Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Rights of the Child in Trinidad and Tobago

TalkCity Radio Editorial - December 20, 2013

I think it would be true to say that there is universal support for the view that our children require a level of special protection and care. That they are special. That they did not ask to be here. Providing for them is not welfare or affected benevolence. We bring them into the world and it is our individual and collective obligation to ensure they are free to enjoy levels of freedom and rights, some of which we as adults do not enjoy.

Yes, rights. Our children have rights. They are not toys or pets or chattel property.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which derives its essential flavour from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, was signed by this country in 1990 and ratified in 1991. It is a binding international treaty.

Ratifying the treaty means we have declared to the world and have agreed to comply with the special rights accorded this special group of people among us.

I am not going to be judgmental and I am not going to point any fingers at anybody. I’m simply going to explain what being a part of this treaty means and you decide whether, as a society, we are meeting our end of the bargain.

For one, there is the basic right to survival. It is a basic and fundamental right every human being ought to enjoy. We are also obligated to ensure that our children are allowed to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually to the fullest so that they are able to participate meaningfully in the world we leave behind for them.

We are also mandated to protect them from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation. Let me add a few notes to this. This requirement to protect our children from harm, abuse and exploitation is further elaborated in a wide variety of separate laws. The Children Act of 2012 is very clear and very specific and is an enlightened piece of legislation which raises the standard of our compliance with the Convention.

At a time when it is perceived that we are in the midst of a tsunami of child abuse of various kinds, we should take some of our web-surfing and Facebooking time and devote it toward reading and understanding what this piece of legislation is really saying to us.

Under the section on Prevention of Cruelty to Children, read what is said about administering of corporal punishment. But we will not be side-tracked by that.

The Convention also calls on signatory countries to ensure the conditions are there for children to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.

Human rights advocates would point to four core principles – non-discrimination; devotion to the rights of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and (listen to this) respect for the views of the child.
If we were to put together a score-card on our performance, how would we rate ourselves?

We have marriage and divorce legislation on our books which permit the marriage of children – defined in our Children Act as people under the age of 18. These laws also set different limits on male and female children. In the Marriage and Divorce Act for Islamic marriages the age of consent for boys is 16 and for girls 12. Under the Hindu Marriage Act the age of consent for males is 18 and for girls 14. The Orisha Act sets the age of consent for males at 18 and for girls, 16.

The Sexual Offences Act sets yet another standard in instances of rape and incest and other forms of sexual assault.

It is clear that we need to sit down again as a society and think through some of these things. Current work to strengthen and better enable the Children’s Authority to do its work is a worthwhile start. But in a sense it represents only a part of the wider landscape. Much work needs to be done on ensuring there is more informed public opinion on the core issues, that the laws are applied dutifully and fairly and that average everyday people become more involved in advocating for a better deal for our children.

The Children’s Authority needs our full support and the work of the Child Protection Task Force includes a group of committed folk who, most certainly, will bring a wide and enlightened approach to the immediate issue of the day namely the horrendous attacks on our children. It might be, as Chairman of the Task Force, Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, has said that the perception of an increased incidence is due to a greater number of reported incidents, but that there is a single child being abused somewhere in our country as we speak, is no consolation to those who believe that this scourge ought to be prosecuted in a most vigorous manner.

Hopefully, this season that we bill as being for children, will bring cause for reflection on this sad statement on the quality of our development. This cannot be the exclusive duty of the police, judiciary, the Children’s Authority and all the men and women who work for this cause on a daily basis. It is the sacred obligation of each and every one of us, not because of a treaty or law of authority, but because of our conscious and willful decision to cherish our little ones.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Trinidad and Tobago and the CSME

Radio Editorial - Talk City 91.1 FM - Trinidad December 18, 2013

Trinidad and Tobago was among the first signatories to the treaty establishing the CARICOM Single Market and Economy in 2006. 

We entered into this binding, international treaty – a revision of the original 1973 Treaty of Chaguaramas – not as a passive participant that had shrugged its shoulders and said “what the heck, everybody else is doing why can’t we?” But as a leading partner in an effort to eliminate pre-existing conditions that restricted the free movement of resources – corporate expertise, money, productive capacity and people.

We had learnt from 33 years operating as a community and common market that cross-border relations needed to operate under arrangements that removed the obstacles to development both as individual countries and as a region.

