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. 

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