By Charles Arthur for ’Eye on the Caribbean’, an AlterPresse service in conjunction with the Haiti Support Group
London, 2 May 07 [AlterPresse] --- 2006 was a mixed year for the media in the Caribbean region. In St. Lucia, there was a rare victory for media freedom advocates when the government withdrew a law that had threatened journalists with jail terms if found guilty of spreading information deemed to be false or damaging to the public interest. Commenting on the repeal of Section 361, Guy Ellis, editor of the St. Lucia Mirror newspaper, saw the influence of an October judgement by the British Privy Council, which ruled for the first time that journalists had the right to publish allegations about public figures, so long as they were responsible and what they reported was "in the public interest".
In Haiti, there was a welcome improvement in the general situation. Following elections in February and April 2006, the creation of a coalition government helped reduce the tensions that have recently blighted both the political scene and the media environment. Haiti’s new government has been much more tolerant of a freely functioning media than its predecessors. Entrenched poverty, the easy availability of firearms, and a deeply corrupt judicial system, all conspired to make life difficult for Haitian journalists, but, after the violence and intolerance of recent years, movement in the right direction must be applauded.
Against this, there was a serious deterioration of the press freedom situation in the Dominican Republic, where three journalists were murdered, at least one of them because of his profession, and another journalist was the object of an alleged plot against his life orchestrated by a senior government official. There was, in addition, a general increase in the number of acts of violence, abuse, and intolerance against journalists and other media workers. Worrying, too, was the Inter American Press Association’s assertion that there has been an increase in wiretapping and other forms of spying on some of the country’s journalists and executives at various media outlets.
The lot of media workers in Guyana also gave cause for concern, following two deadly attacks that cost the lives of six media workers. Ronald Waddell, whose television talk show had been taken off the air at the end of the previous year because of government complaints, was shot dead in January. One colleague said, "He did not hesitate to denounce collusion between the government and drug-traffickers. So one cannot rule out the possibility that they wanted to silence him, even after his talk show was taken off the air." Later in the year, five Kaieteur News pressroom workers were shot dead by a group of unidentified masked men. The attack did not seem to have been related to the newspaper’s work, but it still instilled fear among media workers in the country.
In Puerto Rico, a group of around 20 journalists were showered with pepper gas and assaulted by FBI agents as they went about their business of reporting on a FBI raid. The Puerto Rico Journalists’ Association described the incident as "a wilful, unprecedented, criminal and vicious attack on people that were executing professionally the freedom of the press."
In many of the smaller island nations, the most contentious issues revolved around governments’ reactions to negative media coverage, and the authorities’ threats to regulate radio stations if their talk shows continued to air the libellous and insulting views of telephone callers. Often these tensions played out in the form of public outbursts by elected officials, the trading of insults, and the issuing of threats that, in the end, came to nothing.
However, in some cases, the repercussions of governments’ intolerance put individual journalists in danger, and sent an intimidating message to their colleagues. Addressing colleagues on 3 May 2006 - World Press Freedom Day - Dale Enoch, the president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM)*, stated that criminal defamation remained on the statute books of most states in the region, and broadcast media liberalisation was being accompanied by "anachronistic notions of information control and blatant attempts at censorship."
There was little progress with efforts to persuade Caribbean governments to pass freedom of information (FOI) legislation. The issue was discussed at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting with parliamentarians, public officials, media, and civil society representatives, held in Dominica in October. Participants noted that of the Caribbean island nations, only Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, have so far enacted FOI laws.
Media workers’ associations in some individual countries were active – notably the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, and St. Kitts and Nevis – but in too many others the associations lay dormant or non-existent. Speaking at a forum in June, Wesley Gibbings, the general-secretary of the ACM, warned journalists and media houses to prepare themselves and defend their profession in the context of what he depicted as "clouds massing for the looming storm". [ca gp apr 02/05/2007 09:30]
*The Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) is an organisation of journalists and media worker associations spanning the Caribbean Basin. ACM web site: www.acmediaworkers.com
Haiti Support Group web site: www.haitisupport.gn.apc.org