Monday, 14 August 2017

My Percy Qoboza Award

My remarks on receiving the National Association of Black Journalists' Percy Qoboza Foreign Journalist Award at the NABJ Convention and Career Fair, New Orleans, USA, August 11, 2017

Receiving this award is, for me, one of the more humbling experiences of my professional life. There are few greater tributes a journalist can receive to match the recognition of his or her peers.

I come before you as a Caribbean person, from a small twin-island state, whose ancestry finds roots on the shores of more than one continent. People who came either through force, subterfuge or by choice to a new home we now call our own.

I also come from a land of the freed engaged in a perpetual struggle to become the land of the free. Each step of the way confronting the compulsion, through post-colonial habit, to deny ourselves the freedom we have earned as human beings making our way in a vast universe. And in the process reframing Du Bois’s rhetorical question: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

For the Caribbean journalist, our story is as much an explanation of ‘why’ things happen as it is an honest declaration of ‘what’ we confront as a people – both as the subjects and objects of history. For this reason, journalism in all its convergent manifestations and as the first draft of our story, is a singularly important imperative of our time and a free press one of our most valuable assets.

It is however amazing that as a people whose history emerges from institutionalised coercion, violence and bondage, that the freedom cry in the Caribbean should so tragically roam the social and political wilderness.

This is the challenge my organisation, the ACM, engaged, when we launched 16 years ago, with a message of freedom and a commitment to work harder to claim the power it provides to our people.

Today, my own contribution to this cause has brought me here, as if in sacred communion with peers, brothers and sisters and comrades. “Tell of my love to the islands,” the hymnist writes, “tell it everywhere.”

I cherish this moment to tell of my love for the islands and I vow to continue telling it everywhere.

Thank you for this great honour.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Opposing local content quotas for T&T broadcasters

Have you ever been a respondent in a social research project and thought the researchers had already come to a conclusion about its eventual outcome, but were purely seeking some kind of public validation?

Thanks to Mark Lyndersay’s diligence as the journalistic technology czar of T&T, I had such an eerie experience earlier this week when I waded through the Survey Monkey link generated by the Telecommunications Authority (TATT) entitled “Local Content Consumer Survey”.

It was not the apparent confusion between the use of “neither” with “nor” and “or”, nor was it the use of leading questions that left no room for informed dismissal of some basic premises that had me concerned.

Now, I don’t mean to nit-pick over the imprecision of the survey. I can do so, but I won’t.

It’s a phenomenon we have all grown used to in the way we do business in this town. The police, politicians, attorneys, journalists not paying attention to fine detail and/or nuance.

It has also been an integral feature of the “gimme gimme” campaign to employ coercion in pursuit of a better deal for people in the creative services industry.

Essentially fascist in nature, it is the mistaken notion that in order for the creative industry to thrive, there need to be checks on freedom of expression, in the essential meaning of the term, guided by a sense of “nationalist” preference and favour.

Go look it up. I am not going to deliver a sermon on freedom of expression, especially to people who rely on it in order to practise their craft as musicians, poets, dramatists and visual artists.

Yet, we have this perennial campaign to legislate taste. To regulate, by official dictat, personal preference.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

None of this is to suggest that in small, vulnerable societies such as ours there cannot or should not be an effort to incentivise creative content as an industry. We do it for a host of other economic sectors, including the lucrative energy industry and for the vital production of food. Don’t get me wrong.

So, for example, I was a strong supporter of the tax rebate for investments in the local creative industries when it was first introduced years ago, but never actually implemented. Where is the campaign to have this put back on the agenda, by the way?

There is a role for fiscal intervention in such matters. But there should be no room for the coercive arm of the state that would have the impact of restraint on trade (broadcasters beware) and erecting regulatory “walls” against “foreign” content.

In fact, such a wall as much keeps us locked in as it insulates us from what flows from the outside. It also betrays a complete lack of understanding of the increasingly borderless nature of the global entertainment industry. This is something that is good for us, not bad.

I know young Caribbean musicians who have collaborations with their counterparts all over the globe and create content that defies all current definitions of what constitutes “local” and what constitutes “foreign”.

Which leads me to the question in the survey about what is the meaning of the word “local”. This includes proposed definitions that both include and avoid reference to Caricom.

