Celebrating press freedom

DEMOCRACY is facing its most serious crisis in decades. Its fundamental principles are under attack. The integrity of elections is being widely questioned, protections for minority groups dismantled, judicial bodies tampered with, and the rule of law flouted and undermined. This is the fraught context in which UNESCO today begins its three-day programme of celebration in Addis Ababa of World Press Freedom Day, which is formally marked on Friday.

TT ranks 39th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index produced annually by Reporters Without Borders. Yet a survey of the horizon is dismal. There is no free press in our nearest neighbour, Venezuela, whose people were on the streets of Caracas these past several months, and including yesterday, seeking to secure even wider freedoms. Cuba ranks among the world’s ten worst-rated, according to the latest report from Freedom House. Jamaica is consistently highly-ranked, but even that country has limits on how the single most distressing aspect of its society, crime, can be reported.

We enjoy freedom of the press, a right enshrined, at least on paper, in the Constitution. We have often boasted that our journalists have not been subjected to violence as they are in war-torn zones. Yet it is no longer enough to observe that our journalists have not been killed, as Lyra McKee was in Northern Ireland a few weeks ago. Subtle tactics of intimidation can be as equally effective.

Only 13 per cent of the world’s population enjoys a media environment where coverage of politics is robust, the safety of journalists is virtually guaranteed, state incursion in media affairs is limited, and the press is not subject to burdensome legal and economic pressures.

Media workers in this country still face a barrage of obstacles. Such obstacles come in the form of attempts to block coverage of flooding, attacks on journalists in media boxes by irate members of the public, personal attacks on reporters by politicians at press conferences, and the heavy-handed exercise of power.

Mere weeks ago officers knocked on the door of a media organisation as though they were sent to tackle a gang of criminals, while Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith has sometimes set a poor example by adopting a caustic approach to questioning and criticism.

And this is not to mention cutbacks in advertising spending by state agencies, the use of legal tactics to suppress stories, the wilful frustration of the Freedom of Information Act, and the failure to make public key reports lodged in Parliament or produced pursuant to public statutes.

This newspaper is all too aware of these challenges. But the biggest threat to press freedom is misinformation. Authoritarian regimes are wilfully engaging in strategies to inflame, not inform. The Mueller Report about the 2016 US election provides but one example.

Independence and credibility, values that we hold dear, are the only weapons that can counter such an onslaught. We are aware of our responsibilities, even as we hold others to account. We pledge to continue to do so, mindful that without a free press democracy dies.


"Celebrating press freedom"

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