The World Press Freedom Index, prepared annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has pushed Jamaica from sixth to 12th, and the local media watchdog body the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) has reacted in a strange way.
In an interview with Nationwide News Network (NNN) reporter Abigail Bartley, posted on the NNN website on May 4, President George Davis’s first response was to downplay the significance of the overall drop.
In the first of three audio clips, he explains: “Fact is that they have changed the way the matrix is set up to measure press freedom in a particular country…I wouldn’t consider it a fall… the environment, where Jamaica is concerned, continues to be safe.
Indeed, there is a new format. It assesses the performance of countries in relation to political, economic, legislative, social, and security considerations. Rankings in the individual categories are then tallied for the overall ratings.
In the second audio cut, Mr Davis says:
“The relationship between journalism and those who are the subjects of journalism is extremely healthy…and the number one ranking in that area is most accurate… I find this to be one of the most pleasing aspects of this year’s assessment by Reporters Without Borders.”
In the third audio insert, Mr Davis comments on the legislative category, noting that there are “issues on the legislative side that we want to see straightened out”. As an example, he cited the need for completion of the review of an amendment to the Access to Information Act.
“But,” he assesses, “in real terms…there is not much to complain about, certainly nothing to stage a public demonstration about, and so it continues to be an environment conducive to the free working and movement of the press and for that we are thankful.”
Overall, Mr Davis seems to be saying, “Don’t worry too much about the rankings. Basically, all is well. There could be improvements here and there, but we are thankful.”
I beg to disagree. The reality on the ground says otherwise, and this stance evokes the old Jamaica saying: “Fire deh ah mus-mus tail, im tink ah cool breeze!”
In the first place, how can a move from sixth place to 12th not be a fall?
NNN sees it as such: ‘Jamaica Drops 5 Places’; The Gleaner sees it as such: ‘Jamaica moves down in World Press Freedom Index’; The Jamaica Observer left it to columnist Wayne Campbell to tell readers on May 10 that: “Jamaica is down five places…” Have they all got it wrong?
If the unfavourable shift is to be blamed on the new matrix being used by the RSF, how come seven of last year’s top 10 countries have retained their place in the top 10 with this same new matrix?
What is even more curious, is that, in the same breath that the PAJ brushes off the move from six to 12 as an inconsequential adjustment caused by matrix change, it embraces as “most accurate” the new matrix’s rating of Jamaica as Number One in the “social” category.
The new matrix is posted along with the results on the RSF website and members of the media fraternity, especially students, should have a look at it.
On the matter of overall press freedom, Mr Davis asserts that: “...the environment, where Jamaica is concerned, continues to be safe” and “conducive to the free working and movement of the press”.
But the RSF report is not so upbeat. It says, “The Jamaican free press often openly criticises officials, and journalists have occasionally reported intimidation while doing their work, particularly ahead of an election.”
Which is a more accurate representation of the reality in Jamaica?
I think a better picture can emerge if we agree on an understanding of what is a free press.
The RSF definition is: “Press freedom is defined as the ability of journalists as individuals and collectives to select, produce, and disseminate news in the public interest independent of political, economic, legal, and social interference and in the absence of threats to their physical and mental safety.”
Does this exist in Jamaica?
Infringement on press freedom has been a constant feature in Jamaica’s history, not just from governments, but from private sector entities who value and promote the interest of shareholders and investors over that of the critical need for the people of the country to be properly informed on a timely basis.
Of course, social media, a two-edged sword, has a role to play in this process of communication and is playing it well, but social media can complement, but not replace, the primacy of an established media environment spearheaded, organised, and manned by professionals.
With regard to government infringement, the most outstanding, in my view, is the failure of this Administration to compensate The Gleaner photographer Rudolph Brown.
Four years ago, on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 13, 2018, Brown was pepper-sprayed by a police constable while doing his photographic duties in Cross Roads, St Andrew.
The Jamaica Constabulary Force accepted blame and the Government agreed to compensate Brown. Despite input from the PAJ, Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), Jamaica Constabulary Force, Mr Brown’s legal representative and the Attorney General, among others, Brown has still not received a cent of compensation money! As I noted in The News on the occasion of last year’s Press Freedom Day, “This is unacceptable behaviour on the Government’s part and a slap in the face of the profession as a whole.”
Then, in addition to the ATI shortcomings cited by Davis, there are the matters of looming danger is the Data Protection Act and the $1-million fine for taking pictures in or outside of courthouses. Journalists also have to brace for the “enhanced security measures” promised by Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
The shameful removal of outstanding Jamaica Information Service CEO Donna-Marie Rowe, on the ground that her contract had expired, is another worrisome indicator. It raises the whole question of job security in the media and the widespread use of short-term contracts in both public and private sector media.
In its message on World Press Freedom Day (May 3), the PAJ itself assessed that: “For the sake of survival, they [journalists] are forced into freelancing arrangements that lack the health insurance and other benefits that are mandatory in a full-time job.” The trade union movement is also deeply troubled by the use of these short-term contracts.
Is this an environment “conducive to the free working and movement of the press”, as assessed by Davis, and for which “we should be thankful”?
These are just some of the issues which the PAJ should be constantly tackling if it is to regain the media watchdog status and respect built up over the past seven decades.
But the issues have to be tackled by a united, broad, and solid body of practitioners, not just by a handful of well-intentioned journalists. We need a robust and truly representative body.
Nimble legal footwork to keep the PAJ constitutionally compliant can take us so far and no further in this direction. The occasional statements, seminars, and an annual celebration are unconvincing evidence of effective stewardship.
This is why I strongly recommend that every effort be made to regularise the constitutional status of the PAJ with the holding of the long-overdue Annual General Meeting before any other major undertaking, including the celebration of National Journalism Week.
Davis can also use this meeting to share with the media fraternity his puzzling response to the RSF ranking.
This meeting has to be the priority if we are to rebuild the association to the level at which we command the respect and develop the clout necessary to tackle the awesome task at hand.
I know that mobilisation is always hard work, but with vision, determination, commitment, and proper planning, it can be done.
Clarence “Ben” Brodie is a former president of the Press Association of Jamaica and managing editor of community newspaper, The News.