Caribbean Broadcasting Union Annual General Assembly,
August 18, 2015
Digital Journalism and Media Freedom in the Caribbean
By Peter Richards
Digital Journalism and Media Freedom in the Caribbean
Press freedom goes hand in hand with democracy. As countries in the Caribbean seek a more democratic structure, the concept of press freedom is often assumed, perhaps because international instruments with freedom of expression provisions were established as early as 1948 when the United Nations included Article 19, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in its Charter (UN, 1968).
But we have also noticed that what is happening, is that depending on how the media are positioned within the state and society, media can function either as a tool for development and therefore are subject to restrictions by the state, or the media can function within the market place with the ability to freely express themselves and risk that that market may bring. Either way, press freedom is a variable.
The “Public Interest”, a so-called philosophy dubiety, but which many establishment figures turn to, with some desperation, in their hours of need, has served to further broaden the debate on the question of accessibility, media responsibility and even legislation governing the operations of the media.
Justification for the promotion of a free press usually relies more or less implicitly on the notion that as an institution, it fulfils two functions: that it provides a forum for ideas and a source of accurate information on which the public can base wise political judgements.
The contention here is that much that is vital to enlightened judgment about government is not in due course revealed by the press because of a number of legal and other constraints. These may include but are not restricted to organisational and the subjective perceptions of events by journalists.
That there have been major changes within the media landscape in the Caribbean are due to a number of reasons, foremost among them being the globalisation of the communications and information technology sectors.
On October 4, 1993, the Financial Times of London carried an article announcing to the world that Bell Atlantic was buying up a Cable Television company for an estimated 22 billion US dollars. The article noted that “the deal would be the first full merger between a US telephone company and a cable business while the two industries are converging to create a simple multi-media, interactive entertainment and information business”.
Journalist Martin Dickson writing in the same newspaper about the sale added “if it survives regulatory scrutiny, the deal will be the most far-reaching in a series of link-ups between US cable television and telephone companies since the start of the year”. He predicted that over the next few years, households will be able to call up on a television set a vast array of information and entertainment together with video calls.
I have purposely used the Bell Atlantic –Cable Television merger to emphasis the developments in the industry since 1993. We are all aware, as they say when America sneezes, we catch the cold down in the Caribbean.
The aim of this paper is to explore media operations in the context of technological developments that may, or may not be always conducive to the work of the free press. I will also seek to invoke the perspective of media workers and journalists as a peculiar professional function separate and somewhat distinct from the interest of media owners and managers.
MARKETS AND CHANGES
Within individual Caribbean countries, new media entities have been created and at the same time, there have been a number of mergers and acquisition. The latest occurred this month when Radio Jamaica Limited (RJR) and The Gleaner Company Limited (Gleaner) announced an agreement merging their operations through a court approved scheme of amalgamation that will be a stock for stock deal.
It is interesting to note that the chairman of the Gleaner Company, Oliver Clarke, said that his company’s decision to merge with Radio Jamaica Limited is to ensure the independence of the media. He said and I Quote” You cannot provide independent news unless you are viable. You can’t be independent with what your news coverage is, unless you are economically viable, and what Jamaica faces is that there are a number of foreign companies coming in and putting up programmes that solicit advertising, and you have a lot of businesses that aren’t making their way. And what, certainly, the Gleaner is interested in is trying to create an organisation that is viable and can last and is Jamaican” .
Unlike the past when these changes or mergers were confined to the so called bigger countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), mergers and acquisitions now involve the smaller Caribbean islands, as we have seen in the cases of islands like Grenada and St. Lucia.
The truth as most of us know is that information technology has transformed the role of information in contemporary societies. Information has now become an essential socio-economic resource and an integral part of the global economy. If we don’t already know, we may abruptly discover wealth or poverty is determined by access to or the possession of information in a world where technological change has become, as Alvin Toffler, vividly pointed out in his book, “Future Shock,” a fast breaking story.
