Tuesday, April 20, 1999


by Martin Henry

The English-speaking Commonwealth Caribbean has one of the freest presses in the world.

Jamaica, the largest English-speaking territory and my home country, has a long history of a vibrant and free press. The Gleaner, for which I write a weekly column, is one of the oldest continuously published newspapers in the world. It first appeared on Saturday, 13 September 1834, six weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation which freed Negro slaves in British colonies.

Today the media landscape in Jamaica is thickly dotted with three national daily newspapers, several regional papers, seven radio channels, three television broadcast channels and dozens of imported cable channels, as well as magazine and book publishers. The government recently privatized its radio and television holdings and has never owned newspapers. So the media is today completely under private commercial control except that government information services use legally reserved time and space in the private media.

Limits to freedom

The most significant issues facing the press concern the limits to press freedom, the responsible use of freedom, the relationship between press and government, the influence of imported content, and the role of the press in the development of young, independent countries.

These and other issues were raised at a Caribbean conference on 'the Media and public confidence' in Jamaica from 15-19 April, organized by the International Communications Forum.

On the day the conference ended the country exploded into violence, bringing into sharp and painful focus the very issues discussed.

On Thursday 15 April, the Minister of Finance had announced a large tax hike on gasoline, effective the following day. Protests began on Monday after a quiet weekend. There is little doubt in my mind that early media reports unintentionally fuelled the escalation of protests.

Up to noon on day one, there were only scattered roadblocks which the midday newscasts reported. Within two hours, Kingston was totally locked down with roadblocks. For the next two days the country was brought to a standstill. Media personnel filed graphic reports. Two TV stations showed explicit footage of the partly clothed body of a young woman killed by gunfire in the protests, one of nine casualties.

The press was free to report the protests but was restricted in investigating the political causes of the protest by the Official Secrets Act. The OSA, journalists complain, unduly limits access to the inner workings of government.

To a large degree, the protests were driven by a public perception of an unjust tax burden. More information about the decision-making of government might have averted an estimated Jam$10 billion of damage and the loss of life.

When the government provided more information and, importantly, a mechanism for dialogue, protesters quickly offered a truce and withdrew from the streets. The Jamaican government is now contemplating a Freedom of Information Act which will allow greater public access to state information.

Roadblocks have become a popular form of protest in Jamaica. They frequently provide dramatic footage and sound bytes. Protesters often refuse to disperse before the cameras arrive, even if they are addressed by the authorities whose actions or inaction they are protesting about.

The slogan of one television station-'putting you in the picture'-is often taken literally by protesters.

Is the media merely reporting the news, or is it helping to foment protest' Did the press report the gas tax protests responsibly' . This is a difficult one. Alongside the responsibility to 'tell it as it is' is the responsibility to judge fairly 'how it really is' and not to further inflame an angry population.

The boundary between sensationalism and accurate reporting of a violent crisis is hard to judge. What was the news value of exposing a dead woman on the TV screen?  The media did, however, follow through with extensive reporting and analysis of the resolution of the conflict.

Talk shows

Some would argue that the media is not sufficiently aggressive in probing the government. Perhaps the most important role which the Caribbean media can play is responsibly to criticize governments and hold them accountable.

One of the main public forums is the talk shows which flourish in Jamaica and across the Caribbean, a few of which press heavily against the laws of libel and the OSA. The most critical talk show hosts are accused of being 'negative' and even 'destructive'. The tax protests have however provided them with some justification. If the rising complaints of the people against the tax had been heeded, it is argued, violence might have been averted. But detractors argue that the negative talk shows helped to precipitate the protests.

The distrust of the media common in some countries is not evident in the Caribbean. The reverse is true. As public confidence in politicians and other leaders has sunk to unprecedented lows, the media has risen in stature.

The President of the Press Association of Jamaica told the ICF conference that, as people run out of institutions they can trust, there is heavier reliance on and greater public trust in the media. How properly to carry this enormous weight of responsibility without arrogance, usurpation or exploitation is perhaps the biggest and most fundamental issue facing the press in the Caribbean today.

Martin Henry is a communications consultant and a lecturer in Communication at the University of Technology, Jamaica.