We had seen what had happened in Europe where old foes and competitors were expressing confidence in the notion that expanding markets beyond national borders required more than the complex maze of bilateral and multilateral arrangements that had become self-defeating and cumbersome.

We learnt from the lessons of the Africans that had adopted the CARICOM model in developing the trade components of our own arrangements, via an emerging African Union, that you needed to simultaneously grow domestic economies while embedding productive capacity within the framework of much broader market arrangements.

As the oldest integration model in the developing world, we had long learnt that collaboration on issues such as educational standards, joint research and development in agriculture, monitoring and adaptation to environmental challenges, meteorology, aviation policy, telecommunications, legal training and other important areas was better done as a team than as small, vulnerable economies.

Then came this thing we refer to as the CSME – the natural culmination of a process which recognised the benefit of acting together, not always as a collective of sovereign states, but always, when it came to the pressing demands of development, as a single voice operating across a seamless geographical space.

The free movement of skills, as opposed to the blanket free movement of people, was viewed as a principal pre-requisite to achieving the objectives of the CSME. As a beneficiary of the process, I can tell you that the arrangements are eminently orderly. The current categories of skills now include media workers, university graduates, artisans, sports persons, self-employed persons in defined areas and, more recently, domestic and hospitality workers.

Under the current arrangements, persons holding skills certificates in these areas, are entitled as a right, not a privilege, to live and work in the Caricom country of their choice and in which such skills are required.
Throughout the Caribbean, there are now thousands of persons in these categories who benefit from this provision as CARICOM nationals and do not require a work permit.

However, the vast majority of intra-regional immigrants who live and work in host territories do so under work permit arrangements, and in some cases do so having breached immigration regulations. The intention, in the end, is to render the last two categories extinct in recognition of a single space.

Not many people would have known that in order to facilitate the easy movement of visitors to the Caribbean during the 2007 Cricket World Cup, all of our countries, including Trinidad and Tobago actually instituted such an arrangement and it was possible, though not widely practiced, to have entered other CARICOM countries without a passport. The expiry of the enabling sunset legislation meant the end of this arrangement.

And I remember asking the then deputy prime minister of Barbados, Ms Mia Mottley, whether the system had been abused and that hundreds of undocumented immigrants had entered her country and stayed, as previously feared – particularly in Barbados which has traditionally attracted Guyanese, Vincention, Jamaican and St Lucian visitors interested in particularly long stays. Her answer was no.

There was also no evidence that this had occurred anywhere else.

This should have taught the region a few lessons. The first is that there is no desire by hordes of CARICOM nationals to unlawfully storm across the borders of any of our countries. The second is that the vast majority of persons moving and working and living in countries other than their own in the Caribbean are doing so under work permit conditions and not as a result of the CSME and, finally, we are seeing where national economic cycles continue to drift from one geographic pole to another. 

Today it’s our turn at the podium, tomorrow it’s someone else. As the Barbadians, ask the Bahamians, ask the Jamaicans.

I say all of this essentially to rubbish the claim that our engagement of the CARICOM process has not worked in our favour. It has. Trinidad and Tobago is a net economic beneficiary of single market conditions in the Caribbean. We are not losing at the game.

Much of the fears being expressed in my view, are xenophobic in nature and more often arise out of unfounded, uninformed opinions on something that has a pretty simple and straight-forward guiding principle – United we Stand. Divided we Fall.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Social Media Fantasy

In the midst of the so-called “digital revolution” leading to revolution by digital technology, there is a growing, but unfortunate view that political activism can somehow escape the mud and grime of actual face-to-face politics and the dust and noise and haze of mass mobilisation to effect change.

There is also a growing body of opinion asserting the gradual disappearance of journalism in favour of some kind of hybridised system of free or cheap and ubiquitous methods of acquiring and disseminating news and information, secure from the rigours of professional newsgathering.

There is little doubt that the impact of new mobile technologies on mass, social and political mobilisation has been phenomenal. But there is also no denying the fact that in all the instances currently being cited as examples, there has been the indispensable impact of courageous men and women, on the streets and in the newsroom, who have chosen not to remain nameless and faceless behind a Twitter nomme de plume or fictitious Facebook profile or constantly changing mobile number.

In all instances in the Middle East and North Africa, the illusion of “change” has now been met with the reality of pathologically authoritarian models of governance the new validating elites with all their technological assets are incapable of adequately addressing.

The impact of social media activism has simply not changed the world as we have always known it. It has perhaps changed some terms of engagement. But, for the most part, traditional “mainstream” media have been brought into sharper functional focus with plain, old-fashioned professional and operational values.

