Press freedom in Jamaica is on a downward slide.
In 2021 Jamaica peaked at number seven in the world rankings. In 2022 the country's ranking slipped to number 12. In a publication to mark Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2023, Reporters without Borders (RSF) revealed that in the space of one year the country had slipped 20 places from 12 to 32 out of 180 countries.
In response to the latest ranking, minister without portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for information Robert Morgan, in a Jamaica House press briefing, downplayed the troubling trend by pointing to the positives, such as the fact that Jamaica remains in the top 25 per cent of countries in press freedom. Those old enough to remember the troublesome 1970s would take the minister's reassurance as comfort to a fool.
The relationship between politics and the press reached its lowest point in the late 1970s during the Administration of Michael Manley. In a running battle, Manley used some choice words to describe The Gleaner referring to the newspaper as the "call girl of North Street" and its editors, writers, and publishers as "pimps of imperialism". Most famously, the then prime minister adjourned a Cabinet meeting to lead a march on The Gleaner because he did not like what it was publishing about his democratic socialism and his flirtatious relationship with communists inside the People's National Party (PNP) as well as the leadership of Cuba and the so-called non-aligned countries. At the end of the march, Manley issued a no-too-veiled threat: "Next time".
Fast-forward almost 45 years. The current PNP President Mark Golding did not need to march on The Gleaner. He was invited on the inside, leading a delegation which participated in a Gleaner Editor's Forum.
Golding has found himself in a conundrum, choosing to defend his party's General Secretary Dr Dayton Campbell against charges by the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) over comments he made from a political platform the weekend before. Dr Campbell was reported to have referred to the Cliff Hughes-led Nationwide News Network as an "incubator for the Jamaica Labour Party". To prove the point, he named former employees of the station who went on to work for the Jamaica Labour Party.
PAJ President Milton Walker criticised the comment, calling it an assault on press freedom. He warned that the words could place the stations' journalists at risk of being attacked by partisan activists and supporters. So said, so done. Within a couple of days following the warning, a gunman fired a weapon in the direction of the station from the gate at a time when staff leaving work would be gathered in the parking lot. There is no evidentiary link between the two incidents. Notwithstanding, no one should fall for the embattled Campbell's protestation that his words of incitement had nothing to do with the attack.
Cliff Hughes and his Nationwide News Network (NNN) are competent to defend whatever editorial position or political leaning the station may have adopted, which is their right to do. Nevertheless, those who cherish press freedom and have an insider's perspective that runs counter to the image of the radio station portrayed by the Campbell fiasco are compelled to add our voices to condemning a situation that has generated much heat but very little light.
The Watchman, a five-minute commentary presented by the writer, has had its 584th airing on NNN, a privilege extended by the station without cost. The commentary is dedicated to bringing positive publicity to the iconic but troubled birthplace of reggae, Trench Town. The last time I checked, Trench Town was firmly entrenched in the PNP's stronghold of St Andrew South, represented by the leader of the Opposition. My own family background, going back to my late father Rev Dr Cyril Morgan who ruled the roost for the PNP as Member of Parliament for St James South Eastern back in the day, is as orange as it gets. "Sir Cliff" has never expressed a concern about political orientation or affiliation.
One can almost, with certainty, predict that the 2024 report on press freedom will see a continuation of Jamaica's downward slide. Politicians like Campbell, whatever he perceives his role to be, must understand that incidents like these transcend local politics. Jamaica's international reputation for not just press freedom but good governance is at stake.
Dr Henley Morgan