more than 100 indigenous newspapers in the colonies.

Radio reached Caribbean shores in the 1930s and television in the 1960s, under circumstances that were no less associated with the fact that the future of the West Indies continued to be inextricably linked to overseas market conditions for primary products and the growing importance of these territories as markets for outputs of the new technologies. The mass media, in that regard, were both a facilitator and a subject of these developments.

Improvements in printing techniques and their impacts on the newspaper workplace could not, in the early years, be qualitatively de-linked from important changes in the modes of production in the agro-processing industries, which, in some instances, provided important inputs into other changing technologies.

Globalisation and change were thus inherent features of the colonial condition in the West Indies with the mass media providing both a mediating role in the dissemination of information on the colonial condition, to both internal and external audiences, and a participatory role as the subject of these phenomena. In the process, a journalism developed which played as much a role in interpreting external circumstances as it focused on the internal condition of the colonies. The challenges today appear to be essentially the same – along with the many new opportunities that have become available.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012



I wish, on behalf of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers and its members who span the Caribbean community from Belize to Suriname to welcome Congress participants to the region and to Trinidad and Tobago.

Welcome to a special place at a special time in the history of mass media – a juncture which demands no less than the critical self-examination this year’s Congress is about to undertake. A challenge requiring a 360 degree vista anchored only by the core principles of our trade. An orbit rather than the trajectory of a temporal shooting star.

And why, one interviewer asked only days ago, this compulsion to re-examine, to diagnose, to review the terms of our engagement? Because, after all these years, the questions stand: What is journalism for? Why should its mission be free? What are the necessary conditions to ensure its continued role as a major contributor to the democratic process?

In this special place, the Caribbean, both the questions and the answers stare us squarely in the face. Our diversity brightens and enlightens our space, but often unfolds as shards and fragments of many pasts. One of the English-speaking Caribbean’s three Nobel Laureates, Derek Walcott, once said that “this gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places.”

But “break a vase”, the poet says, “and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.”

The task of modern journalism, in my view, is very much the re-assembling of shards – of bringing meaning to the confusion and conflict of a changing world. Were we to ignore so great a task, Aung San Suu Kyi reminded us only a few days ago, we would be guilty, albeit to a less violent degree, of recklessness, of improvidence with regard to our future and our humanity.

So great is our task, delegates to this IPI Congress. So great are the rewards.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

A Clash between Aspirations and Current Regulation

Freedom of Expression in the English Speaking Caribbean: The Clash between Aspirations and Current Regulation

Wesley Gibbings
Curridabat, Costa Rica
May 11, 2012

A free expression scorecard for the English-speaking Caribbean, as a collective, is among the more challenging intellectual undertakings that can be engaged, particularly when conventional measurement tools are strictly applied. Censorship in this region often requires no official dictat, impunity is ubiquitous yet difficult to recognise, the cloak of Westminster can belie autocratic traits and cultural relativism is frequently employed as a rationale for deviations from accepted universal norms.

Only three Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) countries – Belize, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago - have access to information laws; all have criminal defamation on their statute books while broadcasting legislation and regulations, to an increasing degree, impose regimes of official censorship. There has also been a recent trend to attempt to impose restrictions on expression via official secrets’ and data protection legislation and to apply official regulation in the context of internet content.

The Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), acting in concert with the International Press Institute (IPI), has launched a campaign against criminal defamation in the Caribbean. In Jamaica, activists currently oppose an Official Secrets Act while in Trinidad and Tobago there is a strong media industry lobby to re-direct the focus of a Data Protection Act.

However, before we proceed, it is important to define the “Caribbean” referred to in this paper. The working definition as applied by the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) includes 25 countries – most of which are “washed by the Caribbean Sea” though El Salvador, which does not have a Caribbean shoreline, is included along with Guyana and Suriname which are “washed” by the Atlantic Ocean.

Then there is the notion of a “wider Caribbean” which includes the Caribbean shores of Florida and the island of Puerto Rico, which does not feature in any formal Caribbean political grouping.

My focus is on the countries of CARICOM, though if we were to apply the formal structure of CARICOM as the applicable paradigm and omit from it the anomalous presence of Haiti and Suriname, we are left with 12 former British colonies that have, many of them, passed through both French and Spanish colonial hands and one which remains an offshore holding of the United Kingdom.