General adherence to the timeless journalistic principles of balance, fairness and transparency continues to be the pillar upon which the credible means of achieving real social and political change reside.

In my view, there is no “war” between the social and traditional media. They travel along their own orbits, sometimes colliding, but often criss-crossing each other in same and opposite directions. In the process, the potential for complementary relations is abundant and strikes at the heart of a way forward.

The value of “citizen journalism” does not in any way, in this context, invalidate the contribution of true journalists who continue to play a decisive, professional role in interpreting our realities wherever we are. But they are not the same creatures and are not interchangeable features of the widening mass media landscape.

For sure, the protections accorded journalists extend to everyone engaged in the process of journalism and they all enjoy the umbrella of free expression. The suggestion that one is capable of replacing the other is, however, a fantasy we would do well to dispel and is, quite frankly, a nonsense led by people who do not know better.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Paying Tribute to Ric Mentus, Caribbean Journalist

Memorial Service - Port of Spain, Trinidad, September 25, 2013

One of the most striking features of the assignment that brought me here this morning was the revelation that tracing the life and career of our late colleague could not possibly be engaged as a simple linear exercise devoid of an understanding of both Ric’s life and the times in which he functioned as a journalist.

As I set out on this journey, I found that unraveling Ric’s place in the scheme of things is more like negotiating Wilson Harris’s hinterland excursion of the Palace of the Peacock than sitting through the 55-minute Caribbean Airlines flight between Piarco and Timheri.

What is absolutely clear is that his career spanned a very long time, touched several shores washed by the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, and never really enjoyed the luxury of many quiet professional moments, except perhaps for the latter years leading into what appeared to have been a solitary existence, during which he no doubt compulsively tuned into the ups and downs of both his original and adopted Caribbean homelands.

These homelands included Jamaica in the early 1960s where he worked with the Jamaica Daily News. He would later report for the Trinidad Guardian, People Magazine and then the Trinidad Express where he formed part of a formidable journalistic team.

By the time I entered the Express picture in 1985, Ric had already left, to re-emerge not long after as a stoic, state information official, press releases in hand and at the ready with firm press conference instructions for younger entrants to a profession he clearly loved and respected. If I ever had to entrust anyone with a secret - with all my possessions on the line - Ric would have been among the primary candidates for such a job.

But this is not to say that he did not maintain a strong appreciation of the demands of journalism and was a stuck-up guardian of what some considered to be proprietary state information. On more than one occasion, I hereby confess on his behalf, he would answer a probing question with a question of his own which, when one thought about it carefully, pointed in the approximate direction of an answer.

This respect for the practice of journalism came from years of sacrifice at its hands. In fact, when Ric returned to Guyana from his early stint in Jamaica and some time in Trinidad, he occupied the office of Sunday editor of the UK-owned and operated Guyana Telegraph. He was known then for his hard-hitting columns focusing mainly on the increasingly contentious and often deadly political environment. Those were the heady days of an administration which came out of elections in 1973 with a disputed 70% of the vote and a hold on power many thought would last for a very, very long time, if not forever.

Of course, such open dissent by journalists of that time was not to be tolerated. That very year, Ric and his near namesake and lifelong friend, Rickey Singh, were summarily dismissed by the Telegraph. The newspaper bosses were quick to declare in the termination letter issued to Ric that he had been fired as editor of the Sunday Graphic because the paper had apparently “lost its editorial balance while carrying out a policy of hostility directed against the government.”

Ric, the letter said, had not displayed “sufficient tolerance and understanding of government’s policies.”

Had he stayed in Trinidad where he remained en route from Jamaica in the late 60s, he would have probably had to interpret the events surrounding the emergence and quick decline of an insurgency in 1973. Had he returned to Jamaica, he would have had to reflect on an economy in rapid decline and the advent of Michael Manley’s socialist experiment.

As a correspondent for Caribbean Contact which his fellow colleague-in-exile, Rickey Singh, led first from Trinidad then from Barbados, Ric helped frame greater public understanding of the circumstances of a region in transition.

There was no way at that time, operating as a journalist committed to full editorial independence, Ric could have escaped the perils of his trade wherever he considered to be his home, including the land of his birth.

Born on Wakenaam along the Essequibo and with homes in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, Ric’s credentials as an island man remain intact.  Sadly, not many members of the ACM community of recent vintage however know the name very well, if at all. Ric’s work, after all, was not about him.

We pay tribute to him today as a man of the Caribbean and a man of the world. The Guyana Press Association has asked that its condolences be extended at this time and those Guyanese colleagues who remember him at the Graphic recall his obstinate insistence on ensuring that his work would not be compromised by political or other reward or penalty.

There is perhaps a message in the method of his passing that can be of interest to all of us who talk with crowds and keep our virtue; who walk with kings and prime ministers and keep the common touch. It is a message of solidarity – a commitment to simply keep in touch. An injunction to care.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Journalists and New Media

* Excerpt from a lecture delivered in Aruba to journalists on September 7, 2013

Journalists and their Media

The journalist of the 21st century is necessarily a multi-media content provider engaged in a relationship with a growing variety of other providers now including bloggers and other social media practitioners who do not hold traditional journalistic values as part of the requirements for publication of news and information.

The additional level of enquiry to validate the authenticity of information, to ensure that published information is fair, balanced and factual, remains the sacred concern of professional journalists. The temptation to view social media as a competitive element of the mass media environment has now too often served to narrow the distinction between professional journalists and crowd and blogger sourced material.

It is best, I believe, to view the social media as playing a potentially supportive and not entirely competitive role. For while the new media are useful in providing the sketchy coordinates of our reality, only the professional journalist is specifically charged with joining the various dots and presenting a fuller picture of the reality.

I would contend that while some important modalities of production and distribution might have changed, the basic value systems driving the practice of journalism have generally remained challenged but constant.

The challenges, often read as new opportunities, relate to the ubiquity of new media, universal access, immediacy of access, high levels of interactivity and what one media researcher has described as “extreme content customization.”

The more direct threats to traditional journalism have focused more exclusively on what are considered to be the highest values and standards of the profession – the authenticity of content, source verification, accuracy and the truth which are now at the command of virtually anyone with a smartphone, tablet or computer with an internet connection.

American academic, John Pavlik, back in the year 2001, suggested that in many ways these somewhat mixed blessings had the potential to create a better form of journalism, “because it can reengage an increasingly distrusting and alienated audience.”

News as Commodity

What we need to bear in mind as well are the implications of all of this on the bottom lines of the media industry. News is fast becoming a de-commercialised component of media content. It is now essentially viewed by media consumers as a commodity acquired for free on the internet through Twitter and Facebook and via mobile SMS blasts. The immediacy of these platforms has meant that tomorrow’s newspaper, if it already doesn’t, needs to move beyond the presentation of hard news, except in cases where it is needed to provide professional, journalistic validation.

The immediacy of online content has also challenged the most dynamic of mainstream mass media, radio as a provider of timely news and information. The growing, but yet limited, embrace of internet radio in all its manifestations is a unique proposition occupying the minds of researchers and, in my view, is ignored at the peril of current operators of traditional enterprises as is the case with smartphones and handheld receivers.

The fast-paced growth in new technologies and re-calibration of professional resources is yet to be determined as anything permanent. However, it is clear that while the objective professional values of journalists remain constant, the terms of their engagement in the profession are destined to continue to be in a state of persistent change.

It has been noted, for example, that there are as many as 113 million blogs worldwide – many of them news oriented and regularly cited by mainstream news organisations. These are professional outfits designed to generate an income, pay employees and make use of a business model which challenges mainstream media in almost all aspects. They provide timely news and information, apply traditional news gathering values and are multi-media with high quality audio and video. In some instances, mainstream media with an online presence are mirroring the modus of these operations.

Citizen Journalism

There is, as well, the emerging trend to validate the work of what are described as “citizen journalists.” Making use of social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, together with dedicated websites, these practitioners do not work for pay, do not necessarily feel obliged to observe basic journalistic guidelines and, in many instances, promote their own causes. However, their ubiquitous presence has proven to be a unique asset in some measure embraced by the mainstream media.

Coverage of the Arab Spring and ensuing developments over recent years, for example, has been significantly fed by the work of “citizen journalists”.  One recent U.S. study conducted by the Newspaper Research Journal concluded that citizen journalism actually complements rather than substitutes commercial news sites. The study in fact found that commercial news sites provided a more sophisticated environment allowing for greater interaction with their audiences.

People with cell phone still and video cameras with uploading capabilities enabling almost instant access by anyone else, anywhere in the world with a mobile phone, hand-held device or computer have nevertheless stormed the news market in unprecedented ways.

