How free are we?

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Today is World Press Freedom Day 2017.  Although it is a day that every media organisation should celebrate and use for reflection, we have to be honest and admit that it is a day that we have not given enough attention in the past.  According to UNESCO (United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture, “Every year, 3 May is a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.”
Like in other years, another organisation called Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released their annual Press Freedom Index, and it their words, it portrayed an “ever darker world map”.  The index, the associated map and the report really made us sit up and reflect on the future of media as a whole but more particularly it made us reflect on our bit of paradise and the evolution of media – where have we come from and where are we going.
The political as well as media environment in Antigua & Barbuda is ever changing but the more recent changes have given us reason to pause and wonder where are we, as a nation, heading?  In the past, relatively short while, the anti-media rhetoric employed by the current administration has been worrying.  It may be more accurately described as anti-OBSERVER.  We have been branded by Prime Minster Gaston Browne as a “threat to Antigua”; been purposely mischaracterised as promoting “fake” news and we’ve had a wide variety of negatives thrown our way.  Insults are nothing new for us but at the same time, the maturity of our politics and the general evolution of our country would dictate that those unfounded political jabs be relegated to the past.
As an independent news organisation in our country, we take the whole issue of press freedom to heart. That freedom includes the freedom of our media workers to do their jobs without any type of intimidation and the freedom to conduct business in an environment that does not seek to utilise the might of the state to bully or intimidate our organisation.
The world of media is changing, not just here in Antigua & Barbuda, but globally.  One look at some of the comments from the press freedom reports and we immediately see some similarities.  The RSF report states, “Once taken for granted, media freedom is proving to be increasingly fragile in democracies as well.”  This is not hard to see, as the leaders of several countries, including our own, have increased their hostility towards the media.
RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire went on to say, “The democracies that have traditionally regarded media freedom as one of the foundations on which they are built must continue to be a model for the rest of the world, and not the opposite,” adding, “by eroding this fundamental freedom on the grounds of protecting their citizens, the democracies are in danger of losing their souls.”
The RSF report specifically pointed a finger to the Leader of the Free World and President of the United States, Donald Trump, as a great contributor to the erosion of free press, stating, “The hate speech used by the new boss in the White House and his accusations of lying also helped to dis-inhibit attacks on the media almost everywhere in the world, including in democratic countries.”  We have referred to this as the rise of ‘Trumpism’ and have noted the increased rate of adoption of the anti-media rhetoric by politicians and their minions here at home.
As the report states, “While poisonous statements that discredit the media in the public eye have quickly become an additional means of creating tension, politicians have not abandoned the more traditional methods of political pressure for obstructing the media’s work.”  The report points to political harassment and intervention, where politicians seek to obstruct the work of journalists who may be reporting on issues that they deem to be damaging to their political careers or personal reputations – something we know a thing or two about.
It was not surprising to see the report observe that independent publications opposed to policy in at least one country have been “throttled economically”.  We can speak first hand of that as our experience shows that advertisers scatter when they see tension between a government and a media house.  They do not want to fall victim to the crossfire, so they run for cover.  Politicians know this and it is a deliberate tactic used to cut off the oxygen of any independent media house – advertising revenue.
Many years ago, broadcast media in Antigua & Barbuda was controlled by the government or the Bird family.  Until Observer Radio fought to enter the market there was no independent media.  That changed and several stations emerged. However, the news environment saw little change.  Today, the news environment, outside of OBSERVER, is, for the most part, politically aligned or owned.  And the situation is not getting better.  Recently, PM Browne announced the launch of his own radio station.  He said that the station was to created to correct “misinformation” but it begs the question, how can this station be anything but a political propaganda station designed to support the prime minister and his party?
In Namibia, the report notes that “independent media are being denied both advertising and information from government agencies and offices, which are now only obliged to provide information to the state-owned media.”  That situation exists to a great extent here.  We may not be denied information but we certainly are not on the same priority level as state-owned media.  And advertising and other revenues find home at our competition far more frequently.  Heck, state-owned media also gets over $8 million per year in taxpayers’ money to do what they do.
One of the most relevant observations came from RSF Editor-In-Chief Virginie Dangles, who said “All of these different kinds of pressure are steadily eroding our democracies from within and can insidiously induce journalists to censor themselves to avoid economic reprisals or the danger of being the target of increasingly violent verbal attacks … This trend is all the more worrying because democratic governments no longer hesitate to use ever more radical methods to obstruct the work of the media.”  Nothing really needs to be added to that statement.
Media, as a whole, and journalists, in particular, are the watchdogs of democracy.  Today, politicians are more interested in their image and their ego than listening to any criticism but they would do well to listen to the words of another US president, Thomas Jefferson, who said, “where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”  Ask yourself, is all safe?

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