Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom

MEDIA-CARIBBEAN: A Chill in the Air

Peter Ischyrion

PORT OF SPAIN, Jun 27 2007 (IPS) - At a Caribbean media conference to mark World Press Freedom Day last month, Patrick Cozier, the general secretary of the Barbados-based Caribbean Broadcasting Union, issued a grim warning.

Cozier told delegates to the two-day meeting in St. Lucia that while the Caribbean was fortunate not to suffer the challenges encountered by journalists in South America, Southeast Asia, parts of Africa and the Middle East, the region should guard against lapsing into complacency as there were “threats which impinge upon the whole question of freedom and democracy in our societies”.

Recent events in the Caribbean have underscored his words.

Deportations from Antigua and Barbuda, arrests in Barbados, and a government advertising boycott of a leading Guyanese paper are among the developments that have forced Caribbean media workers to recall Cozier’s speech.

The Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) said the crackdown has vindicated the predictions in its special report titled “The Looming Storm” released two years ago.

“There has never been any doubt in my mind that we face the prospect of a multifaceted assault on free expression in the Caribbean, if only because almost all our societies are in a state of social crisis,” said Wesley Gibbings, the ACM’s general secretary, who edited the 2005 report.

In Guyana, the Bharrat Jagdeo government has stuck to its position, despite regional and international criticism, of refusing to take out advertisements in the independent Stabroek News, which it felt had been critical of the administration prior to last year’s general and presidential elections.

The Government Information News Agency said that the decision to place advertisements in the Kaieteur News instead was based on economics rather than a press freedom issue.

“Kaieteur holds the mantle today as the largest private newspaper, carrying a deeper dissemination capacity than the Stabroek News, not only nationally but internationally within the Guyanese Diaspora in New York City,” the government news agency said, without providing supporting circulation figures.

Last month, a four-person regional media delegation, which tried to intervene in the dispute, said it was unable to resolve the issue after holding talks with Jagdeo.

The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also wrote to Jagdeo, referring him to the Inter-American standards on the allocation of public advertising.

“According to these standards, the use of official advertising in order to punish or reward social mass media based on their approach to coverage may create an undue restriction on the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article IV of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man,” the IACHR said, giving Guyanese government 15 days to respond.

Across the border, the state-owned Suriname Television Service pulled the plug on a popular news programme after Vice President Ram Sardjoe reportedly called on the producers not to air segments on the ongoing China-Taiwan diplomatic tussle in the country.

Producers of “Suriname Today” said the programme would have dealt with the efforts by Taiwan to get Suriname to switch its diplomatic allegiance from China.

The Surinamese Association of Journalists described the intervention as a “flagrant violation of the right of free expression”.

Sardjoe insists that his intervention was necessary. “I regret that the producers are claiming that they were being censored, but as the government we have to look after the national interest of the country,” he said.

In Jamaica, where general elections are due later this year, the media have been caught in the middle as the two main political parties intensify their campaigning.

Both the Press Association of Jamaica, which represents media workers, and the Media Association of Jamaica, which represents media owners, have raised concerns about “inflammatory” statements by the leadership of both parties.

The two bodies have since called for a meeting with the political ombudsman, Bishop Herro Blair, particularly after Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller fired another salvo, accusing media bosses of suppressing news that portrays her party in a positive light.

Her comments seemed directed at the Jamaica Observer, after the paper did not carry a political poll which showed the ruling People’s National Party ahead of the main opposition Jamaica Labour Party.

Meanwhile, the arrest of a television cameraman and the “roughing up” of a newspaper reporter and photographer while covering a motor vehicle accident has led to a call for the enactment of press freedom legislation in Barbados.

Attorney Michael Lashely made the call after his client, Jimmy Gittens, was released on 750 dollars bail and ordered to reappear in court on Jul. 11 on charges of trespassing in the compound of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

“I also call for a Freedom of Information Act because we definitely do need some sort of legislation to allow the press to do what is necessary once their actions are within the parametres of the law,” he said.

In Antigua, the deportation of journalists Vernon Khelawan and Lennox Linton has also raised eyebrows.

Khelawan, a Trinidadian, and Linton, a Dominican, were booted out of the country earlier this month, with Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer saying they lacked the necessary work permits.

“There comes a time when one has to deal with the laws of this country and if it affects certain persons, so be it,” Spencer said, while his Labour Minister, Dr. Jacqui Quinn-Leandro, a former journalist, applauded the decision to expel the media workers. Both men deny the charges, and say they will take the matter to the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice, which has responsibility for interpreting the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Single Market and Economy regulations that allow for free movement of workers, journalists included, across the region.

The Association of Caribbean Media Workers said the Antigua incident provided “evidence” that that government “is not committed to honour its obligations under the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas and is prepared to take action in contravention of the rights of journalists to practice their profession.”

“This is not an assault on breached immigration regulations, it is an attack on the free press,” said the ACM, which has written CARICOM chairman Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, who is also the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, about the issue.

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