Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Press freedom: gains and pains

Published:Saturday | September 13, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Peter Espeut, Columnist

The framers of Jamaica's 2011 Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, despite a strong public lobby, stubbornly refused to include the phrase 'freedom of the press' as one of the fundamental freedoms to be enjoyed by Jamaicans, as is done elsewhere. Neither is the phrase 'freedom of speech' mentioned in so many words.

However, we can consider 'freedom of speech' to be covered in the Jamaican Charter under 'freedom of expression' [Section 13(3)(c)], since speech is a form of expression and arguably, 'freedom of the press' is included in "the right to seek, receive, distribute or disseminate information, opinions and ideas through any media" (sic) [Section 13(3)(d)].

Freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press these are important blocks in building a free and democratic society. Without freedom of expression, only a few would be able to state their real views, and the quality of education would be affected. Without freedom of the press, democracy would be under threat, as only a few would have access to the information essential to make electoral choices.

But there is a deeper reality. Without freedom of expression - especially through mass media - Jamaica would be simply ungovernable. There are few countries in the world with as much economic/ethnic inequality as Jamaica in terms of educational opportunities, land ownership, access to social status, and so on. Elsewhere, this has led to social upheaval, riots and revolution, but Jamaica is relatively stable.

THINGS COULD BE WORSE

Freedom of expression, through the electronic media (wall-to-wall talk shows almost 24/7), has allowed disadvantaged people to verbally vent their frustrations, rather than seek redress through violence. We are, nevertheless, a very violent society, and have one of the highest murder rates in the world, but without freedom of expression, through a free press, things would be much, much worse.

Reggae and dancehall music, Revival, Rastafarianism and ganja also provide safety valves - through either expression or withdrawal.

Our world ranking, with respect to press freedom, seems perversely proportional to our global ranking with respect to inequality. According to the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders, Jamaica ranks 17th of the 180 countries assessed - the highest in the Americas - higher than Canada (18), Costa Rica (21), Antigua (36), Trinidad (43) and the USA (46). All the 16 countries ranking higher than Jamaica are in Europe, except New Zealand (9), and these do not include the region's former colonial masters, the UK (33), Spain (35) and France (39).

The ranking, in terms of inequality, varies with the method used, but the World Bank ranks us 38th out of 141, with only Haiti (7) and the Dominican Republic (28) more unequal than ourselves in the region.

In the context of gross injustice and inequality, our freedom of expression has helped us to avoid revolution and social upheaval, but has not much helped us to form a just and more equal society. To this extent, it has served to maintain the status quo and, for that, freedom of the press is less the gift of the government and the owners of capital, and more an essential political strategy for survival.

In the 20-plus years I have been writing a column in this newspaper, I have been fearless (family and friends call me foolhardy) in exercising my freedom of expression to criticise the powers-that-be for corruption, inconsistency and non-performance. I am not sure it has made much of a difference. A shameless government and its private-sector paseros will be unmoved by the exposure of corruption and hypocrisy, and a compromised Church jealously protecting her privileges will be judiciously silent.

Still, we have observed some change. Rampant electoral fraud has been reduced (but with no convictions), and scores of corrupt policemen have been dismissed from the force (very few convictions). How much of this is local initiative and how much is imposed on us by foreign interests remains to be seen. Whichever it is, Jamaica's free press would have played a role.

But the fact is that the scandal of the garrisons remains, with their attendant political thugs and extortionists; politicians declare their assets in secret, and campaign contributions are still made in secret; the corrupt connection between contracts and waivers, and political donations remains. Police killings are still unconscionably high.

And so we have freedom of the press - much more than most - and Jamaica would be much worse off without it but I think you will agree we have not made the best use of it.

Congratulations to The Gleaner on its 180th anniversary! Let us see what progress can be achieved in the years to come.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist, and has been writing a weekly column in the Gleaner since February 1992.