It is ironic that World Press Freedom Day on Monday passed in Barbados with barely a whisper from leaders of the media fraternity in Barbados. No messages of encouragement to young practitioners in the field; no caution to political and business leaders about abuse of power or limits to Press freedom; and certainly, no word from the Ministry of Information that a much-touted Freedom of Information Act may be on the horizon.
Like most failings that occurred in 2020 and 2021, we are likely to apportion blame to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We certainly will allow the recently elected president and executive team of the Barbados Association of Journalists and Media Workers (BARJAM) time to find their footing. But caution the body that to have allowed World Press Free Day to pass without a timely intervention by this organisation is most unfortunate.
Openings to advocate for the cause of a free Press should never be missed. A free and vibrant Press is among the key pillars of any lively democracy. Without it, there is no true freedom. It is not accidental that leaders with megalomaniac and autocratic tendencies are prone to have the Press under their thumb.
A decade ago, one would never have conceived that the American media could be intimidated, reporters banned from the White House, branded the “enemy of the state” and ridiculed at the highest level of Government for simply doing their job.
The influential Brookings Institute put it simply. The Donald Trump administration had declared war on the American Press. “The Press, overall, he says, is a “disgrace. . . false, horrible, fake reporting.” It is “out of control.” Reporters are “very dishonest people,” their coverage he describes as “an outrage”. The New York Times—a “failing” newspaper. CNN—“terrible.” Buzzfeed—“Garbage.” Then, on top of it all, he tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
Thankfully, Twitter and Facebook found the fortitude to cut off the oxygen from this threat to freedom of the Press and democratic stability.
When you control the Press and the free flow of information, you virtually control the society.
When Jamaat al Muslimeen coup leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, attempted a bloody overthrow of the government of A.N. Robinson in Trinidad and Tobago on July 27, 1990, one of his first targets was control of the national television station.
We have no baby Trumps in Barbados and long may that be so. No young Bakrs lurking in the shadows that we know of. What we do have are some tin pot gods, who sometimes perceive the Press as a nuisance rather than a partner, a voice of the voiceless, and a watchman of democratic freedoms.
The question may be asked why there seems no strident lobbying by the local Press for greater information flow and for the legislative backing that would make information that is in the public’s interest accessible to the media.
Is it that we are so enlightened in Barbados and free to cover and uncover the scandals occurring in high and low places? Is it that we are indulging in self-censorship and afraid to offend for fear of an advertising backlash or being shunned by people in powerful positions? Is it simply a lack of training of those practitioners in the business and a lazy comfort?
According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), this year’s World Press Freedom Day theme of Information as a Public Good 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, and to advance transparency and empowerment while leaving no one behind.
The theme is regarded as highly relevant to all countries and it recognises the changing communications systems that are impacting on our health, our human rights, democracies, and sustainable development.
It is important to note on this World Press Freedom Day, that without newspapers, radio call-in shows, even Internet blogs, the average person would have little knowledge of what is going on around him.
Most people do not have the time and resources to investigate issues and stories that affect them and their communities. This is where the role of journalists comes in. Armed with skills like research and critical thinking, the best journalists know what questions to ask, what leads to pursue, and how to fact-check. Fact-checking is a vital element of a free press. It is important to note that if the Press is not able to fact-check safely and effectively, the truth remains buried.