Friday, 6 March 2015

Press Freedom Advocacy in the Caribbean - the plight of the volunteer

In the English-speaking Caribbean, press freedom advocacy is left almost entirely up to voluntary organisations and individuals earning their incomes mainly as working journalists or, depending on the circumstances, is left to media owners and managers responding to a variety of general regulatory requirements and specific threats to their individual media enterprises.

During the course of the Grenada Revolution of 1979-1983, oppressive media conditions in that country stimulated action by a cross-section of regional publishers led by Ken Gordon of the Trinidad Express with important support from newspapers in Guyana, Barbados and Jamaica. Except for regional responses to the state advertising boycott of Stabroek News in Guyana of 2007-2008, there has not, in recent years, been a similar instance of significant, concerted regional solidarity by newspaper publishers for each other.

There is, as well, no serious culture of human rights advocacy which positions freedom of expression as central to either civil political rights or as a pillar of economic, social and cultural rights. In fact, with few exceptions in Jamaica and Guyana, there can be said to be no functioning human rights organisation that has withstood the test of political incumbency.

The Bar associations of the region, together with the legal fraternity they represent, have failed the people of the Caribbean badly through their lack of active interest in this area of human rights.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the T&T Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) has flown a generally consistent press freedom flag, together with the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) which has provided a sound platform for media solidarity in the face of industry-specific threats. But, apart from a floundering politically-volatile experiment in Guyana, through a Media Proprietors Association (GMPA), there do not exist concerted and cohesive efforts by the media fraternity to address press freedom challenges when they arise elsewhere.

The Curacao Media Organisation (CMO) which was recently admitted as a member of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) appears to be a hybrid association comprising both media managers and working journalists.

For the most part, the ACM has been the region’s premier press freedom advocacy group with critical support from its network of almost entirely voluntary organisations, some of which occasionally sink and emerge from significant organisational challenges.

There are current ACM-mediated “rescue” efforts in Antigua and Barbuda with respect to the Antigua and Barbuda Media Congress (ABMC) and the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) while the Barbados Association of Journalists (BAJ) is yet to hold a long overdue general meeting and the Sint Maarten Media Association which had a promising start under Marvin Hokstam is now defunct.

The volunteeristic nature of all of these organisations can be said to be among their sternest challenges. Because both their leaders and members tend to be busy journalists and other media workers, little attention is paid, or is possible, to attend to the second most important element of the game which is the availability of money to keep things going organisationally.

In Latin America, still in recovery from the dictatorships of the relatively recent past, and with a much shorter history of democratic governance than the English-speaking Caribbean, organisations that pay attention to freedom of expression and press freedom tend to be full-time professional outfits funded by development-support and human rights institutions primarily from the developed world.

In the Caribbean, such international agencies, trusts and foundations have not recognised how possible it is to have long traditions of peaceful democratic life while at the same time confront serious attacks on the ability of the press to function in an unfettered manner.

There is the added difficulty of many international organisations not recognising the vital distinction to be made between the countries constituting the geographical area of Latin America and the Caribbean.

In fact, there are United Nations agencies that do not make the distinction and are quite happy to report on the state of affairs of “Latin America” as a region without reference to the Caribbean, notwithstanding official mandates to disaggregate the two distinct sub-regions. I can say a lot about this particular feature of some international inter-governmental institutions but won’t provide such a distraction at this stage.

It seems to me that the challenge of volunteerism in press freedom advocacy is how to combine the best features of working journalists intervening on their own behalf while maintaining a sustainable, professional environment to facilitate expression of their concerns.

This perhaps requires a re-thinking of current approaches to include some elements of the following:

1. That Caribbean media workers associations consider formal, legal incorporation as entities with the ability to conduct research projects, training programmes, fund-raisers and campaigns that earn them an income to meet recurrent expenditures on staff and secretariat space. This, of course, carries with it the burden of corporate obligations to prepare financial and management statements, pay taxes and take care of staff needs;

2. That the state and corporate sectors be encouraged to establish independent philanthropic trusts from which funding from such enterprises can be derived for institutional support of media associations. The funding mechanism developed for independent support for the Caribbean Court of Justice is a fine example of how this can be achieved;

3. That media enterprises consider seconding full-time journalistic staff over limited periods to serve on a full-time basis with media associations. This can be a meaningful contribution on the part of media owner and manager organisations in an area in which there is mutual interest together with media worker organisations;

4. That trade unions active in the media sector play a role in lending operational support to national media worker associations;

5. That the constitutions of national associations re-consider the trend toward longer terms of office for elected officials. The recent trend has been toward extending terms to a period of two years. It might be that such a term is too long and that executive committees require more frequent refreshing;

6. The issue of entitlement to membership should be debated to determine the degree to which new media and other entrants to the industry can be embraced;

7. That national media associations play a role in developing national level frameworks for media self-regulation;

8. That, in some instances, where the national media landscape is small and limited, consideration be given to merging the operational and institutional arrangements for representing both media enterprises and media workers;

There is little doubt that the ACM, as the umbrella organisation and international interface for the Caribbean media worker fraternity also faces similar challenges of its own. But many challenges are associated with the fact that too many national affiliates are dysfunctional, poorly funded entities driven by a few devoted volunteers.

Opponents of the free press are wont to gloat on such a parlous state of affairs. So too do uninterested media workers who have proven to be their own worst enemies.

National media worker organisations are absolute necessities in today’s world. Those that continue to function well against all odds are to be applauded. Those that falter and fall need much broader and urgent support.