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Editorial | Powerful case for entrenched press freedom

Published:Thursday | January 28, 2021 | 12:12 AM

PETER GARTH, the evangelical pastor, is on the money about the inherent value of a free and independent media to a liberal democracy. It is an acknowledgement which, given Rev Garth’s influential voice, we hope will help to nudge Jamaica’s Government towards legislative action that deepens these freedoms.

We, in the circumstances, repeat our suggestion that the Government adopt the call by the Trinidad and Tobago High Court judge, Frank Seepersad, directed at that country’s legislators, that Parliament pass legislation to better protect against having to reveal their sources. Further, when Prime Minister Andrew Holness gets around to his promised constitutional reforms – which we trust is imminent – the strong, implicit guarantee of press freedom in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms should be put absolutely beyond doubt, with an explicit declaration to that effect.

But media and journalists must also be clear that their implied compact with the societies they serve comes with responsibilities. Their obligation is to trade in facts and to tell the truth. Journalistic integrity is not, or ought not to be, a fungible commodity, capable of acquisition by the powerful, or exchangeable for favours.

That journalists should be reminded of the weight of their jobs and of the burden of their responsibilities is underlined by Rev Garth’s metaphoric – we hope – observation about the temptations that are often dangled before reporters and the sufferance that is likely to follow an integrity that is not acquiescent.

“There are some powerful persons out there, sometimes they give cards that you can use at places where you can sit and enjoy the beaches in Jamaica, [but] if you say something that they do not like, they sometimes ask you to turn in that card,” he said in a sermon on Sunday, at the start of the Press Association of Jamaica Journalism Week.

The antidote to such pressures, first, is a resilience built on a full appreciation of the higher order of the compact between the press and community.

Journalists in liberal democracies receive privileged access on the basis of two fundamental principles. One is that they, and their institutions, will leverage the individual’s right to free speech and to exchange, to create an environment of transparency that helps to hold governments, and others who exercise power, accountable. That is good for democracy.

Second, when the governments go beyond acceptable democratic norms and threaten freedoms, or otherwise undermine good governance, the media, with their technological capacity for amplification – printing press, radio and television, information dissemination via the Internet – are expected to be at the forefront in galvanising support for a return to equilibrium. In other words, a free press is an important insurance policy for liberal democracy.

Yet, a free and aggressive press, which is to say, one that does its job properly, is often discomfiting for those in authority. But as Rev Garth said: “Only when journalists are given the space to operate freely, to observe, ask questions and report, (and) to freely investigate without fear of arbitrary reprisal can a nation, can Jamaica, be confident that decision-makers will be held to the highest standards ... . Continue to do so.”

This essentially echoes remarks by Justice Seepersad in his ruling earlier this month, that a police search of the offices of the Trinidad Express newspaper, for the sources of an investigative article about a senior police officer whose bank lodgements were being investigated under Trinidad and Tobago’s Proceeds of Crime Act was unconstitutional.

Not ‘Exempt from Accountability’

While acknowledging the Trinidadian media, despite freedom of the press being entrenched in the constitution, was not “exempt from accountability”, the judge noted that information unearthed by investigative journalists “can, in fact, catalyse much-needed change by exposing wrongdoing which may have, for far too long, flourished in dark”. He held that protection of journalistic sources was an “integral facet” of the constitutional declaration of freedom of the press. Therefore, “a careful and proportionate balance has to be struck between the interests of justice and the public interest on the one hand and the interest of free and fearless journalism, which includes source protection on the other”.

Freedom of the press is not as yet a declarative statement in the Jamaican Constitution. Until then, a purposive interpretation of the “right to seek, receive, distribute or disseminate information, opinion and ideas through any media” should provide the same effect. Against this backdrop, Justice Seepersad’s proposal for legislation similar to Canada’s, to provide a scheme, overseen by superior court judges, for the issuing of warrants for the search of journalists, would also make sense for Jamaica.

Jamaica, however, should start by removing journalists and journalistic institutions from the cover of the island’s Data Protection Act and the danger and menace reporters and their sources could face from a legislatively powerful and overreaching data czar.