When politicians own the press
Matt Peltier Jn, who was then the Public Relations Officer of the now defunct Dominica Media Workers Association (MWAD) presented a succinct report on the state of the press in Dominica during the annual general meeting of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers held here two years ago. But Peltier's observations of the serious limitations of the press in Dominica hardly generated a ripple and the state of the press has worsened since.
Today, in 2014, the state of the media has become worrisome as political parties make an unabashed dash to own, and thus control, the press. And no one seems to be keeping scores or is raising an alarm. We have therefore concluded that Dominicans care very little about the Fifth Estate and are basically unaware of the tremendous influence that a fully functional press can have on national development and our fledgling democracy.
For instance, in 2011 Peltier was of the view that the effectiveness of the press is constrained by the woefully inadequately trained frontline personnel of all the media houses in Dominica. Dominican media workers are also poorly paid and work in severely cramped conditions. Yet, according to Peltier, the public regularly questions both the quality and quantity of media content and there is a growing discontent with the work of the media. It seems to us that the Dominican public pays for copper but expect the delivery of gold. In other words, the public gets the media output it pays for.
We noted too from the ACM meeting that regional journalists advised their local counterparts to pay particular attention to the proposed Broadcast Act because it could have serious implications for the day-to-day operations of the press. Where has the Act disappeared to? It seems that instead of the onerous Act the politicians have decided that ownership will give much more control than any law. And they may be correct.
Everyone, it seems, has acknowledged that the media, audio, visual, 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 or get prepared to play an active role in any media landscape that may emerge.
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" that the media has been discussing the issue of regulation and control for some time 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."
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 respect, journalists must heed their own canon of commitment to truth, to accuracy, to fairness, balance and objectivity and to strive to clearly differentiate news from advertising, promotion and comment. And these standards do not, or should not, change when political parties own the media. In fact professional journalism may be the only antidote against that whole sale purchase and hence pollution of the press.
Additionally, some people have argued that the primary role of the free press is to promote the protection of the public interest whatever that is perceived 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. What is certain is that the practitioners can no longer deny that there exist legal limits to freedom of expression. As the society becomes more litigious, we should expect a rise in claims of slander and libel if journalists continue to throw caution to the harsh wind of legal precepts.
Whatever the various roles that 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 they gather and should not be unduly hindered in its dissemination to the public.
As has been demonstrated around the world, the media does influence economic, political and social outcomes. The power of the press is its ability to quickly and efficiently disseminate significant data, facts and information. That's what makes the press so powerful – the ability to influence opinion and to distribute and control information. Persons in power know this and others who want to wield power are extremely conscious of that fact.
In the final analysis, freedom of the press is not only the right to broadcast and print without official restraint or the analysing 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.
But when political parties and their front men begin dividing the nation's press organs among themselves in a small country like Dominica, this is very bad news for freedom of the press and for our democracy.