Membership of CARICOM by Belize in Central America and Guyana in South America makes the story even more interesting from the standpoint of historical antecedents and, by extension, the circumstances under which these territories - claimed as English-speaking Caribbean turf under the banner of CARICOM - operate as parliamentary democracies customised out of the Westminster model of representative government.

A majority of CARICOM countries are also constitutional monarchies with the sovereign of the United Kingdom as Head of State. In most instances, as well, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council remains the final appellate jurisdiction of Commonwealth Caribbean states. Only three (Barbados, Belize and Guyana) of the CARICOM groupings’ 12 independent countries currently subscribe to the Caribbean Court of Justice as their court of final appeal. There are, currently, politically fluid debates in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago regarding adoption of the CCJ as their final court of appeal.

The CCJ already serves as a court of original jurisdiction to interpret and apply the Treaty of Chaguaramas which established CARICOM in 1973. This is with the exception of Montserrat which is yet to receive Instruments of Entrustment from the UK in order to ratify and The Bahamas, which is not part of the Common Market arrangements of the grouping.

In 1997, CARICOM countries also all subscribed to what was called a Charter of Civil Society for the Caribbean Community. At Article II, there is an injunction to support freedom of conscience and expression. There is no evidence that this undertaking is routinely referred to in actions seeking redress in the courts for breaches of rights entrenched in our respective constitutions, in the same way Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights or Article 4 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter frequently find their way into public and courtroom discourse.

We also need to consider the impact of cultural diversity and the frequent reliance on cultural specificity as routes out of compliance with the letter and spirit of free expression standards. For background, it should be noted that high levels of immigration have long been a lived Caribbean reality adding to the region’s uniqueness as an economic grouping and as an emerging, evolving polity. We speak essentially of new and diverse societies finding their respective ways in the world.

Throughout the history of the English-speaking Caribbean, the only thing as profound as the effects of outward migration on our respective populations, has been the centuries-long impact of a constant stream of inward migration – featuring both intra-regional and extra-regional human inflows.

It would be useful to note that our countries experienced net population gains as a result of immigration right through to the 1800s and that later growth in numbers included inflows related to the end of slavery in the British colonies, the nurturing of new settlements driven by increased trade and commerce with Europe and, in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, the transplanting of ex-slaves from what is now the United States of America.

To this day, for example, there are villages in Trinidad named for the military companies early African-Americans fought under as soldiers for the British in the War of American Independence. A small number of freed American slaves also moved to several Caribbean islands, together with indentured labourers from Madeira, Germany, England and, to a much greater degree, from India.

The movement of significant numbers of people back and forth is therefore nothing new to people of the English-speaking Caribbean. With the exception of a small number of indigenous groups, few families can lay claim to longstanding genealogical links from within the Caribbean region.

The Caribbean, in a sense, comprises a collective of quintessential immigrant societies. With this, and in the context of very small societies, has come a socio-cultural ethos that is diverse and problematic from the perspective of small, island states and, in the case of Belize and Guyana, coastal states with the ocean on one side and Spanish and Portuguese speaking republics on the other borders.

In Trinidad and Tobago, to cite one dramatic example of how diversity has unfolded as law in the Caribbean, there is currently a lively debate on an acceptable age for the marriage of females. The Marriage Act which governs civil and Christian marriages sets the age of consent at 18 for males and females. The Marriage and Divorce Act governs Islamic marriages and divorces and sets the age of consent at 16 for males and 12 for females. The Hindu Marriage Act sets the age of consent at 18 for males and 14 for females. The Orisha Marriage Act sets the age of consent at 18 for males and 16 for females. Similar confusion was only recently settled in Guyana where marriage ages were standardised across the religious spectrum.

In all instances, however, the universal template for recognition of free expression has been prescribed in the post-independence constitutions of our countries. Section 10 of the constitution of Saint Lucia elaborates fairly extensively and is cited here: “(1) Except with his own consent, a person shall not be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be tot he public generally or to any person or class of persons) and freedom from interference with his correspondence.

