Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Regional Media Complain of Censorship
By Peter Richards, IPS, 29 December 1999
PORT OF SPAIN, Dec. 29 (IPS) - From Jamaica in the north to the tiny eastern state of Grenada, journalists from across the Caribbean are complaining of a deteriorating relationship with their respective governments.
In Grenada, two journalists recently found themselves in court to answer charges of criminal and "seditious" libel and and there have been rumblings in St. Lucia that the Kenny Anthony administration is planning to crack down on independent reporting by the media there.
But perhaps the most disturbing development has been the decision by the Jamaican government to introduce legislative measures to imprison and fine journalists for publishing information under consideration by a proposed anti-corruption commission.
Under the proposed legislation, journalists could be sent to jail for up to 10 years and fined up to 25,000 dollars for reporting information leaked from the commission.
George John, a member of the International Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, says it is critical that national media organisations in the region "act together to see that all attempts by the governments to control the media must fail".
Jamaican journalists are up in arms over the proposed restrictive legislation, and the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) condemned it as "yet another attempt by Caribbean governments to curb freedom of the press, despite their often-repeated statements to the contrary at various regional and international forums".
Recalling the campaign by the Trinidad and Tobago government since it assumed office in 1995 to bring the media under its control, MATT said the measure contained in the Corruption Prevention Bill ran contrary to the Jamaican government's public promise to improve relations between it and the media.
It recalled the announcement by the ruling People's National Party (PNP) Senator, Maxine Henry-Wilson, who spoke at a 1998 conference in Jamaica under the theme, "The Caribbean Media: Freedom and Understanding," that the government planned to enact Freedom of Information laws.
Henry-Wilson had told the regional press that it was not the intention of the government to supress information, keep government activities from the public or "shroud them in deep dark secrecy". The proposed Freedom of Information Act, she said at the time, would empower both the media and the people with the right to know.
MATT said that the measures contained in the Corruption Prevention Bill runs contrary to the views expressed by Henry-Wilson.
According to the Trinidad Express newspaper, while the solidarity among regional organisations has helped to beat back various challenges to press freedom in the Caribbean, "it is becoming clear that governments across the region are also banding together in the attempt to bring the media to heel".
"In this general liberalising climate, there seems to be a clear intention by Caricom (Caribbean Community) governments to restrict the limits of what is possible for the news media to cover. But a free, responsible press is infinitely more desirable than having a government decide the boundaries of freedom of information," it said.
The newspaper added that the Jamaican government's move "can only give comfort across the region to all those opposed to freedom of information".
George John, who is also a member of the Advisory Commission of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said the present composition of the Basdeo Panday coalition administration may have contributed to its failure so far to bring the media under its control in Trinidad and Tobago.
"But I feel it in my bones that if the government is re-elected next year with a comfortable majority, it will try again," he told the annual general meeting of the Grenada Media Workers Association earlier this month.
"You have been through that experience and you know the trauma it can lead to, for once press freedom goes, everything falls down," John added.
Meanwhile, in St. Lucia, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony has denied that his St. Lucia Labour Party administration is moving toward curbing press freedom in the country.
"This government will not interfere directly or indirectly in the operations of the press, this government respects the right of the press to do its work and does not believe in censorship," he said, adding that governments reserved the right to correct misrepresentations, lies and distortions, deliberate or otherwise.
"We will exercise that right whenever we deem it necessary," he said.
"We will speak out against the abuses committed by some practitioners, from that task we will not shrink, neither will we be deterred by those crying wolf about intimidation."
But Guy Ellis, the editor of the weekly Mirror Newspaper and a highly respected St. Lucian journalist, says the constant reminders from the Prime Minister and his press secretary that the government "insists" on its right of response is nothing but an attempt to intimidate and demoralise independent reporters.
"The fact of the matter is that we in St. Lucia are well on the way to turning the corner in relations between the present government and the media from what these relations were in May 1997, and it promises to get a lot worse," he said.
"While press relations under the last government were most times bad, we never had the sustained criticism of the media and practitioners that we are having now, all within the short space of 30 months," Ellis added.
"It's almost as if there is a secret agenda for the media lurking around the corner despite the official assurances."
Nearly every press outlet has been touched in one way or another by the policy of "aggressive engagement" and "behind-the-scenes admonishment," he said.
And Anthony's denials have not allayed the concerns of other journalists and political commentators on the island, particularly since the government has announced new plans for the state-owned Radio St. Lucia.
"We have seen enough of modern journalism on certain radio stations operating under licence approved by this government to understand their quality. We have seen enough," Anthony told Parliament.
But the former head of the St. Lucia Media Workers Association, (SLMWA) David Vitalis, has warned the government against moving in that direction.
"The success of mass media lies in their credibility, a virtue that is difficult to earn through political control. Once there is a lingering perception of political influence, either directly or indirectly, the public's scepticism which that breeds often affects the viability of any medium," Vitalis said.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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