Barbadians live today in a globalized environment that was almost non-existent 50 years ago. As a result, our people are exposed on a daily basis, particularly via television and the Internet, to various foreign ideas, values and practices, especially out of the United States.
This cultural encounter exerts considerable influence on the views, perspectives and behaviour of our people; how we relate to others sharing the common space we call Barbados and also the wider world around us. Barbadians have understandably become more critical and also have higher expectations of how things should function in our space, often drawing comparison with what obtains in the outside world.
It explains, for example, why some of our people are harshly critical of the local media for not engaging in the kind of investigative journalism seen in the United States, especially when it comes to exposing corruption and unethical behaviour by politicians and other officials in positions of public trust.
They hear the frequent rumours of corruption in high places, the names of the alleged perpetrators and, measuring the performance of the local media by foreign journalistic standards, expect the alleged wrongdoing to be brought to light. This shows our people recognize the important role of the media as a guardian of democracy and a watchdog against abuse of power by public officials.
It is quite apparent, however, that in criticizing what they see as “softness” on the part of the local media, our people are either unaware or overlook the severe restrictions which make copying the US model of investigative reporting – the type that brought down President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s – a most difficult undertaking in Barbados.
Barbadians generally hold an erroneous view that there are no limitations on freedom of speech. It is reflected in a common remark heard from time to time in regular social discourse, especially when people are involved in heated arguments. “Man, I want you to know dis is my mout’ and I can say wha’ever I feel like whether you like it or not.”
It seems that this idea is applied too to the media, based on comments heard from time to time. The public does not seem to appreciate, firstly, that the local media function in an environment determined by the rule of law. We cannot report whatever we hear, whether it is about corrupt politicians or anybody else, and what we report, after carrying out a thorough investigation, must comply with existing law.
Freedom of the press has never been absolute. There are limitations set by law to ensure that in the exercise of this freedom, consideration is given to the rights of politicians and other persons, who are the subject of news reporting, to allow reasonable protection of their reputations. Ironically, the laws are made by politicians.
A reasonable comparison cannot be drawn with the US. Thanks to enlightened leadership during the country’s early development, the US is unique when it comes to empowering the media. The First Amendment of the US Constitution bars the politicians who sit in Congress from passing any law “abridging” freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
This amendment probably was informed by the knowledge that persons, in their actions, generally place self-interest before all other considerations.
The media’s role as watchdog against abuse of power in the US is therefore hermetically safeguarded.
Whereas politicians here have used defamation law as a tool of intimidation against the media, the same law in the US is media friendly. If a politician is accused of wrongdoing and feels he was defamed, the law places the onus on him or her to prove the defamation and also show that the media acted with “actual malice” which is unique to American jurisprudence.
US laws related to the media hold that public officials must be subjected to scrutiny. Not so in Barbados, however. Whereas US law places the burden of proving truth on the plaintiff in a defamation case, the onus is on the defendant in Barbados, making defamation law here more plaintiff-friendly. There are other laws on the statute books, including the Official Secrets Act, which hamper the media to the advantage of officials looking to avoid scrutiny.
Instead of just blaming the media, Barbadians can greatly assist in bringing about a more media-friendly environment by applying pressure on the ‘political class’, especially at election time, to institute the necessary legal reforms. This way, Barbados would finally have a more conducive environment for the media to deliver the kind of probing journalism being increasingly demanded without running the risk of being sued out of existence.