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.

True or False? Verifying internet reportage

Report on my appearance on BBC World Have Your Say, the Shirley Sherrod case

Yesterday was a busy day and there was more than one reason i was glad  i had the good sense to turn back from Reggae Sumfest and return to Kingston the day before. The following tweet should give you some idea of the first good reason:
endzoftheearth Organisers need to do something abt the mud! Stones, grAvel, cardbord boxes, plywood – something #sumfestismudfest.
Being rained on all night long in a mud lake i can do without.

The other good reason was that i got a good night’s sleep and was able to compile the first report on Reggae Sumfest Dancehall Night by anyone anywhere by 9 am on Friday morning. And the reward for that came in the number of hits i got on this new blog platform I’ve been trying so hard to get people to visit.

Shirley Sherrod

The third good reason was that i was able to accept the BBC World Have Your Say programme’s invitation to participate in their globally aired discussion on internet rights and wrongs emanating from the firing and subsequent re-hiring of American civil servant Shirley Sherrod. Sherrod had allegedly made ‘racist’ remarks in a two minute video clip that later turned out to have been edited in a way that removed the context of her 43 minute speech. Whose responsibility is it to verify the reliability of material such as this? On whom should the burden of proof fall and thereby the penalty for purveying such misinformation? Is information transmitted via social media such as YouTube or Twitter making us ‘jump the gun’ as Obama said when the White House was forced to apologize to Sherrod and offer her another job?

As Obama put it “we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles.” The word for this is ‘blogswarm’.

So does the internet make us too quick to judge? Or is there wisdom in the blogswarm? asked BBC WHYS and the discussion that followed was a rich one that i was glad to be a part of. Also participating were former journalist Nigel Morgan of Morgan PR from Redding,UK, UK Guardian columnist, American Mike Tomasky, who is also  editor of Democracy journal. Other participants included Andrew Keene, author of The Cult of the Amateur: How the Democratization of the Digital World is Assaulting Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values, blogger Lola Adesioye from the US and Owais Ehsan, student of mass media and a blogger at Pro-Pakistan, in Islamabad.

The discussion was a lively one and was further enlivened by a caller from Jamaica, Omar, who made the point that it’s not only national media or internet bloggers that are guilty of posting misinformation but also international corporations; in Jamaica’s  2007 general elections, he claimed the BBC attributed something on their website to then Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller without verifying the accuracy of their source.

It’s true that the rapidly proliferating use of social media frequently lends itself to distortions and misrepresentations. For instance in my blogpost on Reggae Sumfest yesterday in which i was relying on tweets from the location for information i think i misinterpreted a tweet about Bounty’s ‘state of urgency utterance, and presented it in a particular way because of that. I thought he was castigating the government for the prolonged State of Emergency and recommending that they have a state of urgency instead about other crucial unmet needs when it turns out that he supported the SOE and was urging the government to go further by declaring a ‘state of urgency’ “towards correcting the ills that had been meted out to the people of Jamaica by successive governments” to quote Gleaner writer Janet Silvera in her article Bounty preaches change.

Rodney ‘Bounty Killer’ Pryce displays his award at the Sumfest show at Catherine Hall in Montego Bay on Thursday, which was designated Dancehall Night. The organisers of the event gave Pryce the award for his contribution to Reggae Sumfest. – Photo by adrian frater

The point i want to make is that while social media may sometimes tend to be less than reliable, it also allows faulty information to be corrected before serious damage is done provided the source is above board,  has no ulterior motive and is willing to make the necessary changes. This surely would be the case with most bloggers, tweeters and others whose popularity depends on the quality of what they put out.

For the others, that is those who deliberately put out misinformation for propaganda purposes, and have no intention of retrieving the situation–in this case, Andrew Breitbart— a blacklist or some other form of aggressive disincentive should be developed.

Click on the following link if you want to hear the whole discussion. Does the internet mean we’re too quick to judge?