Who’s paying the watchdog?

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DPP Paula Llewellyn arguing for regulation of media in Jamaica at PAJ forum “Who’s watching the watchdog? Media regulation in Jamaica and elsewhere”

Gleaner column, Dec 20, 2017

Some weeks ago the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) held a public forum on whether there was a need for a Press Council in Jamaica to oversee or deal with complaints against journalists and media entities. Titled “Who’s watching the watchdog? Media regulation in Jamaica and elsewhere” participants in the panel discussion included Janet Steele, a George Washington University journalism professor and writer based in Washington, D.C. and Jakarta; Dionne Jackson-Miller, broadcast journalist and President of the PAJ; Claire Grant, Vice Chairman of the Media Association of Jamaica and General Manager of TV Jamaica; and Robert Nesta Morgan, Director of Communication in the Office of the Prime Minister. The discussion was ably moderated by Archibald Keane Gordon.

Dionne Jackson-Miller who went first was decidedly against government regulation, believing that it might be used to muzzle the media rather than allow it to perform its function as one of the guardians of free speech and democracy. She like many others in media here preferred self-regulation by media entities. Steele who followed her, said that in the US they tended to do without press councils. Her opening lines had the audience cracking up when she thanked the US Embassy for inviting her but said that she wanted to make it clear she was not representing the American Government, merely expressing her own views. “Hopefully I won’t embarrass the US Government…but at this point that would be hard to do, wouldn’t it?” said Steele, as the room dissolved in laughter.

Steele went on to say that she was glad to be in a room full of journalists who were universally agreed that they should regulate themselves. How best to do this was the question. Could it be left to a journalistic code of ethics? What happens if a person feels they’ve been insulted, defamed or libeled by a media house? Whereas in the US they had dispensed with press councils, Steele had been part of setting one up in Indonesia which worked very well in dealing with such complaints.

Consisting of three members of the press, three members representing media owners and three members elected by the public from people knowledgeable about the field the Indonesian Press Council has been extraordinarily successful in mediating disputes and holding the media accountable, said Steele. It also has a public education function, educating the public on the advantages of a free and fair media.

Claire Grant who followed Steele, mentioned her transition from print journalist to marketing and sales and then to media management. She then presented some interesting statistics. Jamaica can pat itself on the back for ranking 8th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index though at the same time it ranks 83rd  of 176 countries in the World Corruption Perception Index. Norway which tops the press freedom index has a corruption perception index of 6 while Nigeria which ranked 122nd in press freedom ranked 136 in corruption perception.

Unlike Jamaica all the other countries ranked in the top 10 in press freedom rank very low in the corruption perception index. Singapore like Jamaica is an anomaly,  ranking very low in press freedom—151, but high in the corruption perception index—7. This made me wonder…was Jamaica’s poor ranking in corruption perception an indication that the Press in Jamaica is NOT using the freedom at its disposal to perform its watchdog function adequately?

This led to a brief discussion of the relative lack of investigative journalism in Jamaica with Dionne-Jackson Miller asserting that she would not be sending inexperienced rookies out to investigate risky or dangerous issues that required the attention of seasoned journalists who knew what they were doing and could protect themselves adequately. Jackson-Miller flagged the low salaries paid to journalists as a problem, ensuring that only relatively junior members of the profession could afford to work in Jamaican media houses for any length of time.

This means there is a dearth of senior journalists with the kind of backative and cojones needed to survive the perils of investigating high-level corruption.

The issue of insufficient remuneration was also brought up by international human rights attorney Jody Ann Quarrie who expressed concern that low salaries in conjunction with corruption would lead down a predictable path leaving poorly paid journalists vulnerable to blandishments by criminals and corrupt individuals and entities thus allowing ‘unsavoury practices’ to flourish rather than be curtailed.

To my mind this is a much more serious matter than the question of a press council. If our media houses are not willing to pay competitive industry salaries to ensure the highest quality of journalism why brag about ranking high on the press freedom index? Is Jamaican media’s bark worse than its bite? And what does this mean for democracy?

What price press freedom?

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When you were a child and got punished for doing something bad did you ever wish for a world in which wrong was right and right was wrong? Because then, you resentfully imagined, you might not find yourself the target of a beating or scolding so often? Well, I’m beginning to think that I may be living in such a world after all.

There are several reasons for thinking this. The arithmetic of crime and punishment in Jamaica for one. Take the fact that Former Commissioner of Customs Danville Walker was found guilty of breaching the Contractor General Act for which the maximum fine was only J$5,000 (approx US$35) or 14 days in prison.

Let’s add to that the fact that reputed gang leader Tesha Miller was recently fined the maximum penalty of J$100 (under US$1) after pleading guilty to one of two counts of making a false declaration to Jamaican immigration officials. In effect Miller was found guilty of entering Jamaica under a false name. In what I can only assume was sarcasm at the paltry sum involved Parish Judge Sancia Burrell in the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court imposed the fine accompanied by the following statement:
“I hope you are prepared to satisfy the maximum fine and I hope you are able to call a relative or family member to help you if you can’t manage it”.

