Sat | Oct 19, 2019

Gordon Robinson | Press? Or house-trained dogs?

Published:Tuesday | October 8, 2019 | 12:07 AM

We seem incapable of dispelling illusion or reacting thoughtfully to national reflex tests.

Take, for example, a recent ministerial order seeking to amend the Access to Information (ATI) Act to extend exemption for access to Cabinet papers from 20 to 70 years. The standard howls of ‘protest’ from chattering classes like PAJ, MAJ, JFJ, NIA and other ‘concerned’ citizens materialised in response to the tap from a national reflex hammer.

Madness, they exclaim! We’ll all be dead, they brilliantly predict! Where’s the accountability? Sigh. Accountability? It hasn’t relocated. It remains firmly ensconced at nowhere lane, nobody parish, and never postal code. So, for once, let’s affix knee braces to help us focus on thinking this thing through.

ATI, passed in 2002 and welcomed with open arms by a pusillanimous, compliant Jamaican press, was an improvement only on the then constitutional position ensuring zero accountability and access to the square root of flipping nothing. Documents excluded from the provisions of ATI were, like Michael Jordan, unbelievaBULL, including ‘National economy that could harm the economy’ (WHAT? Surely Cabinet decisions are taken to prevent harm?); ‘related to the Cabinet’ (second cousin?); ‘legal privilege’ (Government enjoys NO LEGAL PRIVILEGE as against the people on behalf of whom it governs); ‘trade secrets’ (Government is a private higgler?). Who decides which documents fit into these all-encompassing categories? How long does THAT process take? Seventy years?

In 2011, the new Charter of Rights bestowed the following ‘rights’ on an already politically blinkered citizenry:

“(c) to freedom of expression;

(d) to seek, receive, distribute or disseminate information, opinions and ideas through any media”

At that time, the PAJ (Press Association Jamaica) was tricked by Parliament not to press (ouch) for the inclusion of press freedom based on Government’s opinion (sigh) that it was the same as ‘freedom of expression’. The work of the press involves much more than expression and is fundamentally based on access to official information, not just the right to disseminate information. You can only honestly disseminate information you receive and can verify.

Freedom of the press, as guaranteed in the US Constitution, means “the right to publish and disseminate information thoughts and opinions WITHOUT RESTRAINT OR CENSORSHIP [my emphasis]”. USA case law established this shifts the onus to government to justify ANY restraint or censorship of ANY official document usually ONLY for national security reasons, which must be specifically explained. If press freedom was enshrined in our Constitution, ATI, as currently crafted, would be unconstitutional. Instead, Jamaican media embrace it.

Another government trick

Government is allegedly by the people and for the people. Instead, we accept government as rulers entitled to keep their information, advice from advisers, deliberations and reasons close to their political chests. If any court simply published decisions without reasons or notes of evidence, we’d revolt. I see this 70-year proposal and its subsequent ‘withdrawal’ as just another government trick. I won’t be surprised to hear Government offer ‘dialogue’ and settle with protesters at around 40, where it always wanted to go. The PAJ can then publicly declare victory. Government will overtly appear sheepish while covertly celebrating.

The PAJ’s renewed fight for constitutionally entrenched press freedom is long overdue and shouldn’t be deflected by this non-issue. Unless the PAJ accepts its members’ role as house-trained dogs barking at passing press freedom breaches (like criminalising photographing of persons involved in public issues or banning access to ALL Cabinet-related matters) like passing cars. And begging for the supper dish.

I don’t expect better from the MAJ because big business rarely steps on political corns, but the PAJ must learn, as it didn’t in 2011, how NOT to take ‘no’ for an answer. It can begin by boycotting all ‘media appreciation’ parties until we have real press freedom in Jamaica. THAT would be ‘media appreciation’. In any event, the PAJ should reconsider future attendance at these hugfests. Those optics are unflattering.

Time for the PAJ to fight for our rights using more than fighting words.

Peace and love.

Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.