Editorial: World Press Freedom Day: What’s there to celebrate?

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It is not possible to celebrate freedom when you are not free. The conditions are just not there in most countries to celebrate this important day – U.N. World Press Freedom Day 2018, May 3.
Despite the efforts of fearless groups that support press freedom and persistent journalists who keep on working even as they are threatened and their colleagues are killed or harmed otherwise, “press freedom” has been declining rather than increasing globally.
Here in Antigua and Barbuda, while our journalists are not being killed, stories are, and we will explain why as we go along. But first, let’s look at press freedom around the globe.
The Freedom of the Press 2017 report by U.S.-based watchdog, Freedom House, shows that global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016. The year was marked by a rise in threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media.
The report says only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press.
In 2016, 115 journalists were killed for simply doing their jobs according to the annual report compiled by the International News Safety Institute (INSI), Killing the Messenger. We are only four months into this year and already 32 journalists have been killed in the line of duty, 10 of whom lost their lives on April 30 in Afghanistan.
We come back now to our twin island. Last year, out of all the countries in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, Antigua and Barbuda ranked lowest in the Freedom House report. And again, in the Freedom in the World 2018 report on the state of media, we scored worse than any of our neighbours.
With 100 being the highest possible score, we scored 83, behind St. Kitts and Nevis which got 89; St. Vincent and the Grenadines which got 90; St. Lucia which scored 91; and Dominica which got 93.
Larger countries like the United States, and Caribbean neighbours Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana scored 86, 81 and 74 respectively. In the ranking on freedom with respect to political rights, we scored 2 – with one being the most free and 7 the least free. And for our freedom with respect to civil liberties, we scored 2 also. Our OECS neighbours however, each scored one.
These figures confirm what we said in our editorial on this topic last year, that here in Antigua and Barbuda, we have seen and continue to see increasing aggression and hostility towards the media.
The news environment, outside of OBSERVER, continues to be politically aligned or owned. Prime Minister Gaston Browne is the latest to launch a radio station which he said is to correct “misinformation”.
When he had announced his plans last year, we posited, “how can this station be anything but a political propaganda station designed to support the prime minister and his party?”
The anti-media rhetoric employed by the current administration, of which we spoke last year, continues to be worrying.  Today, it can still be aptly described as anti-OBSERVER with the prime minister, who described our organisation as a “threat to Antigua,” saying just before the elections in March, that there will be “gnashing of teeth” at the OBSERVER when his party wins again. Reporters and opposers of some government policies are increasingly under verbal attack. Many have become fearful, not only in the media, but even public sector workers who were once “media friendly” have become like tortoises, they’ve pulled into their shells.
The anti-media rhetoric is a trend not only here at home, but from world leaders, including those who head democratic countries.
U.S. President Donald Trump has called those who work in the media “very dishonest people.” Last year, the president of the Czech Republic waved a mock assault rifle in front of reporters, which was taken as a thinly veiled threat. And in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has warned that “corrupt reporters” would not be exempt from assassination.
We recognise the importance of our role to freedom on a whole, not just press freedom. So, we ask ourselves: What skills and tools can strengthen the defences of independent media, and how can the general public and regional and international communities support and advocate for these protections and rights?
Before we answer that one, let’s take a look at the government’s approach to the people of Barbuda and the controversial land issues – whether or not the government’s plan is a good one – here, we see that there is cause for concern. The government has refused to engage in any dialogue and consultation with the people over the land which has been held in common by Barbudans for decades. The government has also insulted and attacked media organisations, locally, regionally and internationally, for giving a voice to Barbudans. And, the government is going full speed ahead to amend the Barbuda Land Act.
Democratic societies are not infallible, but they are accountable, and the exchange of ideas is the foundation for accountable governance. In this case, there’s no exchange, no accommodation for freedom of expression.
Such expression is crucial for a successful democracy because it lets the public participate in making decisions based on the free flow of information and ideas. Without it, people would be unable to make informed decisions. In other words, Press Freedom depends heavily on the people of a country just as much as it depends on the journalists telling the stories.
This year’s global theme for World Press Freedom Day is ‘Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law’, and will cover issues of media and the transparency of the political process, the independence and media literacy of the judicial system, and the accountability of state institutions towards the public. Having said that, here is where we will answer the question as to what skills and tools can strengthen the defences of independent media.
Strengthening independent media means: 1 – funding independent media. Commercial success is a necessary ingredient in forging independence from government or other vested interests. It also means 2 – making available training initiatives (through financial or technical support) to help journalists learn skills that can be readily applied to information gathering, processing and dissemination. Another important element is having a very vibrant civil society that demands good governance and democracy, and a fourth element is the free flow of information to the media from all sectors and where that is absent from officialdom, then whistle-blowers are needed.
We encourage you to join the journey to true press freedom, one which we can actually have reason to celebrate.

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