(2) Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provisions-

a) that is reasonably required in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health.

b) that is reasonably required for the purpose of protecting the reputation, rights and freedoms of to the persons or the private lives of persons concerned in legal proceedings, preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of the courts or regulating the technical administration or the technical operation of telephony, telegraphy, posts wireless broadcasting or television;
c) that imposes restrictions upon public officers that are reasonably required for the proper performance of their functions, and except so far as that provisions or, as the case may be, the thing done under the authority thereof is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”

In Trinidad and Tobago, the constitution goes as far as identifying press freedom as an explicit right – separate and distinct from a free expression provision that’s already there. Successive constitutional reviews have raised questions about the advisability of such a constitutional guarantee, but press freedom advocates and the media industry have consistently and firmly resisted attempts to have it removed and thereafter flow implicitly from the broader sweep of a free expression guarantee. Suffice it to say, there is no ground-swell of public support. In fact, recent public consultations on restrictive broadcasting policy brought greater calls for official controls over the sector from participating citizens than from the state regulators themselves.

Challenges to press freedom and free expression in countries of the Caribbean therefore span a complex variety of direct and insidious phenomena. These include overt state hostility toward media enterprises, a heritage of restrictive legislative environments, the commandeering of media content by commercial and special interest groups, the corrosive effects of systemic self-censorship and general public apathy. 

Accidents of history, size and geographical location are often cited as proximate cause and, in many instances, the pursuit of development in the face of social and economic challenges emerges as a default defense for the derogation of free expression and freedom of the press.

Recurring issues in the media include the allocation of state advertising, media self-regulation, self-censorship to preserve advertising revenue and political and business interests and a recent tendency to encroach on free expression on the internet.

In some countries, the work of government ghost writers is often published in politically-aligned newspapers and blogs in order to provide “balance” to “negative” news stories in other media.

This often leads to the publication of divisive and vitriolic charges against media people, which sometimes achieve the objective of stirring up hostility against journalists. In 2011, for example, Grenada Prime Minister Tillman Thomas described a blog written by journalist Hamlet Mark as being “dangerous to Grenada.” The Media Workers Association of Grenada (MWAG) roundly condemned the remark.

Then, in April 2012, the president of MWAG, Rawle Titus, lost his job as editor of the Grenada Advocate newspaper when the newspaper’s publishers, the Barbados Advocate, insisted on an apology from him for a story about a split in the ruling administration that was patently accurate. In fact, weeks after, Prime Minister Thomas fired two members of his Cabinet on account of the same internecine squabbling reported in the offending story. The journalist remains unemployed.

In some countries, broadcast licenses are dispensed to political allies of ruling administrations who maintain a partisan front to the detriment of professional journalism. For example, in Guyana, which continues to operate a state monopoly on radio broadcasting, longstanding applicants for radio broadcast licenses were bypassed in the announced, but yet unimplemented, allocation of radio frequencies prior to elections in 2011. Today, there is official silence on the issue, notwithstanding reported moves by some who were promised licenses to source engineering and human resources.

There has also been official insistence on preventing existing television broadcasters from extending their transmissions into the opposition stronghold in Linden, Guyana’s bauxite producing town and major population centre. There has been preliminary agreement by the minority Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP) administration to permit such an extension of frequency reach, but strong opposition to the granting of new licenses.

In Barbados, there is a state monopoly on television broadcasting and no indication that the Freundel Stuart administration, as was the case with previous governments, is inclined to liberalise the media sub-sector. In its World Press Freedom Day 2012 editorial, the Barbados Nation claimed the state-run CBCTV “persists with its nightly parade of ministers of Government, despite promises by both the current administration and past to ensure balanced programming and equal air time, as well as more transparency and greater integrity.”

The newspaper also suggested that attacks on the press, by both government and opposition representatives, ranged “from muscular legal letters, in support of unsubstantiated claims, to verbal attacks and personal threats against journalists.”

In Trinidad and Tobago, there was the case of an application for a radio license in 1999 by the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha – the country’s largest Hindu organisation. The application was made at a time when the political party in power was the Hindu-dominated United National Congress (UNC). When the government changed to the Afro-dominated People’s National Movement in 2001, the application was bypassed in favour of a radio station operated by a high-profile supporter of the new party in power.

The case eventually went to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which in 2006 ruled against the state citing Section 4 (1) of the Constitution which pronounces on freedom of expression.

In the absence of strong, independent civil society interventions, including credible, functioning human rights bodies some abuses in countries of the Caribbean however remain largely unaddressed. One outcome is general silence on corruption, good governance and justice issues.

In many Caribbean territories, serious journalistic investigations into such issues are also often described as having the potential to give the country a bad name and undermine prospects for tourism and foreign investments. Interpretations of proposed broadcasting regulations in Trinidad and Tobago and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) can arguably be considered to have the potential to stifle such expression.

