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HomeNewsLocal NewsIs the Press Free to Provide Information as a Public Good?

Is the Press Free to Provide Information as a Public Good?

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by Kevon Browne

St. Kitts and Nevis (WINN) – “Information as a Public Good” the 2021 theme for World Press Freedom Day, commemorated each year on May 3.

World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. Since then, 3 May, the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek is celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day.

The theme, according to the United Nations serves as a call to affirm the importance of cherishing information as a public good, and exploring what can be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism.

On the 30th anniversary, the theme also recognizes the changing communications system impacting health, human rights, democracies and sustainable development and seeks to advance transparency and empowerment.

May 3 is an opportunity to: celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Where does the Caribbean stand as it pertains to “press freedom”?

During a virtual panel discussion with media veterans and educators; moderator Alison Bethel-McKenzie, Vice President of Corps Excellence at Report for America reported;

“Only three Caribbean countries Suriname, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica… scored in the top 50 best countries for press freedom; out of 180 countries in the recently released “Reporters Without Borders” annual survey… Suriname, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica scored higher than the United States of America.”

St. Kitts and Nevis was not included in the ranking.

Dr. Sheila Rampersad; President of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago touched on the brevity of the independent media’s role in providing information.

“I think the media, certainly in Trinidad and Tobago… there is an expectation of the media, the news media to take on the role of state and government public education in this pandemic, and the media’s role is much wider than simply that… I think authorities and governments and ministries … are not paying attention to proper protracted consistent public education information, there is an assumption that you have a news conference and you give particular information, that is public information. And there’s an assumption, also, that the media has the stay within an official narrative… and if you don’t do that then you’re being reckless… We have to cover news on the pandemic, public information news, get public information out to people for the sake of their health and their well being… but we also have to cover things that are critical of those efforts; people who do not believe in particular efforts… when we cover all of those other areas we are accused of being reckless or being irresponsible… I think that has happened because of other failures in government and state information… and the way in which public information, and public education is or is not being done by these authorities.”

Lesroy Williams; Director General of the St. Kitts and Nevis Information Services (SKNIS), speaking as a representative of a government information service brought up another medium that competes with and challenges traditional commercial media and state operated media.

“However today… you have the traditional media, and you have social media. And social media poses quite a challenge… to credible information… on social media, hiding behind social media to put a lot of information out there that is basically disinformation… It is wrong information; but meant to hurt others… And so you’ll have people writing under… pseudonyms, and so on and putting real malicious information out there, and somehow confusing people in terms of what is the real information, and that makes the path of credible information coming from government even more difficult, because it is so convoluted, by what is placed out there on social media.”

Williams also highlighted that in St. Kitts and Nevis, although freedom of information legislation was passed in 2018, it has not been operationalized.

“This hampers journalists in really doing their work, because you can go to a press conference, really, and you ask certain questions and you are told…  we’ll get back to you… the press is never really afforded that information… but with the Freedom of Information legislation being operationalized, having teeth, journalists can actually submit their inquiries and so on because it is protected by law, and only information that is basically classified, of course that is going to jeopardize the public good, as in the case of things like national security, and so on, journalists should be provided with that information by law. What I have found is that the press has been ‘hamstrung’ in terms of getting the real information that they need…”

The operationalization of the freedom of information legislation would greatly help in providing key pieces of information for the public good.

Apart from the struggle within the industry in getting information for public good, moderator of the panel Bethel-McKenzie noted that there are less journalists in the field to provide this information. 

In response, Clive Bacchus; Managing Director of Federation Media Group St. Kitts-Nevis said, 

“Essentially, many journalists are in and out of journalism because they have to earn a living and very often, quite a few journalists are not only depending on their journalism wage or… salary for a living, so you may find as many as 50 percent or more of the reporters are doing something else on the side… we need to discuss the issue of journalism; it depends on who you work for, and the space that exists for you to do that… because if you work in an ecosystem and the ecosystem is basically one of media capture… you are relying on one or two advertisers for money, therefore you can’t report certain kinds of stories, or they may pull the ads, or you’re dependent on the government for [its ads]… [if] 51 percent of [revenue] comes from the government, then how are you going to hold the government accountable if the government is feeding you? Before we discuss issues of public good, we have to find a model to finance that; to finance an ecosystem that will attract the best talent in the world to be a part of that system. As it is now there is very little incentive for being a journalist, you are  going to get very little pay,  difficult conditions… And more and more people are depending on the journalist to do what they should be doing as well… Being a part of a democrat process, contributing their ideas, being a part of movements. A lot of people are sitting back and saying ‘the media must do more.’ The question is, do more with what?”

Other speakers on the panel included: Yvette Rowe; Lecturer of Television Production and Broadcast Journalism, Caribbean School of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) Jamaica and Devaron Bruce; Political Analyst and Social Commentator in Barbados.

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