The mass media wields great power. We in the profession know this as well as those outside of the profession who use it for their own gain.
Black icon and civil rights leader Malcolm X once described the media as a power entity. His assertion which, of course, is debatable is that “the media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent look guilty and to make the guilty innocent and that’s power.”
There was a time when stories were told only by trained, traditional media practitioners. Not so in recent times. Social media now allows everyone to tell their own story and the stories of others, whether accurate or inaccurate.
Two recent developments in Barbados brought the immense power of the media, both mass and social, to the fore.
Last week, a video made the rounds, featuring homeless mother Danae Gibbons and her two toddlers sitting on some cardboard in Independence Square on a rainy day. The loss of her job and recent eviction had forced her to live on the streets.
Mainstream media revealed that the family was sleeping at the Barbados Alliance to End Homelessness (BAEH) shelter at night and on the streets during the day because the Spry Street, Bridgetown facility closes to clients at 7 a.m. and reopens in the evenings.
The children were subsequently taken into the state’s custody by officials of the Child Care Board.
Irate Bajans lambasted BAEH president Kemar Saffrey and his staff. Saffrey then called on the Government to put in place the policy for a 24-hour shelter. He said it was promised but too long in coming. That story took on a life of its own.
Two days later, the news broke that the mother had gotten a job. Also on that day, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs Jehu Wiltshire and Acting Director of the Child Care Board Colin St Hill addressed a press conference and disclosed that the family would be reunited in a matter of days. They also said that the Government was swiftly moving to establish a 24-hour shelter for the homeless, amid an increase in homeless people in recent years.
It was a happy ending for the reunited family and the mother who is now employed again, thanks to her story being told.
The following day, Barbados TODAY carried a lead story headlined Not Moving: NCC faces legal action over attempt to evict Oistins Bay Garden vendor. In that article, MP for Christ Church South and attorney-at-law Ralph Thorne SC reported that his client Monique Best was given an eviction notice by NCC but he was intent on fighting the battle in court.
Best’s adopted mother Shirley Roberts ran the business known as Shirley’s Food Hut for 27 years but she died in June this year and her daughter continued the operation after working the last two years at the establishment alongside her.
Barbados TODAY was on site when, on Sunday, NCC personnel changed the locks on the stall, denying Best access to the contents. Temperatures flared in Oistins as other stall owners cried foul and alleged unfair treatment.
The videos published on social media by Barbados TODAY, which had thousands of views, drew comments from the public, the majority of whom were incensed by the eviction. Many called on Prime Minister Mia Mottley to intervene.
On Tuesday, Acting Prime Minister Santia Bradshaw announced that Best would be allowed to resume operations in her kiosk while chairman of the Oistins Bay Garden Committee Kemar Harris, to whom the stall had been reassigned by the NCC, would be given one of the new ones to be built.
Best’s lawyer thanked the media for the key role they played in the outcome.
“If the media had not publicised this, it may not have reached the stage of resolution . . . . The greatest guarantee that justice will be done is when it is done in public, when people are aware that the rights of others, the rights of their fellow men are at risk and we always depend on the media to publicise issues of social justice. . . . I thank you for exposing what we claim has been an injustice committed to this young lady,” Thorne said.
He is correct and we are grateful to have played a role in ensuring that social justice was carried out.
However, we are concerned that there are numerous others in our society whose stories are not told and, therefore, do not benefit from swift action to have their plights addressed.
There are many whose pride – or perhaps other reasons – prevents them from telling their stories to the media. There are plenty suffering from homelessness, eviction, poverty, hard times and unfair acts who simply do not want their situations publicised. What of them?
We acknowledge that the media’s role is key in highlighting social injustices. We know that once a situation is brought to light, the powers that be are swift to “make good” and address it.
We are well aware that when the public is involved and the choruses of condemnation come, putting pressure on the Government compels it to act with haste.
However, our concern is that policies and frameworks should be in place to deal swiftly with social ills at all times. A person’s plight should be dealt with whether it is publicised or kept private between the individual and the entity.
We want a person to still have their self-respect and dignity intact even as they seek assistance. There must be mechanisms for a more humane approach to these types of issues. The entities from which these people seek help should function at optimum at all times, not just when the situation makes it to the media and by extension, the public.
We are happy for all involved in these two recent cases. Nonetheless, we demand social justice for those whose stories remain untold in the media.