Ongoing debates on the imposition, via state regulation, of broadcasting standards of practice currently ensue in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and countries of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States – the latter grouping on the basis of model legislation.

In Trinidad and Tobago a proposed Broadcast Code purported to prescribe specific standards for the broadcast of free-to-air radio and television programs in relation to the protection of children and young persons, harm and offence, crime, race, what was described as “due impartiality and due accuracy in the reporting of news”, election coverage, “fairness and privacy, the right of reply, information and warnings, advertising and sponsorship and religion”.

Initial moves had been made to include internet content and to prescribe penalties for breaching guidelines associated with preservation of the public interest, but the regulators have latterly concluded that it would not pursue such an objective. In a March 2009 justification for such a decision, the Telecommunications Authority stated inter alia: “The Authority notes that the internet is not regulated for reasons of practicality. The Authority notes that internet broadcasting remains much less pervasive than free to air or cable television broadcasting.”

Vocal critics, including the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT), and the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers’ and Broadcasters’ Association (TTPBA), have contended that the provisions of the Code, particularly as an instrument of prior censorship linked to the acquisition of broadcast licenses, was excessive and posed a grave threat to freedom of expression. The Code has been revised more than once and the broadcasting industry has offered a series of suggested amendments over time, focusing on its constitutionality, the quasi-judicial role being adopted by the TATT and the possibility of prior restraint on broadcasters.

The Code is yet to reach the country’s parliament, now dominated by persons who were harshly critical of it while they were in opposition. One such person is the current Attorney General, Anand Ramlogan, who took office when the People’s Partnership won the May 24, 2010 elections.

In Dominica, internet content also appeared to fall under the scrutiny of state regulators when, in a 2005 version of a Broadcast Bill, the term “broadcast” was defined as “the transmission of radio or video programming to the public on a free, pay, subscription or other basis, whether by cable television, terrestrial or satellite means or by electronic delivery of such programming.”

The issue is replicated among countries of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) where a draft Broadcasting Authority Act has been in circulation in Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

The ACM-led responses to the draft legislation, which was jointly conceived and introduced by the OECS countries, focused on what are considered to be conditions inimical to free expression.

In the case of Dominica’s version of the OECS Bill, circulated in 2009 for public comment, a Broadcasting Authority reporting to a government minister was proposed, prohibitive content restrictions were suggested and authority over internet content envisaged.

As is the case in the other OECS countries, passage of the draft legislation has been delayed in part because of criticisms leveled against it by press freedom advocates acting in concert with the ACM and its international partners.

In Jamaica, with a far more advanced official infrastructure to monitor the broadcasting industry, the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) was minded in May 2012, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, to express complete opposition to a proposal by the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica to extend the reach of its regulations to internet content.

In Guyana, the government has repeatedly postponed introduction of broadcasting regulations that would, among other things, liberalise the sector particularly in the area of radio broadcasting. This follows a period in which dozens of television licenses were awarded in the mid-1990s after the ascent of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) to power. A state-appointed and operated Advisory Committee on Broadcasting of dubious legal standing has been responsible over recent years for the suspension of operations of several television stations for breaches of operating licenses.

Guyana also poses special challenges in the area of the allocation of state advertising to private media. In 2007, one newspaper, the Stabroek News, was targeted for the removal of official advertising following what was considered to be negative reporting of the ruling People’s Progressive Party (PPP) during the 2006 election campaign.

The government eventually reversed its boycott of the newspaper in 2008, but both the Stabroek News and the Kaieteur News in 2010 reported sharp declines in state advertising as the adversarial relationship between the government and these newspapers grew. The Bharrat Jagdeo administration eventually instructed selected state agencies to advertise and place official announcements exclusively on a state website. The administration also introduced a regulation related to state procurement procedures that diverted most state advertising to an online platform not easily accessed by most Guyanese. The country has an Internet penetration rate of less than 25 per cent. This provision was eventually reversed following criticisms that access to information on job vacancies and other opportunities can be denied persons without Internet access.

The Kaieteur News protested the move and offered to carry, without charge, selected notices it considered to be in the public interest.

A Media Monitoring Unit (MMU), initially established by GECOM in 2006 to monitor compliance with a media code of conduct in the coverage of elections, but which continued monitoring of general media content, was shut down by the state in 2011, even in the face of ongoing financial support from international agencies interested in promoting the concept of voluntary self-regulation by the media in Guyana. The development was denounced by the GPA whose president, Gordon Moseley, had himself been banned from presidential press conferences. A change of president in 2011 brought the ban to an end, but the Media Monitoring Unit remains closed.

