Sun | Dec 4, 2016

Will media press back or fold?

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

Gordon Robinson, Columnist

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 André Jebbinson as "stupid" simply because young André 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, André 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.

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