In contrast section 9C of The Town and Communities Act specifies that “any person who shall make on any fence, wall or other building, any obscene figure, drawing, painting, or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or write or draw any indecent or obscene word, figure, or representation, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language publicly can be subject to a fine not exceeding $1,500 or to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding thirty days.”

Well, clearly using “indecent or obscene language” publicly is 15 times worse than pretending to be somebody else, in essence trying to mislead immigration officials, in Jamaica. And it’s twice as bad as breaching the Contractor General Act, to calculate by the dividend of the maximum number of days one can be sentenced to prison for. Keep in mind that the Act in question is designed to curb corruption in public office, one of the scourges of the developing world. Clearly this crime is viewed with mild disapproval and no more in Jamaica.

The boom shot however is the new Cybercrimes Act under which human rights activist Latoya Nugent was arrested and charged for allegedly publishing information on social media accusing several persons of being sexual predators. According to a report in one newspaper, “Under Section 9 (1) of the Cybercrimes Act, which speaks to the use of a computer for malicious communication, in the case of a first offence, Nugent faces a maximum fine of J$4 million or imprisonment of up to four years, or both, if convicted.”

Blow wow, well blow me down with a feather. Do the math and tell me what you think the Jamaican justice system is telling us about which crimes it considers serious and which ones to rap us on the knuckles for. Tell me why we’re not to conclude that the Jamaican state feels much more threatened by a freedom of speech violation than nefarious crimes such as sidestepping the laws of the nation or brazenly lying to officials about one’s identity.

Senior Trinidad and Tobago journalist Wesley Gibbings says that freedom of expression and freedom of the press are really hard sells in the Caribbean, that deep down Caribbean societies don’t believe in these freedoms. Apart from “financially induced self-censorship” new cyber legislation is a threat, according to Gibbings, who was speaking at a forum on press freedom at Bocas Lit Fest in Port of Spain, because any statement viewed as having embarrassed someone can be considered libelous and subject to punitive fines. Cyber legislation is being invoked under criminal law so that you can be arrested and jailed for being insulting, ‘unpatriotic’ and other such vague and loosely defined terms.

While May 3 is celebrated as World Press Freedom Day there are different metrics of press freedom, according to Gibbings some of which may not be relevant to the Caribbean. Reporters without Borders compiles an index in which Jamaica ranks 8th out of 180 and Trinidad 34th. Despite this says Gibbons “in the Caribbean journalists are not being killed, but many stories die,” though in most places stories die because journalists are killed. But in the Caribbean, according to Gibbings stories die without journalists being killed, silenced by threats to their jobs and self-censorship so the metrics need to be compiled in a much more nuanced way.

The other problem Gibbings feels is that there is little real interest in investigative journalism. “…whether you look at civil society and their representative organizations, journalists themselves, the corporate sector, the state—none of them really want it because a lot of them really wouldn’t last too long in their positions if you had proper investigative journalism.”

This is a chilling realization borne out by the calculus of crime and punishment detailed at the beginning of this column. What it makes clear is that too many sectors of society have a serious interest in maintaining a corrupt status quo, and will use the legal system to suppress those who would expose the wrongdoing while giving a bligh to the wrongdoers.

 

 

Trinidad Journalism in crisis?

What the hell has happened to press freedom in Trinidad and Tobago?

The news broke yesterday. Trinidad Guardian Editor-in-Chief Judy Raymond had reportedly walked off the job, followed by Sheila Rampersad and several other conscientious journalists in an atmosphere rife with allegations of political interference. Then today both the governemnt and the Guardian refuted the charge of political interference. As Patricia Worrell@bytesdog succinctly put it “This Guardian story have more twists and turns than Lady Chancellor or the road from Maracas.”

Raymond’s laconic Twitter account @HeyJudeTT doesn’t yield much at first glance. Her last three tweets are suitably cryptic but the Orwell quote is telling:

heyjudeTT
Judy Raymond@heyjudeTT
A luta continua
7 hours ago

heyjudeTT
Judy Raymond@heyjudeTT
“Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want printed. Everything else is public relations” – George Orwell
a day ago

heyjudeTT
Judy Raymond@heyjudeTT
fun times in the newsroom
3 days ago

Here’s another blog’s take on the situation:

Trinidad Guardian editor-in-chief Judy Raymond did not even realise she was holding a political seat!

Raymond was hired last year to help the Guardian bottom-line: Increase sales. However, Mr Live Wire understands she ran afoul of the company’s motto: Stay close to the Government.

Photo: Ansa McAll chairman Anthony Norman Sabga. Editorial policy is whatever he writes down on a sheet of paper.

Photo: Ansa McAll chairman Anthony Norman Sabga.
Editorial policy is whatever he writes down on a sheet of paper.

In a politically aware country, although not necessarily a politically intelligent one, Raymond’s Guardian won nationwide acclaim for a string of exclusives including the stunning Section 34 scandal.

It turns out that Government officials felt Raymond and her nosey crew should spend more time on hard-hitting stories like the intrusion of Keith Rowley’s back door at Balisier House or MP Donna Cox’s alleged slap across the face of a PNM rival, presumably during recess.

For more click here.

How will this situation be resolved? The region watches and waits with bated breath.