Is Free­dom of the Press Un­der At­tack?

The Star (St. Lucia) - - FRONT PAGE - By Toni Ni­cholas

“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.

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