Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) President George Davis has grudgingly admitted that Jamaica’s move from six to 12 in the World Press Freedom rankings is really a fall. Mr Davis actually used the word “fall’ in his June 12 response to my observations in this newspaper the week before. Nevertheless, he continues to try to explain away the fall as being the result of a new method being used by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to rank 180 countries.
Of course, the matrix change would have an impact on the ratings, but why did Jamaica’s have to go down while other nations, some with notorious press freedom records, moved up on the scale?
Singapore, for example, described by RSF as “a model of economic development but it is an example of what not to be in regard to freedom of the press, which is almost non-existent”, jumped 21 places — from 160 to 139. Saudi Arabia, with the blood of butchered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi still dripping from its hands, jumped four places — from 170 to 166.
Why did Jamaica go down?
Other than the fall in ranking, Mr Davis’ response to the matter of Gleaner photographer Rudolph Brown not being compensated for being pepper-sprayed by the police and the recent removal of Donna-Marie Rowe from the JIS are the only matters worthy of comment.
On the Rudolph Brown case, the PAJ being ‘appalled’ that Rudolph Brown has not been compensated after four years is not good enough. The association is obliged to make every effort to see to it that this is done. If ‘strong representations’ have not yielded results, try something else! For example, has the matter been raised with the Public Defender?
With regard to Mrs Rowe, Mr Davis says “Mrs Rowe’s decision to move on from the JIS is not a matter of press freedom.”
As journalists wedded to facts we need to get it right. Mrs Rowe never decided to move on from the JIS. She had no choice. She was pushed out. Even the minister will tell you that “her contract was not renewed,” though, in his words “she did an amazing job in taking JIS to where it is now.”
There is no question that the Government has the legal right not to renew any employee’s contract. But the question that the PAJ should be asking is why?
Why is this professional — who in 2020 won the RJRGLEANER Honour Award for public service “for her inspiring leadership of the JIS, managing its transformation into a modernised government agency” — being cast aside?
What at the JIS is now so difficult for this highly skilled lady to do? Has the media watchdog fallen asleep?
Is this how dedicated professionals are to be used and thrown away without just cause? What can those left back at the JIS expect?
Where press freedom comes in is that the Rowe ouster highlights a serious problem faced by journalists in both the public and private sectors — insecurity.
Journalists will never be at their best if they have to be constantly wondering whether or not their contract will be renewed. As we see in this instance, performance does not matter, hence the constant insecurity.
The problem is that where insecurity reigns, keeping the job becomes paramount and the standard of journalism is bound to be affected as self-censorship is often the result. The effort to ‘keep the job’ leads to the people’s right to full and free information being whittled away day by day; and that, Mr Davis, is a press freedom issue.
This aspect of press freedom poses a serious problem not only in State-owned media.
The privately-owned media have a long history of intimidating and penalising journalists who stand up for the rights of media workers, and it gets more dangerous when the State and private media combine to interfere with the people’s right to full and free information.
Insecurity in media and elsewhere is facilitated by the proliferation of multiple short- term contracts replacing standard full-time employment arrangements.
Head of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, Kavan Gayle, told the Jamaica Observer’s Alicia Dunkley-Willis in a recent interview that the union is seeking amendments to the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act “to protect workers against the exploitation of this precarious nature of employment”.
The National Union of Journalists in Britain has secured adjustments in the labour laws there to protect journalists under short-term contracts. Shouldn’t the PAJ be collaborating with the trade unions to establish a more secure future for journalists?
This, Mr Davis, arising out of the Donna-Marie Rowe issue, is also a press freedom matter.
Finally, it is a relief to know that an annual general meeting is to be held in August. I hope other members have been informed. I was not.
My only request is that the meeting be face-to-face. Even schools have reverted to this form of interaction.
— Clarence ‘Ben’ Brodie is a former president of the PAJ and managing editor of the community newspaper, The News.