Now, our immigration officers might not yet have received the memo, but there is something called the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas which recognises equality of treatment for all goods, services and people from within the Caribbean Community (Caricom).

This is a binding international treaty that has been subject to no shortage of judicial scrutiny (a major raison d'ĂȘtre of the Caribbean Court of Justice) with the general pronouncement that there is a natural expectation that Caricom nationals should feel entitled to equal or equivalent treatment for themselves, their goods and their services.

TATT’s question thus betrays a misunderstanding of this country’s place in the scheme of Caricom things. The Europeans, via the European Union, have used an integration-based formulation to address the precise challenge TATT believes it is theirs to settle, albeit with a “where practicable” proviso.

This will also no doubt be reference to the application of content quotas in Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, Malaysia and South Africa. Well, some of these countries recognise same-sex marriage. Let’s do that too.

Built into many of the arguments I have been hearing has been a primal anti-Americanism and the kind of anti-globalism talk we have most recently been hearing from Washington DC itself.

How far away is the step to regulate “foreign” music and film from placing similar restrictions on the stage, books and the visual arts?

Let me make a prediction. Survey or no survey TATT, in concert with the “gimme gimme” crowd is moving forward with content restrictions in the broadcasting sector. Email me your wagers.

First published in the T&T Guardian on May 18, 2017

Friday, 14 April 2017

Staring Down the Year 2017

The amazing photograph of young Birmingham resident Saffiyah Khan facing down racists in her city last weekend appeared in the UK press at the same time the Brixton-based Black Cultural Archives was preparing for a special tribute to Trinidad-born social activist, Darcus Howe, who died on April 1.

There are emotional chords struck by the young lady’s defiance and Howe’s tenacity that are not easily recognisable, but they exist and resonate in similar ways.

In the Birmingham picture, shot by Press Association photographer Joe Giddens, Khan is standing sideways in a denim jacket with her right hand in her pocket and bearing an ironic smile. She is a bit taller than the guy in the black cap and “English Defence League” t-shirt who is right up to her face with a threatening scowl. But she stands there, looking slightly downward … smiling. Her hair pulled back in a disorderly “bun” and eyes locked onto his.

Between them is a seemingly less than hassled police officer wearing a pale blue “Liaison Officer” workers’ vest, his attention on someone else out of the picture. It might have been someone joining in hurling insults at the young lady who had intervened when she thought that the police had not responded promptly to possible violence against a hijab-wearing counter-protester.

The pictorial metaphor for staring down the year 2017, and all this period has brought us politically, appears to have emerged from an unlikely source – a young female, punk rock loving, brown “Brummie” with a nose ring; staring unflinchingly at an agitated demonstrator with a racist message.

It was the stare of rebellion, different in objective context but not dissimilar in essence to Howe’s eloquently framed 2011 injunction to a BBC presenter to “have some respect for an old West Indian negro.” Through a television monitor, Howe was staring down a bigotry for which the otherwise respected broadcaster eventually apologised.

Young Khan is, of course, no Howe. The presumed invincibility of youth is nothing like rebellion fashioned on the fiery anvil of painful experience, but the light in their eyes appears the same. Do not dare touch me, they seem to say. Have respect.
Darcus Howe (Twitter photo)

We are as people from this part of the world, in 2017, staring down the barrel of these new times, yet to find our voices, much less the steely gaze of defiance we once knew.

Let’s add another name to the mix. There, would have been no mobile phone paparazzi to capture the moment, no roving Instagram or Facebook Live dispatches to report the look on her face in 1937 when the police came for Elma Francois – sedition being the charge. But we can imagine the clash of eyes when they came for her.

It took 50 years to secure her rehabilitation and it’s now 30 years hence, but look at her eyes in the old photo retouched for Rhoda Reddock’s biography on the late activist. We can imagine them, as she stood at the witness stand in her sedition trial, like young Khan’s upon the EDL-inflamed eyes, only this time upon a tribunal in a life and death case. “I don’t know that my speeches create disaffection, I know that my speeches create a fire in the minds of the people so as to change the conditions which now exist,” Francois said in her defence.

