Is Freedom of the Press Under Attack?
“The free press is the mother of all our liberties and of our progress under liberty.”
Several times a day, as I walk up the stairs to my office, past a large poster bearing the words of the late United States vice president Adlai E. Stevenson, I am reminded never to take my work lightly - that our nation’s present and future depend on how informed is our society. Often, too, one of the STAR publisher’s favourite quotes comes to mind: “A nation that forms detailed opinions on the basis of detailed fact which is askew from the subtle reality becomes a nation of citizens whose psyches are skewed, item by detailed item, away from any reality.”
And then there is this, attributed to the Senator from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd: “When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.”
For some time now leading local government officials have suspended once regular meetings with the media in favour of being interviewed by government personnel or individuals on the party payroll. And count on it, no questions will be asked that might be slightly embarrassing, regardless of how much in the public interest. With elections imminent, mushy interviews have turned into opportunities to attack the regular media.
What to make of Harold Dalsun’s repeated allegations from his party platform in Dennery, while referencing “media propaganda”, that local interviewers of government ministers concentrated only on negatives? At the risk of being stamped ‘truth be told’, I am surprised sometimes by the amount of airtime given politicians with little to say that makes sense. A personal note: I continue to wait to hear Mr. Dalsun say the cost to taxpayers of the evidently forgotten Town and Village Council Report. I first put the question to the minister at a press conference four years ago. He had no useful response then and apparently still does not have one. Those who may still be waiting for due process in the matter had better not be holding their breath, considering that the DPP has already revealed the report lacks evidential support.
Then there was the deputy chairperson of the ruling Saint Lucia Labour Party, Ms Virginia Albert-Poyotte - a former educator who sought recently to take her own sneaky shot at the media. What had angered the lady were press reports that referred to Babonneau as a seeming hot spot for suicides. Two out of five suicides this year had occurred there as well as some of those in previous years.
Ms Poyotte was well placed to inform Saint Lucia about steps taken by the government to investigate why the Babonneau residents had taken their own lives and the support, if any, given family members. Instead, at a so-called “suicide debriefing” last week, a health ministry official seemed to blame the Babonneau suicides on “copycat syndrome”, words echoed by Poyotte without any scientific data or analysis.
Meanwhile many have cited economy-related depression as among the main reasons for the spate of suicides, also poor healthcare services and inadequate support systems. No surprise that the health minister and Babonneau MP Alvina Reynolds has also sought to scapegoat the media for the shortcomings of her office.
At a Gros Islet rally held in honour of Saint Lucian women, Reynolds accused the press of not informing the nation of “the good works” undertaken by her ministry. There was, she said, its efforts at fighting Chikungunya, and the Zika virus, the Pedi Gres programme, among others – all of which have been given coverage by both the electronic and print media.
Said the Babonneau MP: “It is clear the other topics we speak on, the social issues, you don’t hear them discuss this. Maybe there is not enough roro in this for them.” Of course, the MP neglected to mention the several women savagely raped. She had not a word about the forensic lab that has been shut close to a year. As for when the Vieux Fort and Owen King hospitals will be operational, well, it seems Ms Reynolds is as much in the dark about that as are the rest of the population. How her more deprived constituents have been coping since the “temporary” closure of the pharmacy at the Gros Islet polyclinic, hopefully the MP knows, even if she did not tell her Gros Islet audience.
All of this had me thinking: Could it be that local politicians expect the press to be an extension of the governmentcontrolled media? Our main responsibility is to keep the nation informed, especially on matters related to governance. Parliamentarians have been afforded several avenues by which to get their messages to the public - including party flack catchers decked out as regular journalists. And while we insist on free expression, most local journalists are aware of our responsibility to be responsible.
After four years in office, neither the prime minister nor his ministers have convened a press conference to discuss general matters. Instead they choose to participate in what amount to self-interviews. That the public appears to condone this insult to the national intelligence is most regrettable and not conducive to accountable government. The nation deserves much better. Then again, if the press will not protest the treatment dished out to them by our elected representatives, how then can we expect individual citizens to stand up against what we all know to be wrong and often illegal?
As the STAR poster I mentioned earlier reminds me: “Freedom of the press is not an end in itself but a means to the end of achieving a free society.”
At an earlier time the local media had been warned by harbingers about the political tables at which they supped and the parting gifts they were handed
and by whom.