Our friends up North have often become reference points for matters of governance and leadership. Admittedly, in recent years some of those references have not been for the provision of stellar examples. Quite the contrary. The mighty United States, for the most part, has long articulated and represented the standards by which strong and vibrant democracies ought to operate. And automatically, we in the Western world have generally followed the Americans’ lead.
The free Press, a critical cog that keeps the democracy wheel moving smoothly, has always been under attack particularly by autocratic leaders who reject any independent interrogation of their actions. The attacks on the Press have not stopped.
The International Federation of Journalists reports that in the Philippines, journalists are barred access to critical information, in Northern Ireland, journalists at two major newspapers are facing death threats, while in Bangladesh, five journalists were arrested for almost a week for trying to do their jobs. This profession has not offered the kindest or the safest of work environments. And those who remain will tell you they do it for the love and certainly not for the financial gains.
Here in Barbados, members of the profession celebrated World Press Freedom Day on May 3 and spoke to the ideals, the challenges and the plans through their fraternal organisation, the Barbados Association of Journalists and Media Persons (BARJAM). BARJAM has brought a resurgence to the body of working journalists and those who operate closely in support of the men and women in the field.
It is noteworthy that media houses have a well-established firewall between the Editorial and Advertising Departments in order to maintain the integrity of the newsgathering process. There also exists a similar barrier between those involved in reporting the news and the media house’s editorial stand. And so those working professionals should not be held responsible for the editorial positions of a newspaper.
We take great pains to explain these finer points because we wish to urge BARJAM to take a second look at its recent decision to have the political arm of the American administration sponsor its next awards ceremony. We know these are very lean financial times and the COVID-19 pandemic has made a bad situation even worse.
At another time and place, the Embassy’s generous gift might not even raise an eyebrow. However, the world of 2020 is a much different space and this sponsorship has already attracted some attention.
With journalists being described as “enemies of the state”, insulted and berated almost on a daily basis, it is difficult to reconcile such generosity being extended to local journalists in this particular context.
If BARJAM is to accept this offer from our American friends, we urge the organisation to have a forthright conversation with their new benefactor. For while there will always be outliers in every profession, for the most part, journalists aim for the highest ideals and the free press should be respected for their role in defending democracy.
As the Brookings Institute noted earlier this year: “A free press brings to light and disseminates the information that informs the electorate and holds powerful people and institutions accountable. It shows where society’s problems are, even when some might prefer to look away. It is the first-line defence of free speech for everybody.”
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