The Information Revolution is also transforming the nature of competition. No company can escape its effects. Dramatic reductions in the cost of obtaining, processing and transmitting information are changing the way we do business. Most of you here, know that the revolution, although it started many decades ago, is still being fought as though it was just yesterday. In fact, most of you spend much of your time and I dare say investment capital on information technology.
You have no choice. The simple reason being, mass media are, today, technology-based industries. They depend on machines to make them work – the printing press, broadcasting transmitters, cameras, projectors, radio, television and more. Increasingly, they depend on high-tech equipment, especially computers and given the technological changes taking place at an ever-increasing rate, mass media technologies have changed to the point that they are also affecting content and audiences.
I am certain we could all remember when the ISDN technology (B-broadband band etc) came on the scene and it was ridiculed as Innovation that Subscribers Did Not Need. Today digital technology plays a significant role in our way of life. Reporters no longer trudge along heavy equipment. In most cases all we need is the “SMART Phone”..
Not only are we able to speak to our contacts for information, but we could video, take photographs and send them across the world as a packaged news item even before I am able to finish this paragraph of my presentation. Just a few days ago, I came to realise how far the technology had developed.
You know, I am not one of those people, who would change equipment for the sake of being with the crowd..So I have always relied on my faithful, Blackberry Z 30 to give me still pictures of the highest quality as well as video.
Last month, while working out of Barbados, we had to evacuate the CMC building because of a gas scare. So as usual, I was using my faithful Blackberry to take out pictures of people coming out of buildings etc etc, hoping to use one or two of them to accompany the story that had to be written later. But lo and behold, when I was about to transfer the picture to the CMC website, I was asked, whether or not I wanted to save the video package that had been created.
Remember I said I am, for want of a better word, country boy, when it comes to the technology. I know I had not created any package with the pictures, but I became fascinated as to what really happened there. So I said yes and proceeded to watch a well digitally edited piece of the events captured by my camera roll before my eyes in video form. Needless to say, if you were a subscriber to my Facebook page, you would have been praising me, not only on my editing skills, but also my ability to capture the scene so perfectly. The video was also used in the CMC nightly newscast, Caribbean Newsline.
So even without me having to do much, I became a person, whose skills on the camera could match the likes of many of my established videographer colleagues, some of whom you see here. If this could have happened to me with my Blackberry smart that a World Bank employee in June dubbed a “relic” could you imagine the John and Jane Doe’s out there with much more sophisticated smart phones that what I possess.
The scene was repeated last month in Trinidad where three prisoners staged a daring jail break, killing a police officer in the process. I watched both CMC and CNN television broadcast rely on smart phone technology – video and photos – that had been captured by ordinary folks and relayed to a global audience.
Initially, companies used information technology mainly for accounting and record keeping functions. But the information revolution is creating interrelationships among industries that were previously separate. The merging of the computer and telecommunications is only one, but an important example. As I have stated before, the new phone technology allows for people to at their fingertips, perfectly produced digital video and photographs and with voice over internet protocol (VIOP), you now have the so-called perfect citizen journalist, some of whom have absolutely no care in the world, but to put their story out to us, the global audience.
How many of us also now sit and e-mail press releases directly into the computer system of the various media houses, rather than the old process of faxing or even delivering by hand.
Rosental Calmon Alves, the Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in Texas, notes that few periods in human history have been quite as revolutionary for information and knowledge as the current one.
He argues that the internet has broken through as a grand transformative force, creating a new environment that marks the transition from an industrial society to a digital or knowledge-based society.
During this transition, the mass media, which came into prominence when information was scarce, has lost its power and control to networks of individuals.
Alves says the vertical and unidirectional communication model (we talk, you listen), a legacy of the old “media-centric” world, is being replaced by a horizontal and multidirectional model, in which people are just as much producers as they are consumers of content, as much broadcasters as receivers. It is the rupture of the mass communication paradigm that dominated the industrial era.
In this new “me-centric” world, the mass media are being replaced by a mass of media, in which traditional media outlets are only one of many others. This is a clear disintermediation process: people don’t need a journalist to be informed or for their voices to be heard. They have control: they see, listen, and say whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want.
