WE JOINED with the world yesterday in observing World Press Freedom Day. At a time when the role of the media has dramatically changed and when there are concerns about the State’s moves to pass legislation that could have an unduly harsh impact on the freedoms journalists enjoy, we take a moment to nonetheless take stock of the largely favourable conditions which we enjoy relative to the rest of the world. It is important to remember that in dozens of countries all over the world, publications are being censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while reporters, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and, as was the case recently in Malta, even murdered.
We would like to pay tribute to the many journalists who have lost their lives in the pursuit of a story. This week’s commemoration of World Press Freedom Day is a reminder to governments of the need to respect press freedom. It is also an opportunity for us to reflect on the past and consider the future. The media still have a long way to go.
One of the major challenges to press freedom is the increasing culture of impunity which sees people and even State entities withholding information. Various principles are cited such as so-called confidentiality clauses. Globally, it has emerged that in some jurisdictions, super injunctions have been sought and granted in relation to stories even before they have been published.
Here at home, this country has fallen from 34 to 39 in the latest rankings of Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. In contrast, Jamaica has risen from eight to six. Among the factors that undoubtedly played a role in our shift is the proposal for new laws that leave journalists more exposed to the State’s law enforcement machinery for matters which sometimes are out of their hands. Initial drafts of cybercrime legislation contained a raft of strict liability offences with enormous penalties which could only serve to have a chilling effect on the profession as a whole.
A large concern of organisations like the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago is what happens when whistle-blowers are not protected? And what happens when information in the public interest is shared in situations where it is impossible to confirm how the information was obtained?
While we have had our ups and downs over the years, the press is relatively free with a specific constitutional provision to protect it.
That protection must be balanced by responsible reporting. It must also recognise that journalism must strive to impose the standards that social media does not. The recent extension of defamation to cover Facebook posts is a reminder of how much else is not policed in that virtual domain, despite its capacity to do great harm.
Which is why the State must get the balance right when it comes to press freedom.