Thursday, 21 May 2015

Something Called Press Freedom

Accurately determining a country’s press freedom status has always been a difficult task. International human rights groups sometimes quibble over the precise metrics and there have been known to be interesting anomalies, particularly with respect to traditionally under-reported countries such as those of the Caribbean.

The Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) has, since its inception, attempted to present a consistent, albeit nuanced picture of the press freedom environment through our biennial country reports prepared by national associations and focal points. These are often over-shadowed in the public space by the better known assessments of international organisations such as Reporters without Borders (RWB), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Freedom House which publish annual press freedom indices.

In times past, such reports were often prepared in the absence of meaningful consultations with practitioners on the ground and against the backdrop of a generally moribund trans-Caribbean human rights movement. Apart from a small number of special interest groups that do fine work in the areas of LGBT advocacy, gender equity, workers’ rights and environmental rights, there are few that appear to have the faintest interest in one of the fundamental pillars of the democratic process – freedom of expression.

This unpardonable vacuum has created conditions under which advocates in one category of rights – whether civil and political or economic, social and cultural – do not feel inclined to draw the connection between their individual causes and the need to foster an environment of free expression. As a consequence, free expression and press freedom advocates in the Caribbean often embark upon the lonely task of bringing to light the value of such freedoms to the polity as a whole.

It is by no means a politically neutral engagement. Press freedom is subject to fickle support. Opposition politicians focus on the inalienability of the right, but quickly remind us all of the need to be “responsible” whenever the political tables turn.

The fact of the matter, of course, is that freedom does carry with it a requirement to be responsible. But it is equally difficult to be responsible if one is not free.

If you have a situation in which accountability and transparency are not the norm, access to information laws are defective and whistle-blowers are punished instead of being protected, then journalists are drawn to the “leak” and the unofficial release of information often attached to less than honourable motives. Yet, our societies crave the truth and there is usually an outcry for more and more “investigative journalism.”

It is a campaign riddled with no shortage of duplicity. Many politicians, captains of industry, opinion-leaders and others in responsible positions may not survive properly conducted investigative journalism. In a sense, in our small authoritarian geographic spaces, nobody really wants this. It is sheer hypocrisy.

So this, to me, would be one of the important metrics to measure the degree of press freedom that prevails – a predisposition to speaking the truth not only to rulers, but also to the ruled.

The other variable, of course, would be the legislative and constitutional framework under which the society functions. It is clearly not enough for there to be a constitutional provision for freedom of the press, if social and cultural antecedents militate against the freedom to offend, to blaspheme, to defy sacred edict, to stand up against the powerful and, sometimes, to get it wrong without the guillotine of silence being gratuitously imposed.

For this reason, the first signs of a country serious about free expression and freedom of the press would include a commitment to decriminalise breaches of laws related to expression, protect those who blow the whistle on official wrong-doing and the opening of the doors and windows to officially-held information through real access to information laws.

In this regard, nothing heard across the political divide in most of our countries in the Caribbean is particularly encouraging.

All of this does not mean there is no freedom of the press in the region, but that in defining the processes we need to take us there, the legislative and cultural defaults have to increasingly focus on freedom and not, as is currently the case, on restriction and ultimate silence.

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