In the process, the gatekeeping role of mainstream media on news and events has virtually disappeared. The most important implication for the practice of journalism is that the attitude of “autonomous expertise” applied to determine what is important from what is not has been greatly undermined. Some may contend this is not entirely an undesirable side-effect, since the gatekeeping role of journalists has never fully satisfied the objective of impartiality on the question of special interests, including the nature of media ownership and control itself. In the Caribbean context this requires extensive examination and debate.

Emerging Challenges

The media industry has also been challenged by the fact that converged media platforms which now include vital telecommunications components are moving Caribbean governments to increasingly combine broadcasting and telecommunications regulatory domains. Such an approach is fraught with danger, especially in the face of creeping official encroachments into broadcasting and media content.

Regulatory instinct has moved some of the technical discussions in the direction of prohibitions on content with serious implications for freedom of expression and press freedom. Among the countries of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), for example, proposed new broadcasting legislation imposes criminal punishments for breaches of broadcast content guidelines. This would have the effect of criminalising acts of journalism.

In Grenada, an Electronic Crimes Act passed by both houses of parliament seeks to punish persons guilty of transmitting material that is likely to be “grossly offensive”, can cause “insult’ or that can “annoy” anyone else. Fines and a possible prison sentence are among the penalties.

Such an unenlightened approach to dealing with new media is more likely than not to impair the positive benefits from these emerging platforms. Increasingly, governments are setting their sights on online content as a target for oppressive regulation and action. This is particularly so for countries in crisis, but is by no means an exclusive phenomenon.

Free expression advocates are staunchly against new regulatory encroachments on the internet and are stressing that protections and remedies already exist via long accepted legislative derogations to freedom of expression including privacy rights, defamation laws, actions against hate speech and the protection of children. Imposing restrictions on what is being described as offensive, insulting or disrespectful content signify steps backward in the effort to guarantee freedom of expression.

There is also now a growing focus on the extent to which the application of copyright laws can conflict with freedom of expression and, by extension, freedom of the press – both through traditional means and via the internet.

The Centre for Law and Democracy, for example, recently published a report in which it argues that the current framework of copyright rules should be examined from a freedom of expression perspective “in order to determine how copyright should be reformed to best achieve its underlying purpose of promoting and protection expression.”

This is an eminently sensible proposal and Caribbean societies would do well to have a closer look at the issue.

Privacy Rights and Online Security

The issue of privacy has frequently been raised as a problematic area of concern in the digital era. I would suggest for the journalist this is a multi-dimensional challenge. The first is the application of privacy rights by individuals with respect to persons on whose activities they report and the second would be the right to privacy of the journalist.

The advent of the internet essentially created an entirely new network of both public and private spaces. Your email messages would, perhaps, be considered to be your private online space while your blog and LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts can pretty much be considered your private spaces. The popularity of these social media has grown considerably in recent years. In Aruba, for example, it is estimated that more than half the population now has a Facebook account – or 52,520 accounts.

These platforms offer some measure of privacy. Facebook Chat would be one example. However, privacy is only defined by the degree to which the businesses offering such services accord a level of security to ensure there is actual privacy. The best available advice on the use of email accounts now includes the use of encryption services to ensure that confidentiality is maintained, at least to some degree.

The subject of internet security and the protection of journalistic sources and data has become one of the most urgent and somewhat contentious matters for modern journalists. The fallout from the National Security Agency issue involving CIA computer specialist, Edward Snowden, and accompanying difficulties being faced by UK Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald have stressed the degree to which the digital age continues to offer some old challenges in new clothes.

This issue of internet security for journalists thus presents us with evidence of one of the most difficulty challenges in the current context of new online frontiers. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Baby Steps to Liberty

The announcement that Trinidad and Tobago is moving to repeal some aspects of the country’s Libel and Defamation Act is good news to anyone with an interest in press freedom and freedom of expression. The Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration was proud enough of the move to have the proceedings broadcast live on state radio and television and the story led the evening news on state-owned Caribbean New Media Group (CTV).

As International Press Institute (IPI) Executive Director, Alison Bethel-McKenzie, remarked at the joint press conference to make the announcement the development was “significant” and should not be underestimated in value. A similar sentiment came from Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) President, Kiran Maharaj.

I agree that the development is important because it signals the willingness of the government of Trinidad and Tobago to pay attention to what should be an important area of concern to everyone. It is not that there have been any recent instances where these particular provisions of the Act have been applied, but that their very existence can have a chilling effect on the freedom to publish.