But Alves counters by arguing that journalism is no longer monopolized by journalists and media companies. Anyone can create media. But this isn’t the end of journalism; on the contrary, it is the beginning of a new era that gives us hope for the democratization of information.
“The industrial-era media system is being replaced by a new system that is coming from the digital era. Though we don’t exactly know what this new system will be like, we know that it will be more rich and complex than its predecessor. The best metaphor for what is taking place is an environment filled with intercommunicating, interconnected lives, as in an ecosystem with incredible biodiversity (the Amazon, for example). “
Liberals have long maintained that individuals should be free to publish what they want as an extension of other rights like freedom of expression, assembly, and association. However, in the modern era, these ideals have been trampled on and denied by the political and economic reality in which the established media has found itself.
Exclusive access very much remains the norm throughout the region, even in countries with government initiatives intended to expand access to economically and geographically marginalized groups or in countries with alternative means of access like Internet cafes.
This situation highlights the role that the state can and does play in promoting Internet access for all citizens—including the middle and upper class—yet, this has still not become common policy in the region. In fact, in some countries the largest obstacle to increasing the level of Internet penetration is the state itself, mainly for economic reasons, though in some cases those reasons are ideological.
PRESS FREEDOM ISSUES
Issues of press freedom and media pluralism have assumed priority in much of the region’s agenda, with countries trying to pass ambitious reforms in order to increase media access for their citizens. At the same time, as information becomes more digital across the globe, we in the Caribbean are, like our counterparts in the rest of the world witnessing an important transformation from print to electronic media.
The United Nations, for example, notes that freedom of expression and press freedom are critical to the successful implementation of good governance and human rights around the world. In the message marking World Press Freedom Day 2015, the UN reminded the global community that both freedoms were “essential” for the shaping of a new global sustainable development agenda.
In a joint message, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Director-General of the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, observed that quality journalism “enables citizens to make informed decisions about their society’s development” while also working “to expose injustice, corruption, and the abuse of power.”
“For peace to be lasting and development to be sustainable, human rights must be respected. Everyone must be free to seek, receive and impart knowledge and information on all media, online and offline,” the UN officials affirmed in their joint statement.
World Press Freedom Day, which was established by the UN General Assembly and is celebrated annually on 3 May, is designated by UNESCO as an opportunity to celebrate worldwide the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
“Journalism must be able to thrive, in an enabling environment in which they can work independently and without undue interference and in conditions of safety,” the UN said in the 2015 message.
Professor Sir David Omand, former Permanent Secretary of the Home Office in the United Kingdom spoke of the challenges facing society in the digital age. He argued that in today’s modern democracy we are no longer subject to the rule of a King or Queen, as in the days of Magna Carta. But the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta reminds us of the duty and responsibility our government has to protect us, to secure our rights and to maintain the rule of law.
He said previous generations had to fight our enemies in world wars to keep our freedom. Today, there are new everyday risks, many of which now exist online. Increasingly, the government must focus on reducing the threat from terrorists and criminal gangs, so that we can live our lives freely. The internet and social media offer huge opportunities for economic, social and educational advancement, but only if law enforcement is allowed to police the digital space to make it safe for us to enjoy.
“If we want the advantages of the new digital world we must empower the authorities to police it on our behalf. The only way for them to do this, is to allow analysts in specialist agencies to access people’s communications online. We do this through laws that are democratically debated and passed” he argued.
Karen Anderson, IBM Industry Manager for North America, has spoken of what she described as “Digital intimacy”, a concept to express the reality that with digital capability there is “an exception growth of information about people – what they do, who they are, how they behave, where they are. She says while this opens up new commercial possibilities for media and other businesses, it poses new challenges for privacy and other social issues.
But accurately determining a country’s press freedom status within that context is going to be a difficult task. Wesley Gibbings, the general secretary of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), argues that press freedom is subject to fickle support. He notes for example, that 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.”
Gibbings further argues “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.”
His position may be due primarily to the fact that 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.
Caribbean countries are engaging in a more structured approach to media control by passing laws dealing with the transformation of the broadcast sector as a result of the rapid evolution of information and communication technologies that is fed by globalization and market forces.