Today, “they have not rioted yet” and the mutinous refrain is garbled, disunited and cacophonous. Eyes blunted by the lights and cameras and set upon the House of Representatives and, through it, a slowly disappearing treasure trove.

Through the eyes of Khan and Howe and Francois – different people in different places at different times – we can set the angle and intensity of the staring down of 2017 and all it has brought. For, what currently prevails is not encouraging.
Elma Francois

We are shrinking away from the true challenges. Our situation is not as much about what others have done to us, as what we have done to ourselves.

Violence and murderous crime are not the function of criminal deportees or undocumented immigrants. These seeds were sown right here in our backyards. My friend and colleague, development expert Steve Maximay, describes the phenomenon as “internal deportation”, but that’s another story.

Caricom-exit existed long before Brexit and we have been speaking about and attempting to install a figurative immigration wall based on racist and discriminatory stereotypes long before November 2016. Look and see who are the “expats” and who are the “immigrants” among us, as a start.

Our eyes have surveyed everywhere except straight ahead and through the souls of the things that have confronted us.

I have been looking at that Birmingham photograph again and again in recent days and was able to view the Howe photos at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton last weekend. Then there is Ms Francois’ picture. Something about the eyes.

*First published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian on April 13, 2017

Friday, 24 February 2017

Calling Out the Online Fakes

As an information free marketeer, I am instinctively not as panicked about what is currently being described as “fake news/information” in the public sphere as many of my colleagues in the free expression and press freedom communities, because I think there are paths to addressing some of its worst effects.

It is understandably concerning to bona fide professional journalists that one of the core functions of the fake news phenomenon is the deliberate undermining of otherwise legitimate sources of news and information in order to command political or corporate market space.

For instance, one of the paths to the sources of this category of public information would be an easily recognisable and explicit campaign to diminish the value of old or legacy media, and their operatives, in the eyes of the consumers of news and information. This includes personal smear campaigns against journalists, among other strategies.

Keep your eyes on the people clearly engaged in achieving this objective, and not far away you would more likely than not find a “new” or emerging outlet offering the “real” news, presumably unfiltered by political or corporate interests. If you barely scratch the surface of these “alternative” sources of opinion, news and analysis you recognise the raw backbone of campaigns conceived to prop up the agendas of sectional interests.

These activities also ride on the backs of legitimate programmes to widen access to public information, protect informal and unauthorised sources of such information and provide platforms for the expression of people and interests otherwise marginalised by traditionally skewed, oligarchic mass media environments.

Exponents employ the techniques of traditional news coverage to offer deliberately misleading information by integrating opinion with fact and verifiable data with false statistics.

Investments in such operations span a variety of business models though, more often than not, they tend to be lacking in easily recognisable operational viability and must be sustained by non-core sources of revenue. Ask then the question. Who is paying for this?

For the consumer, there are some other simple, basic questions to ask. Who are the proprietors of the enterprises offering not only “alternative” perspectives but “alternative” facts and information?

In most instances, nowadays, we are speaking of shady online operations. Traditional “mainstream” media don’t usually have such a challenge. Some are publicly-listed and have boards of directors whose members are well-known to everyone. In other instances, there are private companies whose owners are known and whose business records are, by statute, capable of being assessed.

Legacy media operations also have editorial hierarchies, small and large, and liabilities for professional and other misconduct are clearly established. There are teams of journalists who are known to everyone and routinely operate under guidelines that have implications for their continued employment.

Newer, credible online-only operations offer a similarly transparent corporate profile and we usually have a clear idea of ownership and professional responsibility.

The “fake news” strategists are also usually easily found behind the dissemination of salacious content to bolster other assertions. In Jamaica, where I am currently, some of the content being circulated via WhatsApp, Facebook and other platforms about the systematic harvesting of human organs for international trade is known to be the same material being distributed among T&T audiences.

The ensuing heightening of public concern about this new form of criminal behaviour fits easily into the frame of politically-motivated actions to establish the failure of politicians in power to conquer the undeniable plague of criminal violence.

Human trafficking as an area of legitimate and serious regional concern is also gaining prominence as a similar source of material for the strategists involved in the “fake news” business.

