Here’s to an unfettered press

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Today is World Press Freedom Day. On the world calendar, this is arguably one of the most important commemorative days. We here at NEWSCO/OBSERVER are acutely aware of that fact, because we were conceived, and came of age, in an era when there was only one government-controlled (ABS radio and television), and one government-family-owned media entity (ZDK radio). Back then, there was also one religious radio station called Caribbean Radio Lighthouse. In terms of print media, there was only the government-aligned WORKERS VOICE, and the progressive OUTLET, published by the Antigua (Afro) Caribbean Liberation Movement (ACLM). The political directorate had no interest in the noble notion of freedom of the press – freedom of expression and thought. OUTLET was constantly harassed by officialdom, and when the Derricks – Winston, Samuel (Tubby) and Fergie, sought to give birth to an alternative voice here in our fair State, those in high places, a la the BiblicalKing Herod, sought its crib death.

Ambassador Dorbrene O’Marde, in his great biographical work, KING SHORT SHIRT: NOBODY GO RUN ME, The Life and Times of Sir Maclean Emanuel, describes an early dreadful period in the 1970’s when Antigua and Barbuda lay in Stygian darkness. The incumbent Progressive Labour Movement (PLM) wrong-headedly saw a free press as its sworn enemy, and they waged war against the WORKERS VOICE and other publications. Writes O’Marde, “The suppression of Press Freedom ignited the condemnation of international bodies. The NEWSPAPER ACT [1972-1975], ‘made it a crime for anyone to read, sell, buy or advertise in a newspaper which had not posted a ten thousand dollar bond, paid a six hundred dollar annual license, and had Cabinet prior permission to publish.’” [Pg.96] Good grief! Even by today’s monetary value, that was an exorbitant and prohibitive sum. Freedom of the Press was under siege.

Some twenty years later, with Antigua’s media still very much under a dreadful cloud, the visionaries, Winston, Fergie and Tubby Derrick, declared, “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” and the Observer Newspaper began publishing. Many of us still fondly remember Observer by fax, straight out of the Derrick’s kitchen down at the old Cockleshell Inn. Some of the very early persons who were determined that ‘freedom of the press shall not perish from this Antigua earth’ were Kim Derrick, Eutha Meade, Cheryl Joseph, former Parliamentarian Sir Selvyn Walter, and Rex Harney. As you can imagine, the early Observer newspaper had its many challenges, but the founders, and many other patriotic Antiguans and Barbudans were not to be denied. The clarion call, ‘Let there be light, still graces the masthead of the DAILY OBSERVER.

Just last month, April 15, to be exact, we celebrated twenty years of Observer Radio – twenty triumphant years. Remember, the Derrick’s had to journey all the way to the Privy Council to get a radio broadcast license from the monopolistic-minded Bird regime of the day. UPP political leader, Attorney Harold Lovell, was one of the lawyers who waged the battle for a free broadcast media entity on behalf of the Derrick’s in London. When the Derricks launched Observer Radio in 1996, it was shut down within a day on account of the claim by Bird ‘and dem’ that they had no license. Mercifully, the Privy Council differed with the medieval thinking of the Bird regime, and it ruled that denying the Derricks the right to broadcast was an infringement on their constitutional right to free speech and freedom of the press. Amen! No wonder the Derricks adopted as their motto, these poignant words from Thomas Jefferson, “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

 In a piece for World Press Freedom Day, 2014, the Council of Europe wrote,A free, safe, independent and pluralistic press is a core element of any functioning democracy because it is instrumental in protecting all other human rights. Instances of torture, discrimination, corruption or misuse of power have many times come to light because of the courageous work of journalists. Truth-telling is often the first, essential step to start redressing human rights violations and help hold governments accountable.”

Here is a report from May 25, 2021, by our very own Carlena Knight on the wondrous strides made by Observer and its progeny, NEWSCO, these past several years. Knight was reporting on the appearance of three former distinguished staff members of OBSERVER RADIO AND THE DAILY OBSERVER, on the popular Observer Radio programme, THE BIG ISSUES. Her piece is entitled, Twenty years of Observer Radio – former staff speak about the station’s enduring legacy: “Said Mikel Brann-Challenger, a former editor of the Daily Observer and Observer newsroom manager, as well as a communications consultant, “I think it’s tremendously significant if we take it step by step. For staying in power for two decades is one. . .  We have seen Observer surmount hurdles and odds, not just in the early days and its genesis, but recently in its takeover in the pivot from Observer Radio to NewsCo. I think that, in and of itself, is significant. . .  You can also look at its significance as a media house and the community support. Observer and its establishment changed the media landscape. It is a historical fact. Observer came at a time, with the exception of Radio Lighthouse and Gem FM, where the media was Bird-owned, and if it wasn’t owned by the then sitting administration, it was owned by members associated to the sitting administration . . .”

Knight continues her retrospective from the aforementioned BIG ISSUES programme, citing Rory Butler, a former news director at OBSERVER, who lauded the Privy Council’s decision as a landmark case that opened the floodgates for free and independent media here in Antigua and Barbuda. There are now almost forty independent radio stations in our fair State.

According to revered veteran journalist, Julian Rogers, Observer radio’s early general manager, in the aforementioned BIG ISSUES broadcast, “It was really clear that there was an opportunity here for really breaking the mold of radio at the time, and so we had a real transformation, particularly because of the two Derricks, because they already set that platform for that openness and for that challenge . . . here was an opportunity for opinions to contend, and I think it was their independent voices that really established a new environment for discourse in Antigua and Barbuda.” Indeed!

NEWSCO is the peoples’ tribune. NEWSCO, as so eloquently enunciated by the Derricks, is living up to the Founding Fathers’ vision – “Giving a voice to the voiceless!” As Winston Derrick declared in a VOICE OF THE PEOPLE broadcast, “This is the place where any and everybody, without fear or favour, can say what they have to say about it, without worrying who feel one way or another . . . so if you want to call and criticise, that’s no problem.” And as Darren Derrick, a former Managing Director often proclaimed, “We will continue to shine a light in the dark corners.”

It is our remit. It is our solemn and sacred duty, and from that, we will never shirk. Our Managing Director, Algernon ‘Serpent’ Watts, our Station Manager, Dave Lester Payne, our Managing Editor, Gemma Handy, our Office and Human Resources Manager, Stacy Samuel, and all the reporters, broadcasters, radio hosts, technicians, engineers and office staff, many of whom moved from the old OBSERVER to be a part of the new media entity, are nothing, if not committed. Against all odds, never mind the unbelievers and the scoffers, NEWSCO will continue to be a beacon.

Sadly, free and independent media in Antigua and Barbuda, NEWSCO in particular, remains under assault from those in high places. They engage in, and encourage swipes at NEWSCO, in a cynical and self-serving effort to douse the flames of a free press holding the government to account. They attempt to disrupt radio broadcasts, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. They spread misinformation. They endeavour to undermine NEWSCO’s credibility. They shout to anyone who will listen that they will “Shut down Observer!” Quite pathetic!

On this World Press Freedom Day, may the light of NEWSCO, Progressive Radio and the many other media entities here in Antigua and Barbuda continue to shine brightly. May they continue to be the market place for the free exchange of thoughts and ideas. May they continue to be the oxygen of our democracy. Long live the Fourth Estate!

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