The Indiscreet Charm of Jamaican Media-cracy

Jamaican media trips over itself in its haste to curtail freedom of speech


Clovis Toon
Clovis, Jamaica Observer, July 27, 2013


In the last six months I’ve virtually stopped buying the newspapers completely, even the Sunday papers which was all I had been buying for some years now. Last Sunday I decided to buy the papers just to see if any of our esteemed columnists had mentioned the gruesome mob killing of Dwayne Jones which had occurred less than a week before.

Alas not a single one had commented on it nor did I find anything else pertaining to the cross dresser’s murder in any of the numerous sections which piled up on the floor as I went through them.

I did read something that gave me pause on the Gleaner’s editorial page. The editorial addressed Milton Samuda’s extremely strange behaviour in the wake of a press conference involving Olympians Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson, and the recent controversy the two were embroiled in. Samuda, a lawyer, is the lead attorney for the two athletes whose ‘A samples’ had tested positive for banned substances.

In what has proven to be a clear case of wearing one hat too many, Mr. Samuda (also the chairman of Television Jamaica (TVJ) and board member of its parent company RJR—virtually the only journalists allowed at the press conference were from these two entities), first demanded that journalists stick to a pre-approved list of questions and when they departed from this, used his managerial clout to demand that the reporters surrender their recording devices to him. Perhaps cowed by his powerful position the journalists meekly handed over their devices. The next day the recordings were returned with the offending questions and answers edited out.

As the Gleaner editorial correctly pointed out “Mr. Samuda’s role as defence lawyer and a custodian of the media collided violently in this case.” He had flouted one of the fundamental rules of journalism–freedom of speech. The journalists concerned were also taken to task for spinelessly submitting to Samuda’s imperious demands.

I then moved on to the bottom two thirds of the editorial page which is devoted to a segment called Public Affairs. ‘Ineptocracy Squared’ blared the headline to an article by Gordon Robinson, who normally writes a regular column in the Gleaner’s In Focus section. The opening of the article informed me that this was a thing of the past.

“People ask me why I no longer write for The Gleaner,” began Robinson, going on to explain the convoluted circumstances which led to his resignation as a Gleaner columnist:

Here’s how it happened. In a column headlined ‘Ineptocracy at the Racetrack’ published May 14, 2013, I took Andrew Azar to task for his silly and baseless comments made before a meeting intended, in my opinion, for Caymanas Track Limited’s (CTL) CEO and “stakeholders” to discuss and explain the board’s previously announced intention to cut purses.

… To my surprise, Andrew, absent when the board’s decision was announced, attended that meeting with “stakeholders” and made inflammatory statements, which could only have the effect of undermining the very board of which he was a member. In that context, as a result of that unexpected input, the meeting (and its purpose) was “crashed”. I pointed out why his public utterances were, in my opinion, inappropriate, inaccurate, reckless and improper. I tried to educate Andrew Azar on how to “separate his personal role from his role as CTL director”. I reminded that no company director is appointed to “serve” any interest but that of the company, and cited Section 174 of the Companies Act as authority for that trite law.

Well, to paraphrase the great Paul Keens-Douglas, who tell me say so? The Gleaner (not me) got a letter from a lawyer. Instead of finding the nearest trash receptacle, most serious newspapers’ preferred place to file lawyers’ letters, it took the letter seriously.

Without going into the ins and outs of this complicated case let me just say I found the irony of the situation quite funny. In the wake of Robinson’s criticisms Azar’s lawyers issued the Gleaner with a defamation claim. According to Robinson the Gleaner rushed to publish an apology  without so much as pausing to find out if there was any merit to the claim:

Nobody asked Mr Jobson [Azar’s lawyer] to specify which of my words were defamatory and what defamatory meanings were alleged. Nobody asked to see the alleged invitation. Nobody reminded Mr Franz Jobson that an opinion (that Azar, a public official politically appointed to a government-owned company, “crashed the meeting”) honestly held, based on uncontested published material wasn’t actionable no matter how stubbornly the columnist stuck to the opinion in the face of competing assertions. It never occurred to The Gleaner that it wasn’t in any way demeaning to Azar to allege that he “crashed” a meeting that, as board member, he was absolutely entitled to “crash”.

In a rush, like Beenie Man, The Gleaner‘s editor offered Azar an “apology”. For what? For quoting him accurately? For making a fair and unassailable critique of the nonsense he spouted? The Gleaner‘s editor published an “apology” that asserted the newspaper was “satisfied” Azar was invited to the meeting. Well, whoop-de-doo! Again, so what?

How on earth had Gordon managed to get the Gleaner to carry this Jeremiad detailing their own fecklessness right under an editorial in which they were chiding the board member of a rival entity, RJR’s Milton Samuda, for abusing his powers? The answer came towards the end of the article.

The Gleaner‘s unnecessary apology damaged my own reputation as a senior counsel and one of Jamaica’s foremost horse-racing experts,” said Robinson who no doubt slapped the newspaper with a defamation claim of his own. And trust me there is nothing that frightens a Jamaican media entity more than the threat of a libel or defamation suit. Merely mention the word ‘libel’ and the editors will be reduced to shivering, quivering wrecks willing to toss freedom of speech out the window along with the baby and its bathwater.