The issue of voluntary media self-regulation has been the focus of some discussion in the Caribbean. A Media Complaints Council (MCC) in Trinidad and Tobago plays a monitoring role and is run by the media industry and a Guyana Media Proprietors Association (GMPA) has been launched with, among other things, the intention of developing its own system of self-regulation.

In Jamaica, there is concern that a government- commissioned report on reviewing the country’s defamation laws will be indefinitely shelved after a parliamentary committee appointed to study its recommendations has failed to return to the legislature with its feedback after more than three years. A change of political administration in 2011 is yet to yield feedback on the possibility of further parliamentary scrutiny of what has been recommended.

The report was the product of a committee, chaired by retired Justice Hugh Small, which in 2008 proposed sweeping reforms including the abolition of criminal defamation and the inclusion of a provision for innocent dissemination/responsibility for publication in the case of “subordinate distributors” of published material.

Criminal defamation continues to exist on the statute books of Caribbean countries and the offence has been applied in Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda within recent years. The ACM has lobbied for its removal from the statutes books. In April 2012, the government of Grenada announced that the offence will be removed from the laws of the country.

There is also concern in Jamaica over provisions of the 1911 Official Secrets Act, amended in 1989, which have posed a threat to acts of whistle-blowing by persons including, in 2010, a former police commissioner, who claimed to have information on contentious issues related to the extradition of an alleged drug kingpin, whose eventual capture involved police and army raids that claimed 70 lives. State officials were said to be examining the Act for possible breaches by former Police Commissioner, Hardley Lewin.

In Trinidad and Tobago, a Data Protection Act was passed in both Houses of parliament in February and May 2012 and provides for an Information Commissioner, interpreted by some to be a Censor-General, with wide-ranging powers to initiate criminal proceedings against the press and others for breaches of a variety of offences related to the preservation of privacy rights identified under the Act. There is the fear this would have a debilitating impact on the practice of investigative journalism and impinge on the asserted right to protect sources. Following strong lobbying efforts by MATT and the TTPBA, there has been an undertaking by the Attorney-General to have the legislation reviewed.

In most countries of the region, unstable economic conditions and narrow advertising revenue bases have led to development of a propensity for self-censorship. Because the state, in most cases, is the single largest contributor to advertising revenue, political and commercial concerns often converge to promote an environment in which news and information not supportive of official programmes is suppressed. Concentration of ownership in the media and overlapping commercial concerns also play a role in determining the news agenda in many cases.

In the face of the deepening financial crisis, economic reconstruction, the debilitating impact of the narcotics trade, and growing violence and crime, the prognosis is for further encroachments on the turf of civil liberties.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Embracing New Media

Downloadable Podcast here:

World Press Freedom Day 2012

May 3, 2012

Observance of World Press Freedom Day 2012 provides the Caribbean with an opportunity to take stock of its progress as a region in which rights and freedoms are held to be fundamental pillars of the development process.

This day focuses exclusively on freedom of expression, under whose cover freedom of the press permanently resides.

Though we have generally escaped the worst impacts of impunity, violence and official aggression, Caribbean social communicators and journalists have not eluded the potentially muting impacts of self-censorship, unenlightened regulation and challenging economic, social and political circumstances.

For this reason, our advocates are often minded to craft unique responses to unique conditions and to influence international discourse on such subjects on an unprecedented scale - not to build a deceptive, relativistic case as obtains in some territories in our region, but to help light the path to fundamental rights and freedoms in a changing region and world.

In this context, the theme of this year’s observances - New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies – is entirely appropriate as a reflection of the requirements of Caribbean development and change.

As relatively new nations, Caribbean societies have also, in many respects, been the new hemispheric voices of the past 50 years. We are now called upon to be more aware of the new voices within our midst.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova have asked the world to pay greater attention to the new players on the media stage and are urging greater recognition of and protection for new media practitioners. Indeed, these new social communicators are increasingly attracting the attention of enemies of the free press and, in some parts of the world, are being targeted for persecution to a much greater degree.

We must work to ensure the platform we share as both traditional and new media workers remains untouched by the hands of official censorship and that journalistic principles are promoted as common values among us all.