In Jamaica, where some of the features of cyber-crime legislation being considered in T&T are already in place, the difficulty with policing such provisions has come to the fore well ahead of justifiable concerns about their constitutionality. It is my view, by the way, that imposing laws that criminalise an expanded variety of public expression, in this case online content, is a blatant contravention of the guarantee of free expression.

Additionally, only last weekend, Jamaican police spokesperson, Supt Stephanie Lindsay, bemoaned the fact that having a law against online information leading to “annoyance, distress or anxiety” was “overwhelming the police services” by causing a diversion of resources that can be otherwise employed.

The “fake news” phenomenon, fuelled by voyeuristic online audiences and functional media illiteracy is of understandable concern to legislators but their official interventions should not be solely a response to the political damage such material is capable of inflicting.

This situation should instead provide the impetus behind more stringent application of existing civil and criminal law, the validating and strengthening of legitimate new and old media operations and a concerted programme to promote higher levels of media literacy.

At a workshop I attended on the subject in Jakarta last year there was insertion of concern that media literacy could not be reasonably advocated in an environment in which “old-fashioned” illiteracy prevailed. But media literacy is a huge part of the solution to the bigger issues.

For the moment, discerning consumers of public news and information can begin by asking the questions I have proposed in order to determine the bona fides of their sources on information.

Enemies of the free press are not all proponents of the new “alternative” forms but are wont to favour the demise of legacy media, in the process affirming their complicity in undermining one of the more important pillars of the democratic process.

All of this places an additional onus on trusted sources of news to try to always get it right and to set higher standards for professional performance. This is not always easy to achieve but its pursuit is vitally important, especially under current circumstances.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Facing 2017

January 1 - Today, we reflect on a year that presented to the media some of the sternest challenges of the modern era. It was a period during which, internationally, the forces against press freedom gained oppressive and, occasionally murderous ground.

At the regional level, though we escaped the worst effects of growing violence and grievous attack, a combination of internal and exogenous factors led to serious challenges to the flourishing of independent, professional journalism and media practice generally.

In response, we have seemingly failed to convince all stakeholders that the best route to development through information and enlightened action is the viability of an industry founded on a commitment to fair, balanced and professional journalistic performance.

This, to me, represents the most critical challenge to the formal media industry, and associated structures for professional practice based on longstanding principles and instruction. The ensuing conundrum offers up a variety of emerging options that have contributed, more than anything else, to the discussion on post-truth output and the dominance of opinion and propaganda over fact.

It remains our belief that journalism presents to our societies the best available opportunity to capture the truth of our Caribbean existence and that by strengthening the media’s institutional structures and enhancing its stock of professional resources, the region will be better equipped to engage the critical development questions.

This in no way devalues the impact of other, informal sources of information flows, but represents the consolidation of an indispensable pillar of civil society. There is no reason why these two streams cannot reside alongside each other and to intersect, whatever their essential differences in purpose, structure and eventual aspiration.

Media owners and managers need at this time to create better conditions for the continued growth of professionalism. Representative media and media worker organisations also need to pursue more enlightened paths to development. There is, as well, the imperative of personal, professional development.

Issues related to the advent of cyber-crime legislation and other related laws will continue to engage our close attention and a network of hemispheric and international support has already been activated to provide critical legal and other assistance. There also continue to be concerns related to recent broadcasting legislation.

In 2016, the ACM attempted to play its part through efforts involving our national affiliates and collaborators and our international partners. This occurred at the level of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), a seat on whose Steering Committee we currently occupy, and through the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) on whose Councils we sit both at the international and wider regional levels. We were also elected to serve on the inaugural executive board of the recently established African, Caribbean and Pacific Press Clubs Federation (ACP-PCF).

We have also collaborated with the United Nations system, through the Caribbean Broadcasting Union and UNICEF and with UNESCO to execute two important projects to first develop and launch a guide to coverage of Children and their issues in the Caribbean and also to continue our work on building a regional framework for Media Self-Regulation.

Among our ongoing concerns are the shortcomings of national representative organisations in the 10 countries represented by the ACM, in addition to our national Focal Points. For 2017, our priority list must pay greater attention to the building of a more supportive institutional infrastructure, both as a regional organisation and as individual national associations, to achieve greater viability on the ground.

(Excerpt from my statement as President of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers)