Sunday, 4 November 2018

A Free Press and Natural Disasters

Over the years, people in the media development field have been paying increasing attention to industry performance and sustainability at times of natural disaster. It had previously been the case that strategies for media durability would focus almost exclusively on the tendency of dictatorial governments and criminal elements to attempt to silence the free press through subterfuge, threats, death and injury.

Journalists were (and still are) silenced by physical attacks, bribery, media regulation, and social environments conducive to self-censorship. Media houses are also deliberately starved of important resources in order to cripple their operations. There are advertising boycotts and targeted official attacks of different kinds, and today there is an attempt to undermine the credibility of mainstream media through concerted campaigns to which the label “fake news” is being gratuitously attached.

Through it all, we had somehow continued to ignore the fact that among the most effective ways a media enterprise can be wiped out, and therefore terminally silenced, is through a natural disaster of one kind or another.

In 2005 at the inaugural conference of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) in Jordan, the two Caribbean representatives there put the issue on the table: press freedom can also fall prey to disasters and the responses to disasters.

It was only one year after Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne – both of which had badly affected Hispaniola (Haiti in particular); while Grenada was virtually decimated by Ivan. In all instances, the media had been severely disabled.

I was one of the two delegates in Jordan. The other was Jean-Claude Louis of the Panos operation in Haiti. Five years later, it was Haiti’s turn, following the deadly earthquake there.

At the Jordan conference, I was elected to the GFMD Steering Committee and thereafter continued pressing the point. When Irma and Maria devastated Dominica and other islands last year, it was therefore not a hard-sell to propose assistance for affected journalists, via the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM). The Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU) admirably focused on damaged media plant and equipment.

Then came last week’s floods in T&T and media performance that silenced the “fake news” purveyors and outright enemies of the free press. Employing the same social media platforms so often engaged to undermine them, our cadre of young, tireless reporters swamped the landscape with first-hand, verified reporting. The Guardian Media team excelled at this, as did some colleagues from other media. This was exemplary media practice.

It was, among other things, reminiscent of Irma and Maria when social media mischief-makers all appeared to remain silenced and under their beds while journalists and other media workers were out on the field diligently doing their work.

Of course, last week, some of the regular suspects found time from the sanctity of their homes or caves or nests to attempt to divert the news agenda in the direction of mischief and falsehood. In the midst of a disaster this is unpardonable, to say the very least. But to the credit of media media audiences these pathetic characters were largely ignored.

Last March, the ACM assembled journalists from around the Caribbean and sat them down alongside climate change specialists, development experts, and public agencies responsible for regional disaster management and relief to discuss two main issues.

The first had to do with the resilience of media enterprises to withstand the effects of different kinds of disasters, and the second was to determine the requirements of sound journalistic practice under such conditions.

Out of that exercise, we produced a small document – a “pamphlet”, I have been calling it - which is now also available in Spanish.

But we still need to get our act together as media and as a society. For example, the ODPM needs to sit with the Telecommunications Authority as a matter of great urgency to discuss the need for an Emergency Alert System, and other requirements of this country’s National Emergency Communications Plan. Minister Stuart Young needs to find the time to ensure this is done.

This Plan must urgently become practised strategy. The local media have already announced partnership status and their journalists proven their worth.

*Originally published in the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian - October 31, 2018

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