On this important day, the ACM urges its national affiliates to pay greater attention to building institutional capacity, engaging a wider cross-section of the communication industry, working more assiduously to promote the reform of media-related laws and operating as fearlessly independent agents of awareness and the change it brings. Those organisations that are in crisis must be rescued and those that are asleep must awaken. This is a sacred responsibility we ignore at our peril.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Media and Politics in Guyana

The vagaries of a minority government in Guyana unfolded dramatically as parliamentary debate on a G$192 billion (TT$6.4 billion) budget ended recently in Georgetown.

On more than one occasion, ruling People’s Progressive Party (PPP) partisans, senior public servants and high-profile state officials and agency heads picketed parliament in a manner described by one local journalist as being more reflective of the actions of opposition parties over the years. The PPP has been in power since 1992.

Senior executives and employees of the state-operated National Communications Network (NCN) and Government Information News Agency (GINA) were on the streets protesting cuts to their budgets proposed by the two opposition parties in parliament without whose support government’s budget estimates could not have been approved.

The situation arose following November 28, 2011 elections which saw the PPP winning 32 seats – one seat short of a majority in the 65-seat National Assembly. Twenty-six of the remaining seats went to A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) opposition coalition while the Alliance for Change won seven seats determined under the country’s system of proportional representation.

As a consequence, local wags have been noting that there has never been such a consistent incidence of 100% parliamentary attendance and high level of consultation among the political parties.

But opposition moves to reduce state subventions to state media have led to a bizarre string of developments.

Prior to the NCN/GINA demonstration, for example, live coverage of the second cricket Test match between the West Indies and Australia in Dominica was suddenly suspended when an NCN panel including the station’s Chief Executive Officer, Mohamed Sattaur; Programme Manager Martin Goolsaran and Editor-in-Chief, Michael Gordon appeared on-screen to explain their opposition to the proposed cuts.

Radio audiences on some services had also earlier been met with “dead air” as NCN shut down the country’s lone radio station overnight and television viewers lost signals from NCN’s television service when the state broadcaster shut down their Linden transmitters.

NCN Chief Executive Officer, Mohamed Sattaur, explained the disruptions in service were necessary “because we are just making people aware that the cut in the subventions will have consequences.”

At issue, in this instance, were cuts separately proposed by the APNU and AFC to subventions emanating from the office of the president to the media agencies. Payments to “contracted employees” constituted the most contentious slice of the cuts and wrangling over cuts there had been intense, but recommended reductions in capital and current subventions to the two state media agencies led to the unprecedented developments in the state media.

Proponents of the APNU/AFC cuts at NCN have referred to a March 19, 2012 letter to AFC Chairman, Khemraj Ramjattan, in which Sattaur claims that up to 90% of the Network’s revenue is derived from “our commercial activities.” One government minister even testified in the debate that the agency had collected over G$500 million (TT$16 million) in advertising revenues in 2011.

The correspondence and subsequent official disclosure appeared to blunt the claim by the service that the reduction in subventions will lead to a heavy loss of jobs, cutbacks in broadcasting times and an inability to perform NCN’s traditionally supportive work in the areas of religious diversity, culture, fashion and sport.

The NCN CEO confirmed that the company’s broadcast services were heavily supported by commercial activities with close to 15% support from the state. The AFC proposal (the APNU had filed a separate motion on this issue) completely removes the G$81.2 million (TT$2.7 million) subvention on current expenditure, while the APNU was proposing abolition of a much smaller subvention under another budget heading.

Former Information Minister, turned leading AFC MP, Moses Nagamotoo, said he fully supported the cuts, notwithstanding his dogged defence of NCN activities while he was in office. He served as the first minister of information in the 1992 PPP administration under the late Cheddi Jagan but resigned from the party in 2011 following a protracted period of conflict with former president, Bharrat Jagdeo.

The NCN is widely criticised for ignoring opposition viewpoints and is described by former line minister, Nagamootoo, as “almost a PPP party outfit.”

During coverage of last year’s elections, it came under the critical scrutiny of a Media Monitoring Unit established under the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) to monitor adherence to a code of media conduct during coverage of the polls.

“We are voting against more money for NCN because we believe it is biased, it is unfair, it is partisan and is almost a PPP party outfit that is used to sledge-hammer the opposition in Guyana,” Nagamootoo said.

Sattaur however contends that NCN services are much more than transmission of government programming, some of which is provided by GINA. As part of NCN’s “awareness” campaign on the issue, interviews are being conducted with persons from a variety of backgrounds attesting to the value of the station as a promoter of non-commercial interests private stations would readily support.

