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
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.