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.

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