Wednesday, May 8, 2013

MAJ Chair Christopher Barnes’ brilliant take on media

Delivered at World Press Freedom Day Breakfast Forum - 3 May 2013
Jamaica has been ranked 13th in the world for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders which is something for all to celebrate especially on a day like today, and where there are so many other countries (especially in Latin America) faced with greater press freedom challenges. We are ranked number one in the Western Hemisphere which, though we have become accustomed to hearing that we are number one thanks to our music endeavours and athletic performances, should not be taken for granted. 

Christopher Barnes.We have some of the finest journalists in the world and our media houses are all dedicated to maintaining transparency in our public affairs. My litmus test of how well we are doing is the many complaints of bias which swings like a pendulum with administrations and political parties (and please believe that I wrote this before yesterday’s events). All signs that we are doing our good work.
If I were to stop here in my remarks, one would be tempted to think that everything was fine and that we should all just applaud, conclude our breakfast and return to work. However this is not to be. 

If we are so good at what we do, and our press freedom ranking is so high, then why are we as a country so challenged? Our economy is suffering from anaemic economic growth, with astronomical debt crowding out the private sector; a decline in social values is manifesting itself in a high crime rate, where many cannot discern whether even the most blatant of criminal acts is right or wrong;  corruption suffocates the life blood of the economy, diverting much needed financial resources to non-developmental activity; an overwhelmed justice system with inadequate capacity to make an impressionable dent on the impunity which exists; and an education system churning out underqualified people into the workforce. All the above serve to constrain Jamaica's ability to keep pace with global development. 

A big factor in all of these developments over the years, but admittedly not totally responsible, are policy decisions made from both sides of the political divide. 

Ladies and gentlemen, there are many more questions to be asked; many more difficult questions to be answered. Media still has a considerable amount of work to do as the eyes and ears of the average citizen. 

If there is no way to shed the light on the perpetration of all of these acts, the status quo we enjoy will either continue into perpetuity or further deteriorate. It is well known that media only scratches the surface in terms of exposing what is wrong with our country.

So, yes we do enjoy a great deal of press freedom according to some standards, but, in light of the above, I will dare say that our degree of freedom is still very much limited.  Limited by:
1) the amount of effort we put into it,

2) the administrative barriers which exist for media,  

3) the economic health of media.

Let’s deal with the first; I hear, from my experienced and more established journalist colleagues, that some of us have become lazy, opting to go for the easier stories citing time constraints and limited information. Solid journalism is required to navigate the issues we have, to ensure credibility and integrity. Training and transfer of traditional good journalistic values, along with a belief in the virtues of the craft will help. We must accept that we must demonstrate that we responsibly discharge our duties given the powers afforded to us. The PAJ is better qualified to speak to this, and by my own experience is tackling this.

Secondly, there are several administrative barriers existing which deserve mention:
Libel law Reform: The changes to the libel laws, which are to be tabled shortly, and I must commend the Justice Minister for giving priority to this effort which continues from the previous administration, actually do nothing to give media more power to pursue the truth. Apart from the abolition of criminal defamation, the changes are housekeeping in nature. Transformational change in this arena would have allowed for a much higher degree of scrutiny of public officials.

The Access to Information Act: We are still struggling with the inefficiency of the process, which often times frustrates the investigation of items of public interest in a timely manner. The MAJ and PAJ made submissions to a parliamentary committee some 4 years ago; we have yet to see the adoption of recommendations or improvement in the process.
Broadcast Regulation: We have a very active regulator in our industry who is to be commended for their commitment to hold licensees to the high standards set. The associated costs of their future plans however will require vast financial resource which the regulator is seeking to recover from the regulated, through additional fees and fines never contemplated by the industry. 
Digital Switchover: There are proposals from the regulator for massive technological overhaul of distribution to be funded entirely by the FTA media, without what we feel is comprehensive justification and assessment on the potential impact for the end users; our people. Consultations are ongoing.

On the subject of economic health, the media engine is in large part fueled by a vibrant market economy where marketing spend supports newshold and production. News gathering and dissemination (especially the investigative type), all critical to exercise of press freedom, require significant investment of financial resource. The poor economy manifests itself through flat to declining revenue spend from clients, used to cover unavoidable cost increases arising from an inflationary environment. (And this is before the new proposals mentioned earlier.) The result: less capacity to fund much needed news operations.  A look at publicly traded media houses’ results over the years will support my assertion.

Now is the time to advertise
Private sector leaders should take note: Now is the time to advertise for collective benefit. Advertising in traditional media is an investment far beyond exposing your product, but extends to an investment in continued or improved transparency in governance, constructive policy and strategic allocation of public resource to influence growth in our economy.
If you accept from what I have said today, press freedom remains under threat by a different measure. For the auto enthusiasts in the room, Jamaica's press freedom movement needs to be more akin to an F1 team than the horse and carriage team we are more likely to be associated with. This should not be allowed to happen if we are to have our press freedom measure up to the more lofty standards we should be setting for ourselves to be truly transformational as a nation.

I could not close without giving high praise to those front runners in an often thankless profession who commit themselves daily to exercise and preserve the precious freedom we have. Jamaica owes a great deal to you. Being #1 hasn't stopped my friends Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce from taking on new challenges. I'm sure they've learned that from you. Keep up the fight.
Today, I expounded on what was wrong with Jamaica given the platform afforded to me. Please understand that there is so much right with Jamaica that encourages us to tackle the wrong. This with the hope that the Jamaica we leave for our children and grandchildren is once again admired for its development. I can't think of a better way to kick off child month. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is for the children.   

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