It is, however, a “baby” step – not a wobbly, uncertain move forward by any means, but a small, deliberate step along a rather long road. The left foot is now planted on the ground, now for the right, and then again and again.

For example, Section 9 of the Act which addresses the issue of “malicious” publication of defamatory content is to be deleted. But this leaves Section 8 which punishes malicious content that is deemed by a court to be knowingly false. In the end, this section too must go. So must the concept of seditious libel expressed in the country’s Seditious and Undesireable Publications Act and something called “blasphemous libel” under the Criminal Offences Act.

More than that, a great deal of work needs to be done to create conditions that do not lead to a level of self-censorship which, those who are honest about it would concede, is pervasive. As I have said at more than one fora, journalists are rarely kidnapped, injured or killed in the Caribbean but many of their stories die. Stories are “killed” by the chilling effect of draconian legal sanction and by small, closed communities, advertisers and publishers who either do not wish to offend or are concerned about the protection of people and interests with which they are associated.

At press conference announcing
amendments with (from left) Alison
Bethel-McKenzie, IPI; Kiran Maharaj,
TTPBA, T&T Prime Minister
Kamla Persad-Bissessar
Historical antecedents and trials along the way have also left these small former British colonies in the West Indies handsomely clad in authoritarian coveralls. The instinct to resort to the draconian is quick. There is, everywhere, the charge of “too much” freedom and liberty and the relativist assertion that perhaps we are all too small and underdeveloped for the truth to always be recognised and told.

This is not an easy one. It is also not the duty of the TTPBA or the Media Association or the ACM alone. It is instructive that the legal analysis of this issue was undertaken not by the Law Association or any conscientious human rights group (none exists), but by the Vienna-based IPI.

What is required to make any further progress on this issue, as well, is an enlightened citizenry motivated by a vision of freedom and liberty and a commitment to have all ideas and expression contend. Our society, as a whole, has also been taking nothing more than baby steps in such a direction.      

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Media Performance and Press Freedom

Let’s get it clear from the start. Media performance and press freedom, though sometimes  connected, are not the same issue.

The one thing people need to understand about human rights is their universality and indivisibility. Political partisans in Trinidad and Tobago currently suggesting that supposedly sloppy or partisan media should not benefit from press freedom are, for the most part, deliberately missing some important points.

For one, press freedom was never meant to be for the press alone. Like its parent right, freedom of expression, press freedom is meant to be the preserve not only of primary communicators but those who seek out such communication and those who consume and regurgitate or interpret it.

As time has passed, such mass communication has increased in interactivity to the extent that the line between primary and secondary producers of media content has become shadowy at best.
When viewed this way, press freedom has to be everyone’s right; not just the media’s.

We knew this all along, didn’t we?


The penalty for sloppy or unprofessional or defiant expression can never be silence. The penalty should also not be threats and acts of intimidation. Let’s see what has become standard fare:

i. revelations about personal indulgences by journalists
ii. their tax status
iii. threats to the job security or insecurity of family and friends
iv. threats of physical violence
v. online and direct harassment
vi. cyber-stalking
vii. anonymous online defamation via email lists and social media
viii. economic boycotts of media enterprises

The list is long. But these are only a few examples of what Caribbean journalists and media enterprises have become used to within recent years.

There is also the suggestion that journalists have “thin skins” and respond too quickly to the slightest sign of unintended threats.

Journalists are right not to take any chances! Acts of violence and intimidation against journalists are growing worldwide, not shrinking. They begin as idle chatter and, too often, end in silence achieved through self-censorship, threats and actual physical violence.

Among the protagonists of the view that journalists over-react are, ironically, media colleagues badly compromised either by an inability to contain their political enthusiasm or resist the lure of supplementary personal incomes. The Caribbean media are no exception to the growing emboldening of such partisan elements in the press. This does not, at any time, diminish their own claims to freedom but weakens the professional base from which they operate.

In the 15 Caribbean countries I have visited many times, I do not see proof that this is not the same throughout the region: a government changes, and with it the commitment of a recalcitrant minority to press freedom.

Those who stay the course are most subject to the worst vilification, ridicule and slander. The latest attacks on the free press in Trinidad and Tobago have already produced an abundant share of such actions. Such roguishness seldom goes unpunished by enlightened public opinion over the long term. History supports this view.