In the Caribbean, there are many examples of attempts by politicians to curb the activities of the press. In some cases, the approaches have been covert, such as refusal of work permits, now replaced by the challenges to obtain a CARICOM Skills Certificate that some islands just plainly do not recognise despite the public platitude of encouraging regional integration.
There is also the denial of foreign exchange, hefty licence fees, while in other instances, they have been blatantly clear.
The Broadcast Code law in Trinidad and Tobago gives broadcasters and the public a general understanding of what factors should be taken into account when making editorial choices. But Trinidad and Tobago is not alone. The semi-functional Media Workers Association of Dominica has in the past few years alluded to the Dominica Broadcast Code, which it warns, if implemented, could create problems for independent and pluralistic media outlets on the island.
The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) has consistently condemned the Cyber Crime Bill 2014, which it says threatens to criminalise journalists, whistleblowers and members of the public who receive, gain access to or share “computer data from another person knowing that the other person has obtained the computer data through unauthorised means”.
The legislation, which provides for a five year jail term for a journalist who receives information and uses it in an article, in most cases on exposing official corruption, also contains provisions to charge journalists and their sources for electronic tip-offs. Particularly worrisome for media practitioners in Trinidad and Tobago are those aspects of the Bill that infringe on journalists’ freedom to gather and report information.
The Bill threatens to criminalise and imprison journalists who report on documents obtained from whistleblowers and to undermine the ethical obligation of journalists to protect the identities of confidential sources. MATT believes that this challenges the constitutionally enshrined rights of press freedom and the public’s right to free expression, key pillars on which our democracy stands. By the way penalties range from TT$200,000 and three years imprisonment to TT$500,000 and five years imprisonment.
A few years ago, the St. Lucia government created a stir when it introduced the infamous Clause 361 within its Criminal Code that dealt with what it considered to be the act of QUOTE “Spreading false news “UNQUOTE.
While, thankfully, the government rescinded the clause, let me inform you what it said and I quote “Every person who wilfully publishes a statement, tale or news that he or she, knows to be false, that causes or is likely to cause injury or mischief to a public interest is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years” Unquote.
I do not have to tell you the ramifications of such a measure, had it been passed, except to say that in 1964, United States Supreme Court judge William Brennan provided the opportunity for newspapers to make false statements uttered in the heat of debate, once such statements were not maliciously made.
The judge was certain that the press, faced with the possibility of huge libel damages, might well succumb to a pall of fear and timidity and tone down any criticism of public officials. The fear that the judgement would have been used by the media to recklessly destroy politicians, has not, by and large, not materialised.
Then there is the case in Barbados, where the arrest and charging of an Internet blogger with alleged “malicious communication” in relation to a Government minister, followed by a strong warning to social media users by cops, provoked a torrent of robust responses on Facebook.
Police public relations officer Acting Assistant Superintendent David Welch said that Omar Shawn Watson, 39, of Maxwell, Christ Church, had been charged with the “offence of malicious communication” based on the fact that “sometime in mid-November 2014 a message appeared on social media which was menacing in character and caused the Hon. Michael Lashley annoyance, distress and anxiety. Investigations led to the arrest of Watson.”
While the police did not offer details, there were reports circulating on social media that the alleged malicious communication related to comments posted on an alleged incident that reportedly occurred recently at a social and cultural club.
Alison Bethel McKenzie, the former executive director of the International Press Institute, notes that in a digital age marked by virtually instantaneous sharing through a breathtaking variety of cutting-edge platforms of information gathered in an array of innovative ways, citizens are increasingly demanding accurate, fair and, in particular, independent news coverage. Theirs is a quest for information. The gauntlet they have thrown down is not just to politicians who have long embraced opacity at the expense of transparency, good governance, accountability and human rights, but also to the media, which they are challenging to provide more balanced, accurate, integrity-driven and incisive reporting.
