Mon | Oct 16, 2017

Will media press back or fold?

Published:Sunday | December 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Will media press back or fold?

Despite the illusion of a worldwide deepening of democracy created by more nations holding frequent elections; expanded private freedoms in formerly repressive countries; burgeoning transparency's new best friend, social media (anyone with a Twitter account or Facebook page can pretend he/she's a journalist), press freedom has never been more vulnerable nor censorship more prevalent.

First, elections don't guarantee democracy. Russia, Turkey and Venezuela all hold regular elections, but none have a true democracy. In Jamaica, we have elections every five years to decide who'll run roughshod over us without restraint for the next five years. Democracy can't survive without elections. But elections alone don't create democracy.

Jamaica doesn't (yet) imprison or behead journalists, but denouncing media is standard political strategy whenever anything uncomfortable is published. This is the first step towards censorship. Recently, Senator Lambert Brown publicly referred to AndrÈ Jebbinson as "stupid" simply because young AndrÈ insisted Lambert answer the question asked and not substitute bluster and bombast. For this contemptible behaviour, Lambert hasn't been publicly reprimanded by anybody in Government.

On Wednesday, November 26, AndrÈ Jebbinson's mic was forcibly confiscated while he asked the de facto information minister awkward questions. Another journalist's mic was cut off. "I determine what I answer," the minister pouted. Maybe. But it appears she also wants to decide what's asked. We've started down the slippery slope. Destination: repression.

Between 1992 and 2002, 390 journalists were killed worldwide. Between 2002 and 2012, that number increased to more than 500. Cause of death is more often being targeted as a journalist than incidentally related to combat. Terrorists are censoring journalists most efficiently by beheading, which tends to focus others on consequences before reporting negatively on terrorists' activities. In the good old days, BC (Before Computers), doctors and journalists were the safest people in war zones - journalists because their reportage inevitably included carrying rebel messages. But, with social media taking over the world, journalists have become expendable and, accordingly, vulnerable.

Come gather 'round people wherever you roam

and admit that the waters around you have grown

and accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you is worth savin'

then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone

for the times they are a-changin'.

Also linked to the computer age is the drying up of sources because governments' digital surveillance of low-level civil servants discourages leaks. The protection of sources, always a sine qua non of journalists' credibility, is now almost divine commandment, since sources are themselves under close supervisory scrutiny, making communication with journalists beyond difficult.

Government sources remain journalists' most effective weapon against partisan propaganda, so the utmost confidentiality is essential. Journalists who reveal the identity of sources in circumstances short of torture may as well retire, because they won't again be trusted by any source.

TERRORIST OF NEWSROOM

With these dangers to press freedom lurking around every corner, the last thing journalism needs is self-censorship. Yet this is exactly what's happening in Jamaican media. Ever since the celebrated case of Anthony Abrahams v Gleaner where an initial libel award of more than $80 million was reduced by consent to $35 million, media management has become the new terrorist of newsrooms everywhere. Once the slightest sniff of discomfort is shown by the subject of an investigative report, stories are spiked; swift apologies and retractions are printed; frivolous lawsuits are settled.

Come writers and critics who prophesise with your pen

and keep your eyes wide the chance won't come again

and don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin

and there's no tellin' who that it's namin'.

For the loser now will be later to win

for the times they are a-changin'.

One senior reporter recently told me a story of persons of interest seen escorted to a police station for questioning in a marked police vehicle. When asked, police responded, "Yes, we have them and are questioning them." The story is reported. Lawsuits fly because of the use of the phrase "taken into custody" when the claimants insist they went in voluntarily. Instead of stoutly defending press freedom, the media house runs for cover and settles.

SHORT-SIGHTED MEDIA

But to report persons arriving at a police station in a police vehicle were "taken into custody" is a fair comment, whether or not it's 100 per cent accurate. These persons neither walked in nor drove their own vehicles. They were "taken in". Perhaps they consented to be taken in. So what? Perhaps, in law, they were not "taken in". Again, so what? It's fair comment on a matter of public interest made without malice and, accordingly, defensible.

It's just this sort of short-sighted, penny-wise and pound-foolish attitude by local media owners that ensures endemic corruption goes unreported and unexposed; that demoralises the very persons (working journalists) upon whom the rest of us depend to repel any attempt to corrupt THEM; and ensures Jamaica's media landscape is manned by information conduits instead of fearless fighters against corruption.

The Anthony Abrahams case has terrified Jamaican media, but is a one-of deal that is unlikely ever to be repeated. In that case, the claimant alleged and proved (without serious contest) that, as a result of the libel, he lost his lucrative livelihood as a tourism consultant and became a penurious radio talk-show host. The award was thus inflated to include a compensatory element for loss of earnings and loss of future earnings without specifically allocating sums under those categories.

Additionally, the defendant's conduct throughout the litigation process aggravated the claimant's damages, especially when responses ordered to queries were delayed for years while the defendant alleged it awaited information from sealed grand-jury indictments in order to respond. To nobody's surprise, that information was never forthcoming.

Once media act responsibly, give the subject of a possibly denigrating story an opportunity to respond, and prints/broadcasts that response in full (any "no comment" published verbatim can help negate subsequent denials at trials of frivolous lawsuits), and corrects inaccuracies as soon as they're brought to light, libel laws in no way endanger press freedom. But a frightened, timid media is no media at all, and must accept a large portion of the blame for endemic corruption and injustice in Jamaica.

In Jamaica today, where corruption, like chik-V, is the gift that keeps on giving and so-called anti-corruption agencies self-aggrandising, ineffective profilers, media are our last hope. Jamaican media are their own worst enemy and the source of the preponderance of press censorship.

The line it is drawn; the curse it is cast.

The slow one now will later be fast

as the present now will later be past.

Your old road is rapidly fadin'

and the first one now will later be last.

For the times they are a-changin'.

It took folk legend, Bob Dylan, from August 6 to October 31, 1963 to record his seminal album, The Times They are a-Changin', for its 1964 release but, before the recording was complete, he performed the title song at Carnegie Hall on October 26, 1963. The song was written as an anthem for change and is just as relevant 50 years later.

It's a little-known fact that, like Jamaica's own legendary Bob, Dylan often placed reliance on the Bible for his lyrics. In this song, "and the first one now will later be last" bears an uncanny resemblance to Mark 10:31.

BE CITIZENS'PROTECTORS

The Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) just completed a week of patting itself on the back, including with a variety of self-serving awards while a strangling media, gasping for breath, begs for the Heimlich manoeuvre to dislodge the bone in its throat. If media houses aren't prepared to spend some of their profits defending working journalists, thus promoting media's purpose as citizens' protectors and producing likely increased profits long term, what purpose do they serve?

If PAJ won't agitate for working journalists' right to be paid a living wage; to fearlessly seek and publish truth; and to get support from media owners in that altruistic mission, of what utility are PAJ's shiny toys (oops, sorry, 'awards')?

Peace and love.

n Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law.

Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.