Editorial | Assure us there’s nothing to fear
Ruel Reid, who is responsible for information in Andrew Holness' Government, made a very curious statement in the Senate last Friday. It was about press freedom. At least, that's how it was titled.
Except that it wasn't a clear and coherent exposition on the subject, but, perhaps, for the observation that Jamaica ranked eighth in the world in the world on Reporters Without Borders' latest global barometer on press freedom. Mostly, it was a flitting set of statements about the growth of social-media platforms, the migration of audiences away from traditional media, and variegated ways in which people, these days, consume information.
Perceptive people, however, know that ideas and intent can be gleaned from seemingly random thoughts, and sometimes even rambling statements of unreason. Minister Reid's remarks, therefore, are likely to arrest the attention of free-press proponents and media analysts for what they meant, even at their most opaque.
Highlighting the use by global terrorist organisations of social media to attract members, and the security threat that this phenomenon could hold for Jamaica, Mr Reid said: "On this new era of disinformation and terrorist recruitment, there is a clear need to find a new balance between privacy rights and legitimate security concerns."
He didn't expand on the question or offer a perspective, whether personal or on behalf of the Government, where that balance might be, or how, and by whom, it ought to be enforced. It was a yawning omission.
Later, noting the "importance that communication channels now play in the economy", with the multiplicity of services that emanate from the new information technologies, Mr Reid segued curiously into the murkiest nether parts of regulation.
"This means," he said, "that the Government itself must move beyond its traditional focus on increasingly narrow and static infrastructure issues and address the consumption and influence of context."
We confess to being unable to decipher, with clarity, what that sentence means. It nonetheless sounds ominous, hinting, it seems, of censorship.
Given this country's proud history of press freedom, a tradition which Mr Reid said Jamaicans must value and "be on the alert to resist any attempt to undercut" it, we give the Government the benefit of the doubt. In this regard, like Mark Golding, the leader of opposition business in the Senate, we look forward to the minister's broader, fuller, and, hopefully, more coherent conversation on this very important matter.
Indeed, this proposed discourse, beyond the issues touched on by Mr Reid, has resonance at a time of growing effort by some leaders, embracing the strategy of America's Donald Trump, to delegitimise the press as a means of dulling accountability.
In this strategy, they invoke Mr Trump's narrative of traditional media, with its invigilation of information for accuracy, context and truth, as purveyors of fake news. They grasp at any and every error, however minuscule, as evidence of original sin.
In the face of potential contagion, the free press must do what gives it worth: report the facts with its context, which, ultimately, leads to the truth. When it errs, it must quickly acknowledge and correct the mistake.
Put another way, the press must help societies maintain serious, fact-based conversations with themselves and others, thereby shoring up the foundations of democracy.