The World Broadcasting Unions (WBU) to which the Barbados-based Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU), is an affiliate, notes the responsibility of any news organization is to practise their journalism in a manner that is consistent with the laws, values, security and respect for the rights of others that are fundamental to any democratic society. This responsibility demands that the broadcasters speak out when the basic rights of freedom of speech are interfered with, either by direct actions, or through laws that restrict the free flow of information and ideas.
“It is for these reasons that the WBU will take an active role in the defense of freedom of speech and the safety and protection of those who report stories, events and opinions to their listeners, readers and viewers. Furthermore, the WBU will join with other like-minded groups in the defense of free speech and the safety of our Journalists in hostile environments. As the world becomes a global community, it nonetheless remains a world with differing cultural traditions and political structures. The WBU will work towards a better understanding of these differences under the framework of the Charter of Human Rights.”
Aylair Livingstone, Jamaican attorney in a presentation to the World Bank in February 2015 titled “ Freedom of Information in the Caribbean: 20 Years and Beyond,” noted the Caribbean has caught up with the global trend that now counts more than 100 countries with Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.
She said that over the past two decades, the majority of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states are at various stages of implementation of FOI laws and policies. Of these, eight have enacted laws (Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, St. Vincent, Antigua, Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Guyana); five have drafted bills (the Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, St. Kitts, St. Lucia) and seven have no laws at all (Montserrat, Dominica, Suriname, Haiti, Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, British Virgin Islands).
But she notes it is well documented, that a law may be a draftsman’s dream and yet is not worth the paper on which it is written.
Antigua’s law, one of the better ones, falls into that category. As recently as 2013, the Information Commissioner complained about the lack of resources for his office and too few information officers. Note that this law was enacted in 2004.
Yet despite a weak law, if the enforcement mechanism is effective, and the administration of the law is consistent, that law can still bring value to the public. The Cayman Islands’ law, while similar to Jamaica’s, provides for an Information Commissioner with strong powers, much like Antigua’s. The similarities end there however, as the Cayman Commissioner’s responsiveness to complaints and appeals has resulted in far greater public use since occupying the post in 2009.
The impact of digital technology on journalism and democracy can be measured in at least two ways. The first is quantitative, using available data on topics like Internet connectivity and cell phone penetration. A second, qualitative method is to focus on the voices of those who use and are affected by digital technology.
My friend and fellow journalist, Dr. Canute James, who is now adjunct senior lecturer at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), has described journalism as a profession in transition. He says we are witnessing the death of the straight reporter and the birth of the modern Caribbean journalist. But he warned, I dare say advised that those of us who refuse to change, or who fight the change, will be quickly made redundant.
Canute reminds us that we are being changed by factors and forces beyond our control and which have dismantled all physical and national borders to what we now as countries and which are forcing us into an increasingly borderless world.
Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, exploring the right to privacy in the UK and whether our digital rights are protected, said life nowadays bears very little resemblance to the 1950s.
He argued that perhaps the most radical change in recent times has been the emergence of the ‘digital age’, as we increasingly live our lives online. Such dramatic shifts can occasionally mean that we have to expand the definition of certain rights.
I thank you.
- Digital Rights – Digital Journalism and Media Freedom In the Caribbean -2015
- Aylair Livingstone,- Caribbean Freedom of Information – 20 years and beyond, 2015.
- Rosental Colman Alves – The Impact of Digital Technology on Journalism and Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Texas University, 2009.
- Peter Richards – The Impact of Digital Technology on Journalism and Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Texas University, 2009.
- Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago – May 16, 2015.
- Alison Bethel, executive director of theInternational Press Institute (IPI)– Trinidad Express newspaper, April 4, 2013
- UNESCO – World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development-Regional Overview of Latin America and the Caribbean, 2014.
- Lera Rhodes and Peter Richards – Threats to Press Freedom in Established Democracies – The case of Trinidad and Tobago – 1998
- Peter Richards –What have been the major changes in market structure in the manufacturing and service industry in the past 20 years, City University -2008.
- Peter Richards – Matching Corporate Communications with Mass media Needs – Dominican Republic, 2004
- Peter Richards – Accessibility, legislation and Media Responsibility, Antigua, 2002
- Wesley Gibbings –Blog – 2015