Press freedom and the people's right to know
There has never been a better time for the press in Dominica to take a hard look at itself with a view to do some internal cleansing. As journalists around the world prepare to observe World Press Freedom Day in a few weeks, on May 3rd 2013, this event should serve as a springboard for the media to examine how it has been performing its social responsibility and how it reports, analyses and comments on events and developments in society. Another opportunity to examine itself was presented to the press last week when the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court ruled in favour of journalist Lennox Linton on the defence of qualified privilege. There are many positive lessons for media practitioners in that judgment.
Everyone, it seems, has acknowledged that the media, both electronic and print, has a vital role to play in these challenging times. But no single organisation has a better perspective on the issues affecting the media than the practitioners themselves. They are, therefore, in the best position to regulate themselves.
As Lindsay Ross, the Executive Director of the Commonwealth Press Union stated recently in the book "Imperfect Freedom: the Case for Self Regulation in the Commonwealth Press" the media has been discussing the issue for sometime but very little has been done otherwise.
"Of course journalists demand a free press but with freedom comes responsibility – a moral perspective which often escapes them," she writes. "If they are not prepared to take responsibility for their own behaviour, then Governments are more than willing to implement regulations on their behalf be it through statutory press bodies or harsh regulations."
What is frightening about the above statement is that Ms. Ross' prediction may soon become reality in Dominica; the process for regulating the media, from Government's perspective, has begun. When the politicians begin to push through control legislation and try to justify it they have a myriad of examples of recent press violations to pick from. For example, there was the recent complaint that certain talk show hosts were openly suggesting that persons should cultivate illegal drugs. If that is not irresponsibility at its highest level, nothing else comes close.
But the problem is not only a Dominican malaise. Jamaican columnist and journalist, Hartley Neita, in two years ago argued that there was a new breed of "non-achievers" passing themselves off as journalists in their capacity as radio talk show hosts. Neita claims that these individuals "have claimed authority over the public and profess to know more about certain professions than the trained professionals themselves".
In his critique of the press in Jamaica, the journalist argues that there are no reporters anymore and news stories have become judgemental feature articles with unearned by-lines. Radio, he said, has become a medium of "suss" and personal spite.
Additionally, he maintained, television has forgotten that it has a role to play in cultivating good behaviour. And he also questions how stations can ever handle unflattering news items about business places which provide free goods and services to media houses.
All this suggests that media practitioners have to begin to do a lot of introspection if the profession is to be given the respect it deserves and yearns for.
To earn that regard, journalists must heed their own canon of commitment to truth, to the pursuit of accuracy, fairness and objectivity and to strive to clearly differentiate news from advertising, promotion and comment. Then there is the issue of truth, balance and fairness.
Discussions on the role of the press will inevitably arise during the period of the observance of Press Freedom Day. Some people have argued that the primary role of the free press is to promote the protection of the public interest whatever that is conceived to be. Others are convinced that the press should only disseminate good, positive and wholesome views and opinions, or should inform and relate only facts and events which educate society.
Whatever the various roles the media may have, it must never give up its position as an independent force within society. It must never become the echo chamber of government officials or politicians or anyone else. Journalists should strive to be able to make judgements about the meaning of the information it gathers and it should not be hindered in its dissemination to the public.
Now, what ought to be the relationship between Government and the media? Some people are of the view that due to the nature of the two systems, the relationships are mainly antagonistic. However, Government can help the press to be of greater assistance to the nation if the officials become more open in the delivery of information. Too often officials hoard information while the media relies on "sources" to leak vital information of public interest.
As has been demonstrated around the world, the media does influence economic, political and social outcomes. The power of the pres lies in its ability to quickly and efficiently disseminate saleable data, facts and information. That's what makes the press so powerful – the ability to influence opinion and to distribute and control information. Persons who are in power know this and persons who want to wield power are extremely conscious of that fact.
In the final analysis, freedom of the press, which is always the focus of Press Freedom Day, is not only the right to broadcast and print without Government restraint or the suffocating effect of libel laws. But most fundamentally press freedom is the right of the public to be fully and accurately, informed on matters which will help them become better citizens. The ECSC judgment in the Linton v Pinard-Byrne case issued last week makes these points abundantly clear.