What can one do but laugh at this absurd state of affairs? The Gleaner takes to task the journalists who bowed to Samuda’s edict that they hand over their recordings but when it’s faced with a similar situation jumps with alacrity to offer an apology when none is required. Ay Sah! All I can do is shake my head at the farce that passes for journalism in this country and for the long-suffering, stellar journos who are stuck in this mess.

‘Guns, Ganja and Games’ anyone?

Dear Annie Paul,

Anne Walmsley, Nick Gillard and Bill Schwarz all recommended that I contact you.

Faber & Faber have commissioned me to write a book (non-fiction) on Jamaica, which will be a hybrid of history and travel. I am interested in Small Axe, and wonder if we could meet? Do you perhaps have a contact telephone number?

I shall be arriving in Kingston this Monday 4 July for an initial period of two months to research my book.

My last book was a biography of the Italian writer Primo Levi (Picador USA, Vintage UK), but I have written extensively on Haiti, so I’m not entirely new to the West Indies. Indeed I visited Jamaica last October for the first time.

When you have a moment, please do get in touch.

With all good wishes,

Ian Thomson

I received this email from Ian Thomson in 2005. The hybrid book of history and travel he was arriving to research has just been published with the provocative title The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica. Four years is a good turnaround for a book like this. Anyone who thinks that they can write a book today, publish it tomorrow and retire on the profits the day after that doesn’t understand the world of publishing. The journey from manuscript to print alone can last almost two years.

If that doesn’t deter the starry-eyed would be writers who publish their effusions in the Sunday papers then perhaps this will. One of the things that struck me about Thomson when I finally met him was his obsession with thrift and economy. He never took a taxi if he could get a bus or walk, and he rarely paid for meals or drinks with his informants. If he had made much money from his earlier books there was no sign of it. And if Faber had allocated him an expense account it was an extremely parsimonious one.

In a country such as Jamaica where walk-foot whites are a rarity Thomson stood out like a sore thumb. I saw quite a bit of him on that first visit he made to Kingston. He had a quirky sense of humour and an analytical eye and of course like all writers he came formatted with his own subjective prejudices and preconceptions. Apparently back in England he had close friends who were first-generation immigrants from Jamaica to the UK and his view of things Jamaican was necessarily coloured by what he had been told by them.

Photo: Peter Dean Rickards

So I’ve been waiting a long time for Ian’s book and my appetite has been further whetted by his punchy, devastating article in the UK Independent last week: “Sun, sand and savagery: Whatever happened to Jamaica, paradise island?” Illustrated with a provocative photograph by Peter Dean Rickards titled ‘Guns, Ganja and Games’ the article has predictably roused the ire of Jamaicans here and abroad (stirring up controversy to promote book sales is a well-known publishing gimmick) although some of what he says is indubitably true and warrants comment:

“Jamaica is now a quasi-American outpost in the Caribbean, yet its legal system is clogged with British Empire-era red tape. The island’s anti-sodomy laws, which carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years, derive from the English Act of 1861, and show to what a dismal extent Jamaica has absorbed values from its imperial masters. Similarly, the death penalty is still on the Jamaican statute books, though most capital punishments are overturned in London by the Privy Council, Jamaica’s Court of Final Appeal. Thus an ancient British institution comprised of mostly white Law Lords has become the unlikely defender of human rights in Jamaica. A majority of Jamaicans – not just conservative, pro-monarchy ones – see hanging as the only effective deterrent against criminality: murderers must face death. Yet the British Law Lords, through the grace of Queen Elizabeth II, use their power to prevent executions. Such paradoxes are part of the Jamaican confusion: Victorian standards that have long disappeared in Britain linger on in Jamaica – to Jamaica’s detriment.”

More on The Dead Yard after I’ve read it. I’ve asked someone arriving from the UK next week to procure me a copy as it may not be available locally for some time to come. Rumours have been swirling about the book being banned locally, censorship and other worse outcomes. As a friend from Trinidad wrote: BTW have you heard that Faber can’t get any bookseller in JA to stock The Dead Yard?

So being the upstanding member of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica that i am i went straight to the source for more information on these rumours. Suzzanne Lee of Novelty Trading Co. the primary importers and distributors of books and magazines in the island was quick to dispel the speculation:

Dear Annie,

To my knowledge, there is NO local ban on Ian Thompson’s “Dead Yard” or any other book in Jamaica for that matter. The Novelty Trading Company does not believe in censorship and has always stood for freedom of the press.

Novelty Trading was asked to invest in a few thousand copies of this book. Due to the significant financial exposure that would be required and given the vast number of persons mentioned and quoted, we requested permission from the publishers to check sources. The first two sources checked said the book had factual inaccuracies. We then forwarded the book to our Company Lawyer who read it and advised that “portions may be legally actionable”. Due to the above, Novelty declined the publisher’s offer to distribute this title. We made the decision that there are no profits worth more than the reputation of our company. This was purely a business decision.

I am not aware of how exactly Jamaica’s libel laws differ from those in the US and UK, but we have recently encountered another case of a memoir which we attempted to purchase and which the publisher refused to sell to Jamaica due to our libel laws.

I hope this email clarifies any rumours you have heard about “Dead Yard” and Novelty Trading.

All best,


More as i said when i’ve read the book. Meanwhile all roads lead to Treasure Beach next week where the next instalment of Calabash Literary Festival will unfold with the usual stellar cast of writers including Robert Pinsky, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Xu Xi, Pico Iyer, Melvin Van Peebles, Terese Svoboda and Patrick French. Calabash ho everyone!

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