NCN currently employs 152 permanent and 70 contract workers in an operation that competes with 17 private stations. When voting on the subventions occurred, the PPP, with just one seat short, lost the state media battle.

In the National Assembly, four video cameras were positioned to capture the government benches and a side-view, at best, of opposition MPs. One solitary camera - "a PNC camera", this reporter was told - faced the APNU/AFC benches. Two of the group of four were NCN and GINA cameras.

This did not help the situation.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Reducing Reality to Rumour

During a memorable interview with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour in February 2011, the late Libyan despot, Muammar Gadhafi, was quoted as denying that people were demonstrating against him anywhere in Libya and that those who were making a fuss were perhaps on some kind of hallucinogenic drug. Even as he spoke, the city of Benghazi had already been overtaken by “insurgents” and thousands were massing in protest elsewhere.

The recent approval by the French Senate to ban denials of the “genocide” of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans in 1915 was prompted largely by longstanding harsh repudiation by the Turks of the use of the word with reference to the killing of between one and one and a half million people. That huge numbers of persons were rounded up and later killed by Ottoman troops has never been categorically disproved as historical fact.

Guilty people and their leaders have long been inclined to reduce reality to the level of rumour. The word of the authorities and those generally in charge are afforded the weight of “truth” notwithstanding what are the first-hand experiences of people. In August 2011, for example, hoteliers and businesspersons in Barbados wanted to tear the head off the island’s Police Commissioner, Darwin Dottin, when he appeared to downplay the growing impact of violent crime and he waded into those whom he accused of promoting an environment of “panic” in the country.

One hotelier promptly blogged that his annual security bill was between US$30,000 and US$40,000.  He asked: Has a policy of “selective denial” by the authorities been adopted?

Of course, the first-hand experiences of thousands of motorists in Trinidad and Tobago on March 7, 2012 do not approximate the rising and fatal tide of discontent in Libya in 2011, neither are they equivalent to a genocide or an exponential increase in crime on an island otherwise known for its peace and quiet. But, the inclination to convert reality into rumour or exaggeration has just as amply been displayed via a disturbing press release from Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of Transport.
Darwin Dottin

From 6.00 a.m. to well after 7.00 p.m. on March 7, scores of police officers and traffic wardens fanned out throughout Trinidad in a series of roadblocks, pulling hundreds of vehicles to the side and demanding documents including inspection stickers and certificates. There were traffic jams leading into and out of Port of Spain, drivers fearing they might be in breach of vehicle inspection regulations pulled into side streets converting them into busy thoroughfares. In Curepe Junction, near where I live, there were no fewer than a dozen police officers directing selected vehicles off to the side of the road.

Many of us received Blackberry messages, email messages, Tweets, phone calls – people were being given traffic tickets for not having inspection stickers on their windscreens. It was the stuff of which typical Trini rumour would have been made, except this was no rumour. I witnessed it myself. Beat that for evidence!

Then came an email from a colleague asking essentially: “What is the truth?” Can it be, he seemed to ask, that we are all mistaken and the writer of the press release is correct? I mean, the Ministry of Transport had put out a press release declaring: “there are mischievous rumours being circulated that there is a movement by the Police Service and Licensing Officers to crack down on vehicles that require inspection.”

Okay, there might be a technicality regarding the use of the term “crack down” (isn’t it “crackdown”?). But, “mischievous rumours”? That seems to be pretty strong language to describe what thousands of people understood to be the truth.

Does this merit an entire blog post? It sure does!

One of the most important signs of authoritarian rule is the easy reduction of reality to the level of rumour by those who rule. These are some of the little signs older societies recognise very easily. If an event witnessed by thousands can be dismissed by a few words on a press release as mischief and rumour, how is it not conceivable that the rising of the masses can indeed be described as being the product of a hallucinogenic drug?

Just sounding yet another warning.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Journalistic Lives and Livelihoods

Caribbean journalists have been following the great international regret and interest generated by the deaths of Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik and Rami al-Sayyed in Syria.

These developments have raised interesting questions related to the dangers of journalism, the relationship between 'mainstream' and 'citizen' journalism and the impact of the practice of journalism on politics and the exercise of power.

In the English-speaking Caribbean, we do not often lose our lives in the pursuit of journalistic practice, but it is not unheard of to have livelihoods and careers lost - the social ostracism that occurs upon publication of unpopular stories, the perception that some news has a way of standing in the way of 'development', the belief that we too often pay little regard and respect for officialdom and office.

