It amazes us how those who supposedly held certain principles in one role, effortlessly and with military-style precision make a complete about-face on those same principles when they take up a new role – especially a role of ‘power.’
Recently, Michael Browne, the minister of education, prevented one of our reporters from taking pictures and asking questions – a journalist’s job – at a government facility where an accident with an oven had sent four people to the hospital with burns.
The episode ended with Browne telling our reporter to leave the premises of the Ministry of Education’s School Meals Programme facility in Coolidge – yes, it escalated to that extent.
In addition to the very obvious overtones of secrecy and the absence of transparency that accompanied the minister’s actions was the startling fact that the minister routinely boasts that he was once a journalist; at the Daily OBSERVER no less. Not surprisingly, Browne could not help but mention that badge of honour at least once during the encounter.
So you have a better understanding of what occurred, upon arrival at the facility, our reporter and a team from the Antigua Broadcasting Station (ABS) were greeted by Browne outside of the building. Afterward, like any good journalist would do, our reporter went inside to speak to staff and to take photos. That caused the minister to demand that he go no further.
“Production has recommenced. You cannot be inside this area,” Browne said, asking that OBSERVER media not enter the kitchen and instead wait at reception or outside. Our polite reporter obliged, after briefly registering his objections. After waiting a sufficient period of time, our reporter went to find the minister to again plead his case that he should not be hindered from doing his job.
The minister’s response and options were the same; leave and remain at reception or outside. He did, however, state that he would provide the photos of the damaged oven himself. Not satisfied, our intrepid reporter engaged the minister for a couple of minutes to plead for the media to independently report on the matter. The minister was not persuaded by his arguments and so he returned to reception and waited, noting that the minister appeared agitated.
The minister was not done, however, and took the opportunity to point out that the ABS team was obediently sheltering from the sun under a tree as he had instructed. He asked rhetorically, “Do you see the difference? I told them the same thing I told you. Look at where they are. I can deal with respect. I can’t deal with a lack of respect … I told ABS, as I told you, you will not be allowed to go inside the kitchen. What makes you think that you are any more special than any other media house?”
When challenged about the need for media obedience, the visibly irritated minister declared, “Whatever your opinion is, it is not policy,” adding, “I have to go and look about the needs [of those who were injured]. You want me to stand up and have a conversation with you? I don’t owe you anything. As a matter of courtesy, I stood over there and did an interview with you.”
That conversation lasted just over two minutes and ended with the minister demanding of our reporter, “Please leave the premises.” When asked to repeat his demand into a recorder, the minister swiftly retreated into the building.
As outlandish as it sounds, we consider it our duty not merely to stand outside and wait for ministers to tell us what happened, but to go inside and ask questions of the people who actually work there. We also consider it our duty not merely to accept photos sent to us by ministers but to see what workers’ working conditions really are, especially after four people have been injured.
We would be lying if we said that we did not expect to be hindered by those who are intent on sanitising information, or by those who are intent on concealing embarrassing scenes, or by those who are so obnoxious that they view journalists as pests who do not deserve the time of day. We accept these things as the normal rigours of the work which we do. If waiting for official statements and ministerial photos is all that Michael Browne did as journalist, it is no wonder that he no longer works for the Daily OBSERVER.
We are amazed that the minister would tell our reporter, “I don’t owe you anything.” If the minister is not prepared to “owe” the press, and by extension, the public, complete transparency on what happens in his ministry and on premises for which his ministry is responsible, perhaps he should take some time to go abroad and study some more. Official statements and photos from ministers do not equate to transparency and do not meet the test of basic journalism. Simple access to the scene of the accident would suffice.
To hear the minister say that it was merely “a courtesy” that he spoke to the press about the incident at all, is shocking. We cannot begin to describe what this statement suggests about the minister’s grasp of the concept of accountability, save to say that it appears that grasp is acutely and sorrowfully weak.
While we seldom find it necessary to assert to others what their responsibilities are, to Minister Browne, we posit that it is your job to speak to the media after your workers are hospitalised, not a courtesy.
As shamelessly as the minister and boastful former ‘journalist’ uttered his statements on Friday, we say that we will continue to seek more than what is fed to us by politicians; we will continue to seek out those affected by misfortune; we will continue look at things with our own eyes; and we will continue to protest when we are hindered.
As journalists we advocate the principles of transparency and accountability especially when it comes to the government, its records and its activities. These are principles which Michael Browne has left us wondering whether he still has values as a former journalist, or if ever he did.
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