Wed | Jan 23, 2019

It always looks harmless at first

Published:Sunday | December 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Gordon Robinson
Gleaner reporter Gary Spaulding (left) cracks up Huntley Medley, director of communication at the OPM, at a church service kicking off Journalism Week on Sunday, November 23. Three days later, Medley and journalists clashed over access to the microphone to question Sandrea Falconer at a Jamaica House press briefing. -Rudolph Brown/Photographer

Gordon Robinson

On Wednesday, November 26, press freedom was violated at a post-Cabinet press briefing.

I hope nobody shrugs off the spectacle of a journalist asking too many awkward questions having the microphone wrested from his unwilling grasp, and another, whose persistence is notorious, having his muted. "A no nutten" isn't appropriate here.

It's another step towards repression. First, Government gets away with blaming "biased" media for its infractions. Then it gets away with labelling social media inconsequential ("the articulate minority"). Then, one day, journalists are silenced by any means necessary, including physical interference. Before you quint, new rules to restrict information flow are implemented and journalists who persevere are blacklisted, banned or imprisoned for breaking the rules.

On November 27, the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), through its director of communication and public affairs, Huntley Medley, issued the following news release (edited only to avoid offending word count sensibilities):

"Media reports on the unfortunate developments at [yesterday's] Jamaica House media briefing haven't all conveyed the position and views of the Communication and Public Affairs Department [CPAD] of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM)."

What "position"? What "views"? The briefing's "developments" didn't include any CPAD "views" or "position". Media carried what happened. It's a favourite political ploy to shift blame to media so the wrong isn't that journalists were muzzled. It's that they failed to carry unexpressed "views".

"It's [CPAD's] responsibility ... to encourage, facilitate and support frequent opportunities for media to interface with the PM, ministers without portfolio and other senior [OPM] officials ... . On November 25, the PM gave a commitment to participate in more regular exchanges with media. CPAD will act on the PM's commitment."

When? It's been two weeks. Lennie Little-White has given more interviews than the PM. The PM treats Jamaican media with scorn, especially on this NHT issue, as she hasn't been available for one question except in Parliament where she has no choice. And Huntley complains that André Jebbinson had to ask Sandrea Falconer nine questions. No wonder.

"The Jamaica House media briefing is one ... occasion for media to be provided with information about the programmes and activities of ... the government in general. ... CPAD has consistently advocated for ... fulsome, honest, open communication with media ... ."

Unable to get information

With what information are media provided? "I will determine what I answer" was the latest attempt at press censorship by this de facto 'information' minister. How does yanking microphones from reporters foster "fulsome, honest, open communication with media"? What about "I will not answer any more questions on this topic"? Which of "fulsome'; "honest"; or "open" is that?

"... Basic procedures always existed to guide media briefings ... at Jamaica House. CAPD is responsible for ensuring those procedures are followed for good order. During questions and answers, journalists are required to indicate their intention to ask a question by raising their hands and, on being acknowledged by the person providing answers or the moderator ... , to ask their question and allow for the answer. Journalists might indicate their desire to ask a follow-up question ... . This has always been facilitated and was facilitated [yesterday]."

What's this? Primary school? Has anybody ever seen the garbled cacophony of questions often thrown at US press secretaries?

Jebbinson didn't capture the mic. It was given to him. Why can't he ask as many questions as he likes? This minister's role is information. She must answer all questions without trying to dictate what can be asked. Maybe if questions were answered instead of evaded or blocked; maybe if "fulsome, honest, open communication" truly was the practice; maybe if portfolio ministers were readily available at these "briefings", fewer questions would be asked of a third-party minister forced to fumble and bluff her way through specific queries as to reasoning behind or implications of decisions.

"During [yesterday's] briefing, TVJ reporter André Jebbinson was recognised and handed the cordless microphone ... . Mr Jebbinson initially asked and was allowed about six questions. He was then asked by me to allow other journalists to ask questions, after which he'd be permitted an opportunity to ask any other questions he wished. He indicated he had two more questions. He was allowed to ask the additional two questions and again asked by me to allow other journalists to pose questions. Mr Jebbinson started to ask another question, at which point I took the audio microphone from him and handed it to another journalist."

Here we go again. I don't accept that my public servant is in any position to "allow" my seeker of truth and justice to ask questions. It's the duty of my seeker of truth to ask; it's the minister's duty to answer. How dare you "take" my seeker of truth's ability to seek truth on my behalf away from him? Who are you?

Please note: The journalist to whom the microphone was handed complained bitterly about the "affront to press freedom" he'd just witnessed. He didn't look at all inconvenienced or impatient to ask questions.

"In an unfortunate act of defiance and ungraciousness which some young journalists have mistakenly equated with being probing and fearless, Mr Jebbinson refused to allow me to retrieve the microphone ... which necessitated my exertion of some force in taking the microphone from him ... ."

Fearless journalism

Huntley, apparently you believe you need to justify your cushy government retainer by patronising "some young journalists" in this condescending manner. Well, some old citizens, including this one, also equate Jebbinson's and Fitz-Henley's approach with being fearless and probing. We support it. We encourage it. We consider the 'information' minister's attitude to be defiant and ungracious. We consider your attitude inappropriate, uncivil, dangerous and indistinguishable from straight-up censorship.

"Another unfortunate situation again occurred during the briefing after several questions were asked by Abka Fitz-Henley ... . On being asked to permit other journalists to pose their questions, he also refused to relinquish the cordless microphone ... . I gave instructions ... to mute the microphone."

No journalist is obliged to "permit other journalists to pose questions". Journalists are there to ask questions on behalf of ministers' employers, and ministers should be there to answer them. If we must pay the salary of an 'information' minister, to act as ministers' proxy and shield, what else does she have doing? If the briefing takes all day, fine. When she gets tired of answering, she's free to leave. And we're free to draw our conclusions from her departure. It's the arrogant air of aristocracy offering largesse that grates.

"I accept the very negative impression that's been created by my actions and the media reports of what transpired. On reflection, I'm convinced I did what was right but mightn't have done it right: My motives were correct, but my methods mightn't have been the best ... ."

Oh, dear. Huntley, please stop this repeated disingenuousness. It's NOT "media reports" that created the negative impression. It's YOUR clumsy public attempts at press censorship that can't be airbrushed or danced around. There's NO RIGHT MOTIVE for what you did. C'mon, man!

"... I'll NEVER be party to any attempt to muzzle journalists in the performance of their duties."

But you DID muzzle two journalists. Actions speak louder than words, Huntley.

"However, journalists also have a duty to act responsibly, fairly, and to recognise and respect the rights of others, including their own colleagues. The reporter from one of the daily newspapers ... told me after the event that she was unable to ask any questions as the time was monopolised by the TVJ/Nationwide reporters."

Subsequent social media reports have that reporter denying she told you any such thing. But, suppose she was shut out. Whose fault is that? If the minister did her job, which is to answer questions from ALL journalists without restriction, nobody would be disappointed, except maybe those unwilling to answer questions or who want to "determine" what to answer.

"CPAD will continue to facilitate the media to access information from OPM ... . We'll also review arrangements for ensuring the orderly flow of media exchanges involving [OPM] officials with an adherence at all times to basic operating procedures."

Uh-oh. There's the sting in the tail. New censorship rules are coming. Should this come to pass, journalists should boycott all future government press briefings without hesitation.

Peace and love.

Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to