Freedom calls for vigilance everlastingly!

Imagine a Barbados where the independent media are no longer free, because of political pressure or Government interference, to report on events in a fair and balanced manner; offer comment and analysis on issues of public interest; or publish perspectives that may be occasionally critical of Government policy or the Government itself.

Should such a scenario ever occur, even though it is most unlikely, the Press would become pretty much like state-owned media across the Caribbean, churning out public relations pieces and propaganda disguised as news that would always be giving a positive spin on everything the ruling party or government is doing –– as if we were living in a blissful utopia.

Most Barbadians would agree with us that such a possibility is extremely remote. However, freedom of expression and freedom of the Press are so important to the effective functioning of democratic government, such as what we have in Barbados, that they must always be jealously guarded and never ever taken for granted.

World Press Freedom Day –– which was observed yesterday –– called attention to the priceless value of Press freedom and freedom of expression to human development and the promotion of democracy around the world. The theme for this year’s observance, under the usual sponsorship of the United Nations, was Let Journalism Thrive.

This theme is of direct relevance to Barbados, given the general unfriendliness displayed by the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration towards the media. Ironically, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart keeps saying his administration is committed to a “Barbados that is socially balanced, economically viable, environmentally sound and characterized by good governance”.

The administration’s media unfriendliness calls into question this commitment to good governance. It is seen most glaringly in Mr Stuart’s refusal to call regular Press conferences to engage journalists and, through them, update the Barbadian citizenry on key issues –– to which they have a right. Mr Stuart’s approach stands in sharp contrast with that of his media-friendly predecessor the late David Thompson.

Mr Thompson adhered to a policy of quarterly news conferences during his almost three years in office that demonstrated a strong commitment to openness and accountability. Mr Stuart, on the other hand, is perhaps best known for maintaining a deafening silence, despite pleas from Barbadians for him to level with them in a meaningful way on the issues that matter to their lives.

To mark World Press Freedom Day, top United Nations officials noted that “freedom of expression and Press freedom are critical to the successful implementation of good governance”. Responsiveness, transparency, accountability and participation are among the defining characteristics of good governance; but, generally speaking, they are woefully lacking under the Stuart administration. We hope he is listening and taking note of how the world community defines good governance.

The various challenges facing the media today in Barbados point to an obvious need for a strong and effective interest group to speak on media issues with one clear and loud voice. Competition for market share does not mean an opportunity does not exist to work together to advance common interests.

Considering precedents which have occurred elsewhere in the Caribbean, we should never let our guard down where Press freedom is concerned if we wish to ensure similar abuses do not happen here.

Press freedom was severely curtailed in at least two instances already in our CARICOM region. Under the 1979 to 1983 People’s Revolutionary Government in Grenada, ownership of private media was considered involvement in counter-revolutionary activity. It landed persons like former prime minister Tillman Thomas and the late newspaper publisher Leslie Pierre in jail.

In Guyana, especially after it became a cooperative republic under the late president Forbes “Odo” Burnham, newspapers critical of the People’s National Congress (PNC) administration had their lifeline almost severed through severe restrictions on newsprint. The best known victim of this policy was the Catholic Standard, under the courageous editorship of Jesuit priest the late Father Andrew Morrison.

The media have a critical role in good governance. If the Stuart Government is truly committed to this ideal, it can tangibly demonstrate such by moving with haste to improve its strained relationship with the media and supporting quality journalism by bringing, for example, the promised Freedom Of Information Act. Quality journalism, says the United Nations, “enables citizens to make informed decisions about their society’s development” while also working to “expose injustice, corruption and abuse of power”.

Despite the obvious fundamental difference in their respective roles, we see no compelling reason why the Government and media cannot strive to work amicably together, on the basis of mutual respect, in the interest of national development to which both sides are equally committed.

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