For some strange reason, this sounds so familiar to me with my 30 years’ experience in this business.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Crime Rant

Very soon, suspects accused of committing blue colour criminal offences will face the following scenario in Trinidad and Tobago:

(1) Members of the military, with unclear relationships with two important institutional checks and balances against police abuses, will become a part of general policing activities. The heads of both the Police Complaints Authority and Police Service Commission have publicly expressed concern;
(2) There will be no bail for persons facing allegations of drug trafficking and weapons possession, with our without previous convictions;
(3) There is a move to eliminate trials by jury;
(4) The return of capital punishment. A former senior minister in the current administration has said he has no problem with public hangings.

Meanwhile, persons against whom white colour criminal offences such as fraud have been directed:

(1) Refuse to honour inquiry subpoenas;
(2) Stand to benefit from bungling associated with a law widely suspected to have been drafted to secure their release without a full trial;
(3) Occupy VIP parking spots at some state institutions;
(4) Will not be caught dead on state transportation.

So, soon, a person committing murder can be captured by someone trained to kill, remain in prison while a tedious judicial system gets to work, face a judge without a jury and be promptly hanged.

Someone charged with corruption can rely on a sluggish system to run 10 years from commission of an offence before being freed of the charge, while on bail, while attending the best parties, while funding political parties and receiving state favours in return and while passing the rest of us on the highway.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Dropping the Human Rights Ball

I was particularly moved by the words of the iconic Guyanese diplomat Rudy Insanally recently when he spoke of the chances our tiny but potentially mighty region is missing out on, if only because of a lack of effective application of our sheer numerical strength on the international stage.

It is my firm view that opportunities to influence the global and hemispheric agendas are not as much stymied by the fact of occasional displays of disunity as by a problem of low self-esteem.
Amb. Rudy Insanally

Certainly, short-sighted displays of disunity are heavily influenced by delusions about individual self-importance on the part of micro-states surviving purely on their wits and the goodwill of imperialist powers past and present. However, occasional grand-standing at the regional level is heavily tempered by a lack of self-confidence on the international stage.

One current discourse being almost absolutely ignored by the 14 independent Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states of the OAS is the attempt by several Latin American countries to water down the influence of the Inter-American human rights system – the focus of critical debate by countries such as Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela (which is now set to leave the human rights system entirely in September this year). These are countries that have not enjoyed the best relationship with either the inter-American Commission or the Court.

There is little doubt in the minds of most reasonable people, that the strategy being devised by what is now appearing to be a majority of Organisation of American States (OAS) countries is to weaken the reach and influence of an independent-minded set of institutions – the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Inter-American Court of Human Rights – in order that the abuses of a number of recalcitrant states may continue unrecognised and unpunished.

Our small 15-member grouping (Montserrat is not independent and not a member of the OAS), has the power to dramatically influence this discussion.

Instead, it appears as if Jamaica is the only country keeping close tabs on the process – holding an albeit lukewarm position on the central issues through Amb. Stephen Vasciennie, an accomplished human rights attorney and professor.

When I spoke at a special civil society consultation of the OAS Permanent Council last December, Prof. Vasciennie was the only senior Caribbean diplomat in the chamber at the time. My own Trinidad and Tobago ambassador, Neil Parsan, was absent and though my participation in the consultation had been announced before-hand through the CARICOM caucus within the OAS, nobody seemed to think it was important enough that a lone Caribbean organisation had taken the time and trouble to make its voice heard on this issue.
OAS Building, Washington DC

Amb. Insanally’s remarks at the launch of his latest work on diplomacy resonate throughout this particular episode in the life of CARICOM participation in the inter-American system.

Or is it that we have countries among us with leaders who believe that having strong hemispheric oversight over issues of human rights is a bother that needs to be addressed?

Regrettably, I think this might well be the case.

My own efforts through the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) to loosen the state grip on press freedom and freedom of expression over the years have amply prepared me to deliver a verdict on this.

It does not surprise me that so many of our countries would rather turn the other way, or hold their noses while chronic human rights offenders in this part of the world run rough-shod over a system we all agreed would help bring us into the international mainstream of respect for the rights of our people.

But this, of course, is not only a matter for national governments. The malignant neglect reflects negatively on the work of Bar Associations throughout the region – impotent bands of self-interested and greedy professionals who are more and more turning their backs on issues of human rights.

Where, for example, is there a functioning Caribbean human rights association? Why is it, that apart from Jamaica and Guyana (to a lesser extent) there are no effective national human rights organisations which survive the election of their chief advocates to government?

