Media Running Scared?

How ironic that the man who in a 1786 letter to Dr. James Currie had maintained that “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and cannot be limited without being lost,” famously had also stated: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

I cannot imagine what could have brought about such a volte-face on the part of Thomas Jefferson (his secret sex life with a black woman, perhaps?) but I fully intend to undertake the necessary research. In the meantime I am reminded of Hugo Black, the former associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, who, in The New York Times v United States (1971) held that “an unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs is what I consider to be the minimum guarantee of the First Amendment.”

Black also believed that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” For his part, James Madison (he wrote the first drafts of the United States Constitution) had advocated that “the people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments, and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”

I am writing at a time when legal eagles from the UK and New York are in Saint Lucia holding a two-day seminar with fellow jurists from Latin America and the Caribbean. Also, this morning (Saturday) local media personnel including representatives of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers and the International Press Institute, will sit down to consider “voluntary self-regulation.”

ACM’s president Wesley Gibbings has defined the proposition as “an effective shield, not only against the excesses of dominant state and private holders of power but against the indulgences of errant media themselves.”

He cites the 2012 Sir Brian Leveson report that according to Gibbings had observed that “for many years there have been complaints that certain parts of the press ride roughshod over others, both individuals and the public at large, without justifiable public interest.”

Writes Gibbings in his own “Building a Framework for Media Self-Regulation in the Caribbean,” the Leveson report “went so far as to propose a form of whistle-blowing protection for journalists who felt they might be put under pressure to do things that were unethical.”

Although Gibbings cites the working lives of journalists in the UK, New Zealand and elsewhere, he seems to have found little to concern him about journalism in our region (or so it appeared to my perhaps jaundiced eyes!).

Nevertheless he writes: “The development of a conceptual framework for media self-regulation in the Caribbean would benefit from a clinical examination of the performance of both existing and statutorily determined content restrictions and self-imposed standards both in the case of individual institutions and at the level of the media industry as a whole.”

Almost as an afterthought, Gibbings adds: “It would also be important to ensure that whatever the prognosis, freedom of expression considerations remain integral to the charting of a way forward!”

Several years ago, back in the early 90s, I suspect, I joined Rickey Singh and other evidently concerned journalists from around the region at a somewhat desperate meeting in Barbados. The stated purpose was to discuss, yes, voluntary self-regulation.

As I recall, it was the self-revered Singh’s suggestion that it would be wise for the regional press to be perceived as making an effort to control itself before regional governments inevitably step in with their teeth-pulling tools—as if already our political leaders had not made it clear, contrary to Jefferson, that they would prefer to have no press at all.

I need only remind readers that already self-censorship is written all over the face of the Saint Lucia media. Or is it something else that prevents us (newsworthiness status, for example?) from writing about such historic events as the suit brought by Treasure Bay St. Lucia Limited against The Gaming Authority; the National Lotteries Authority; the Minister for Social Transformation, Youth and Sports, and the Cabinet of Saint Lucia?

Better to rest my case at this point and resist touching on Jack Grynberg v The Government of Saint Lucia fiasco, now pending before the ICSID. At any rate, until I’ve returned from today’s MASL meeting, sponsored by UNESCO, Monroe College and similarly august bodies.

Did I mention that appearing for the claimant in Treasure Bay v The Government of Saint Lucia was Mr. Peter I. Foster QC—Speaker of our House of Parliament?

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