In the end, some of us lose our jobs. Some resign to self-censorship and some simply retreat from journalism.

So often these days we hear journalists develop the case for less rather than more disclosure. Fewer stories rather than more stories. The establishment of 'boundaries' beyond which we should not reach, less we breach some vague notion of good taste, respectfulness or some arbitrarily determined border of privacy (particularly on the part of elected officials). Adherence to some form of situation-specific standard.

Scratch the surface of some of this advice and counsel and you find political preference and reward, underdeveloped professional standards and the caustic impact of self-censorship.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Collateral Media Damage

The February 9, 2012 police raid on the Newsday newspaper of Trinidad and Tobago and the home of journalist, Andre Bagoo, marked a significant turning point in relations involving the country’s media, officialdom and the population.

I have long contended that press freedom is not an instinctive rallying point for people of this small twin-island state (nor for the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean for that matter). That people are more culturally inclined toward direct, official censorship and regulation than they are toward unfettered media activity and free expression.

The Newsday raid, and ensuing intimidatory tactics by the police, generated largely negative comment. But many were those who wondered why the press seemed to want to do its work by operating “above the law.”
Indeed, this line of argument was initially invoked by no less a person than the Police Commissioner, Dwayne Gibbs, himself.

It might be that many, including this Canadian police executive turned Caribbean commissioner, are unaware of the special protection of the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago which has as a specific provision in its Bill of Rights for freedom of the press.

The actions of the police also followed a report on the presumed leaking of information to the press from the country’s Integrity Commission, now chaired by former media entrepreneur, Ken Gordon – considered by many to be among the modern pioneers of regional press freedom activism. It was Gordon himself who threatened to get to the bottom of what appeared to be an unlawful sharing of confidential Integrity Commission information.

Few thought the action instigated by Gordon would have led to one of the more outrageous assaults on a media enterprise in recent Trinidad and Tobago history. Of course, both Newsday and the reporter have to date refused to disclose the source of the information for the offending news story – the content of which had later been confirmed by Gordon himself during a television interview.

Needless to say, the local representative media organisations – Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago and Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association – roundly condemned the raids. They were later joined by the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) and regional media organisations from Jamaica, Guyana and Grenada and international organisations such as Reporters Without Borders, International Press Institute, National Association of Black Journalists and others.

To date, there has been no serious, widespread activism and public reaction to the raids. Letters to the newspaper editors that have been critical or condemnatory have, by and large, been partisan in nature and have attempted to stimulate political debate on the commitment of the current administration to press freedom in an attempt to score political points.

Of course, such contentions might indeed be the case. But there is the question of moral authority on this subject, since there has been no political administration in the country’s 50 years of independence that can be pointed to as being genuine defenders of the free press.

Few have pointed to the potentially chilling effect of the police actions on journalists and the practice of journalism in the country. Will my home be the subject of a police search? Will the hard drive on my computer be subjected to a forensic examination? Will I be taken down to the local police station for questioning?

What can in effect happen is that the media may well temper their aggressive position of getting to the bottom of a growing list of matters of public concern and interest. It is not good enough for the politicians to simply speak of a commitment to press freedom.

A very similar event took place on December 29, when the police entered the premises of Caribbean Communications Network (CCN) in search of a contentious recording. The events leading to the search require a far more extensive examination than this quick blog entry. But the heavy police presence at CCN reeked of harassment and intimidation.

The police and their defenders, including some political activists supportive of the government, have pointed to the lawful nature of the raids. Search warrants had been properly obtained, and arguably legal bases for the raids had been established.

But when will our countries realise that something can be absolutely lawful and yet be completely wrong?

The other question that arises is the extent to which the three and a half month State of Emergency declared in 2011 which ended in December - ostensibly to put a serious dent on criminal crime and the networks that support it – may have contributed to a heightened sense of impunity by the police on the question of people’s rights.

Could it not be that the State of Emergency has emboldened a beleaguered, embattled police service to act as it has since December?

The turning point in relations I alluded to at the start of this submission has to do with the alignment of opinions on the question of rights and freedoms. Those of us who believe we can win the development game through the greater exercise of our freedoms appear increasingly to be among shrinking ranks.

The Newsday raid raised fundamental questions related to this dichotomy and some of us are not comfortable with what we are hearing as a response. Freedom of the press is subject to painful and even terminal collateral damage.

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