Columns

You don't get your own truth, PM

Divisiveness, governance, and the media November 2019

HOWARD GREGORY

Sunday, December 01, 2019

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Jamaica has been blessed with a democratic system of governance of which we can be truly proud. It has been characterised by a smooth transition in governance from the introduction of universal adult suffrage. Our electoral system has evolved to become the envy of many nations, and personnel from our electoral office are being sought to advise and participate in elections in other countries. It is among the premier achievements of our political parties and has demonstrated what can happen when our political leaders work together in the interest of the nation.

Additionally, we can boast an effective and functioning balance of power within our system of governance between the executive, legislative and judicial arms, even as we witness leading democratic nations of the world struggle to maintain the integrity of the balance between the various arms of governance.

One significant aspect within this functioning democratic system has been the freedom of the press and electronic media, as well as freedom of expression. Freedom of expression among a people means the affirmation of diversity, as well as plurality of opinions and perspectives. But, while a free press and electronic media speak of access to information to be shared with the public, questions are constantly raised regarding the extent to which the media channels are instruments for the shaping of the society or merely reflecting that which currently exists.

Across the world today systems of governance are taking more and more control over the life of citizens, and there seems to be no commensurate exploration of the kind of values which are informing the decisions being made, and the extent to which these reflect the thinking and values of the members of the society. This has been evident in the actions taken by governments to limit the rights of citizens in the interest of national security and the prevention of terrorism, as well as the collection of bio data across the world.

In this context, the free press can only function effectively where there is access to information regarding the operations of State, and the actions of those responsible for decision-making; the level of professionalism of journalists; the extent to which journalists are free from the threat of reprisals and threats by public officials; and the extent to which the journalistic community is free from constraints by the biases of the ownership of the institutions with which they are employed.

Given all of these conditionalities, Jamaica has had a relatively free press. Nevertheless, over many decades there have been those who have taken issue with the press. Chief among these have been politicians and party functionaries and, to a lesser extent, private citizens, who have alleged partisan bias by various media houses. What is interesting in all of this is the way in which the same media house has been accused by the two major political parties of being partisan toward the other simultaneously.

Our contemporary world is witnessing a new type of engagement of the media which has far-reaching consequences for our democratic process. It is true that the way we gather information/news has changed with technology and especially social media. News comes to us in real time before the media and the press can structure and package it.

There is, however, a venturing into this realm by political leaders which does not augur well for the functioning of the democratic system of governance. While some political leaders and aspirants have used social media to garner support for their candidacy and to inform their followers, there is now a developing twist by which utterances in the public sphere, supported by messages in social media, are used as a kind of broad-brush to attack the media as lacking in credibility. Indeed, its advocates purport that the media is corrupt and has clear intention to mislead and deceive the citizens of the nation. It involves an introduction of a language which seeks to create confusion and obfuscation in the minds of citizens as to what represents truth or falsehood and, in the process, advancing terms such as “alternative truth/facts”.

Not only does it result in the blurring of the minds of people as to what constitutes the truth, making it difficult for people to distinguish between truth and falsehood being fed to them, but it creates a context and mindset in which everything becomes relative and subjective. The end result is that it becomes a vehicle of control and manipulation by its advocate, who then advances the position that truth is to be found in what he/she, or surrogates, churns out.

Not as obvious is the danger which this creates for the lives of those journalists who represent this declared source of 'falsehood' from the written and electronic media. One only has to turn to the major networks in the US to see how this is being played out on a daily basis. Truth is to be found in the tweets of the one who attacks the falsehood that comes forth from the media.

It must then be a matter of serious concern that at the same time the Press Association of Jamaica was celebrating Journalism Week, Prime Minister Andrew Holness should launch a broadside against the traditional media; asserting that people should look to his social media for factual information. In a report carried in this newspaper he is quoted as saying in part:

“I was just listening to the news before I came here, and you know the news report is the news report; I make no comment on the opinions proffered by journalists, because that is the freedom of the society. They can take whatever stance they want to take because it's free media. It doesn't have to be the truth. It doesn't have to relate to the facts, [because] it is their opinion…

“What you have to understand, as persons consuming the news, is that not all the things that are presented to you are the facts or are the truth…

“You can go on social media. You can go on my page… all my social media pages, the party pages. You have so much news opportunities to keep informed, you don't have to rely on one particular medium for information, or commentary, or opinion.

“I wonder whether or not they have conducted an analysis. It is not their duty. They can just give you their perspective, because that's how it is with a free press. It is my duty to point out to you certain facts. If they are correct, then thank God they did. If they don't, then I have to keep saying it and use other methods of getting the information to you…”

However one may choose to read and interpret these comments, there is clearly a juxtaposing of the press against his personal social media in a manner that leaves no doubt that “truth” and “facts” are to be found in his releases. The fact that such a statement was made in the context of a party gathering is no comfort, as any utterance from the prime minister is to the Jamaican nation, and as such receives national attention in the very media characterised as lacking in its truth-telling capacity.

As a leader who has emerged out of the post-Independence generation, and who has indicated his commitment to bring a new style of leadership to this nation, one hopes that Prime Minister Andrew Holness will reconsider his utterance, will learn from the divisiveness and confusion which this kind of undermining of the traditional is creating in the US, and acknowledges that our democratic system of governance is deserving of a better paradigm for defining the role of the media in our nation.


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