Why is it, that on the question of the erosion of the influence of the inter-American human rights system, the ACM – a press freedom organisation with extremely limited resources – remains a solitary Caribbean voice in the human rights wilderness?

The worst-case scenario is that Caribbean authoritarian cultures will coalesce too comfortably with the remnants of Latin caudillismo at the expense of freedoms our societies sacrificed so much to possess.
The OAS discussions will paint a much clearer picture as we go along.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Caribbean Embrace of Censorship

I remain startled by the fact that so many Caribbean media practitioners and creative folk enthusiastically embrace official censorship and have a tendency to invite such intervention even when those with an interest in restraining free expression don’t initially appear interested.

It is true that free expression sometimes carries with it the hefty price tag of gross irresponsibility, atrociously poor taste and the incompetence of some communicators, but inviting the censors to do what ought to be achieved through self-awareness and self-confidence presents our societies with the worst possible remedy for authoritarian intervention.

There are several striking examples of this, one of which is application of intellectual property laws and regulations.

I believe we move into the dangerous terrain of criminalising speech and expression when we focus on increasingly draconian legislation to deal with the so-called “theft” of intellectual property. Strictly speaking, it’s not the property itself being stolen but the potential financial and other benefits of such property.

So, if you “steal” my poem and publish it as your own, I still effectively have possession of the piece, but am probably denied of any income derived from its subsequent sale as part of a collection of poems by someone else. Should a resolution of this be the arrest and detention of the “thief”?

This is what I confronted during a session at a recent workshop when journalists were practically imploring a chief of police to get involved in the “theft” of online newspaper articles.

Of course, the lifting of online journalistic content for either free or paid dissemination by someone who does not have a relationship with the writer is rather sickening.  I have been a victim of this many times. The practice has meant that as a freelance writer, I lose the opportunity to sell my stuff to a wider range of publishers when they can simply lift what I write for free from some other source – hopefully one that has paid me for my work.

What would satisfy me as the originator of the work would be some form of compensation for use of the article/s. I have no interest in a criminal prosecution. Neither should I. Such an approach invites law enforcement people to stand over the shoulders of everyone producing any kind of creative content.

By inviting the police to deal with this, instead of independent copyright agencies – who are also, hopefully, not greedy and dishonest as some of them are – who are staffed and trained to track, recover and punish those in the breach, we lose sight of the value of freedom to express ourselves freely and fuel the “big brother” aspirations of authoritarian leaders and officials.

The other area of concern is this thing about promoting indigenous creative content through coercion. Throughout the Caribbean there is this mindless hankering for official intervention to “save” what is called “local” content by legislating taste in the broadcast media.

In the first place, there is no sensible working definition of the term “local content” in much of the discussions I have heard on this subject. This is particularly so since, in the Caribbean, we have officially, through Caricom, sought to define a “we” in the context of the people who live in a defined social and economic space.

So under Caricom arrangements, for example, people, enterprises, goods and services are intended to eventually achieve equal status throughout the 15 countries that have signed the Treaty of Chaguaramas. This means that a (creative) good or service produced in Jamaica ought to have ‘domestic’ status in Grenada or Trinidad and Tobago or Guyana. The concept extends, in some respects, to other international agreements. But let’s focus on the Caribbean countries.

Some short-sighted, unenlightened musicians and other content generators in Trinidad and Tobago want “local” to be defined as “born, bred and resident in Trinidad and Tobago”. This nonsense belies the fact that some of our more outstanding performers reside outside of the country. The phenomenal David Rudder happens to be one. It also, more significantly, relegates the music of Caribbean icons such as Bob Marley and Eddy Grant to the level of “foreign” content outside of Jamaica and Guyana/Barbados (which one, Eddy?).
David Rudder the "foreigner"?

This defining of “local”, in turn, is meant to facilitate broadcast content quotas especially in the field of radio. In one instance, citing Canada as a shining example, there is a move to regulate no less than 50% “local” content.

Certainly, this not only contravenes basic conditions for freedom of expression but betrays an ignorance of the international agreements to which Caribbean countries have signed on to among themselves and with others.

How difficult it is to invoke the free expression perspective on these issues!

A more enlightened approach to the application of intellectual property law and a more sophisticated strategy to encourage high-quality creative Caribbean content will considerably help to establish the vital link between creative genius and the development process and not stifle the creative impulse.

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