Press freedom and corruption in Jamaica

Published: Sunday | December 22, 2013 Comments 0

Paul Golding, GUEST COLUMNIST

There is a widespread belief that a free, independent press fulfils a significant role in fighting corruption.

One article of note by Ferille, Haque and Kneller (2007) found that restrictions on press freedom lead to higher corruption, and that both political and economic influence on media are strongly related to corruption.

The expectation is that higher levels of press freedom should be associated with lower levels of corruption.

The Press Freedom Index (PFI) is an annual ranking of countries compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders based on the organisation's assessment of each country's press freedom records.

The 2013 World Press Freedom Index ranks Jamaica at number 13, which is the highest ranking in the entire Western Hemisphere, superseding Canada as number one.

According to the report, some of the issues that have contributed to the low ranking of several other countries in the region are political tension and judicial harassment. Happily, there is an apparent absence of these impediments to press freedom in Jamaica.

Transparency International publishes the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) annually, ranking countries by their perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys.

When the rankings of the top 15 countries in the World Press Freedom Index (2013) is compared to the Corruption Perception Index of 2012, a clear pattern emerges.

The results in Table 1, for this small sample, suggest a close relationship between press freedom and corruption.

The data suggest that countries with favourable press freedom rankings also have favourable corruption perception ranking. Jamaica, with a difference of 70 between PFI and CPI, is a clear outlier; the country with the next biggest difference is Estonia with 21.

We can discuss the merits of the methodology used to determine the ranking on either index, or both, but if we assume that the methodology for both are robust and the small sample used in this analysis is indicative of the entire population, it begs the question: How effective is the Jamaican media in combating corruption?

GOV'T MALFEASANCE

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the local media seem content to do direct reporting on government malfeasance, which is, of course, required. However, there is a paucity of bold investigations in corruption by the media.

As one journalist puts it, "When the society bleeds at the spectre of corruption, media must not remain aloof but must mirror this rot in society and guide the nation by pointing out the architectural framework of corruption and a prescription for a more just society".

Discussions with persons in the media fraternity suggest that economic factors are the main impediments to bold journalism, which could have an impact on corruption. The PFI identifies the following economic factors that can influence media activities: competitive pressures that lead to biased press reports and investigations, the extent of sponsoring, subsidisation, and advertisement and its effects on press coverage and content, the impact of bribery on what is published and the structure and concentration of media ownership.

According to media practitioners interviewed for this article, big advertisers, especially in a market with declining circulation and increased competition, unduly influence editorial content.

One journalist commented: "If you want to know the companies with undue influence, look to see who's got the wraparound cover-page advertisement and those that advertise heavily in both newspapers and on television."

It was further noted that "a big advertiser will call about an impending article/piece and the story will be downgraded".

JOURNALIST Remuneration

Another strong economic/financial issue in the media that influences corruption in the wider society is remuneration for journalists. On the low end, a journalist will take home $50,000 per month; barely enough to survive.

Journalists, in order to survive, must find other sources of income. Survival, therefore, manifests itself in the form of payola, which media practitioners contend is widespread, difficult to prove, and is especially pervasive among entertainment journalists.

Entertainment journalists, it is said, have their own rate sheet of charges to determine or influence what is published and what is played.

Payola is not just for survival purposes; nor is it necessarily cash payment. Other forms of payola include acceptance of gifts, including but not limited to, trips overseas, access to local resorts and high-end cellular phones.

In other cases, journalists, as a natural progression or in order to supplement their income, have become public-relations consultants, and a conflict of interest has arisen as to what is in the interest of the client versus the interest of the public.

Economics also plays a significant role in the general absence of investigative journalism. Media practitioners explain that journalists generally get paid based on the output/daily reporting, while investigative reporting may require two weeks of work to develop a story before its readiness for publication.

NO INCENTIVE

There is, therefore, no incentive to conduct investigative reporting.

Other factors worthy of examination that this article has not commented on include media ownership, the size of the Jamaican market, and the training of media personnel.

The general view of the media personnel interviewed for this article is that Jamaica enjoys good press freedom and there are many journalists who will not compromise their journalistic ethos; however, they contend that the profession has been tainted by corruption.

It is evident that press manipulation and restrictions or undue influence on press freedom have many guises. An important first step by the media in playing its part in exposing corruption would include improving the remuneration packages for journalists; creating an environment which improves the quality of reporting; and elevating some journalists from the grind of daily reporting and reassigning them to investigative work.

Dr Paul Golding is associate professor and dean of the College of Business and Management at the University of Technology. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and pgolding@utech.edu.jm.





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