World Press Freedom Day (May 3) usually comes and goes in T&T with the customary “statements” by our media associations and moderate mention by politicians—many of whom are not sure whether they hate or they love the journalists who follow them around. Then, that’s it, until the following year.
This time around, in the midst of one of the more challenging periods in the history of Caribbean media, there was the added context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a UNESCO-led global agenda for the occasion that focused on the practice of (real) journalism “without fear or favour.”
It all set the stage for more than cursory examination of the state of play within an industry already at a critical social and economic intersection—challenged in recent years by the advent of cacophonous social media platforms boasting free content, and the reality of changed mass communication platforms and processes.
Yet, so remote are the compulsions of professional journalism and media as enterprise from a transient band of clueless part-timers that a requirement to operate in the absence of fear or favour registered zero resonance among them. Did you see any of it?
It is irrelevant to some purported practitioners that a professional community operating on the basis of a pledge (however imperfectly pursued) to get the stories of our lives right, is concerned that for both internal and exogenous reasons, their credibility by be undermined. It is a potentially deadly concern.
Apathy in such matters is particularly evident among those laying claim to credentials without the requisite commitment to the key principles of balance, fairness, transparency and accountability.
Opaque online “news sites” with no known boards of directors, managers, editors, reporters, or editorial guidelines including standards for verification. Just the plain brown paper bag of political or commercial reward. Where, within them, consequently, is there a concern about a journalism without fear or favour?
This year, in time for UNESCO’s observances of World Press Freedom Day in the Caribbean, I was assigned the difficult task of examining current developments in the media sector within the context of what researchers describe as “media capture”. It only then occurred to me that the term indeed has meaning beyond historical antecedent in the Caribbean and the realities of countries in democratic transition in other parts of the world.
For though it’s not my view that a concentration of media ownership and/or hegemonic control over journalistic content is our lived reality, the current storm presents risks about which those with a genuine interest in the business of media ought to be concerned.
For those on the periphery laying false claim to turf, it simply does not matter. You won’t hear this discussion among them, even as they pursue the capture of the hearts and minds of media audiences.
For the rest of us, it matters that even as the emergence of new players in large numbers in the formal sector over the past 30 years has reduced the potential for the exclusive stimulation of eyes and ears, the current decline in financial fortunes, quickened by the pandemic, poses the possibility of reversing such status.
The growing financial poverty of the sector accompanied by changes in media market structures and the subversive role of big tech digital multinationals are already presenting to legacy media unparalleled challenges. Now comes the pandemic and actions taken to address its possible impacts.
In almost every Caribbean country there is the shadow of re-emergent state information systems—once the stuff of broadcast industry hegemony—and the resilience of bigger, stronger global corporations with well-known eyes on the news agenda.
All these factors, I warned a UNESCO audience on Monday, can have the cumulative impact of promoting resort to the relative safety of self-censorship while hampering the ability of independent, professional media to challenge existing commercial and political power structures.
There has been nothing, since the transformational impacts of the (delayed) introduction of the printing press in the Caribbean and, much later, the communications environment of a world at war, to match the revolutionary circumstances of the current Caribbean media environment.
A simple question. Think about a world reliant on life-saving news and information from those who operate unconcerned about and unconnected from these realities.