One of the perhaps predictable responses to calls by the Press Association of Jamaica & the Media Association of Jamaica to exempt journalism entirely from the Data Protection Act, has been to ask "Who do they think they are?" and "Do they think they're special?"
The very easy answer to that question is yes, we are! Not as individuals, but because journalism occupies a special, privileged position in democratic countries, because of the tremendous significance of freedom of the press.
Because parliamentarians refused to include a clause protecting the right to a free press in Jamaica's Charter of Rights, the press rely on the right to freedom of expression. But still, the importance of the press as a sub-set claiming protection of that right is undeniable.
UNESCO said on World Press Freedom Day 2014:
"…a free, pluralistic and independent news media, on all platforms, is important for facilitating good governance and transparency. Within the much-broadened media landscape, news media still remain central conduits for ongoing public assessments of the activities of government and other institutions that have developmental impact…Only when journalists are free to monitor, investigate and criticize a society's policies and actions can good governance take hold."
This is a principle that has been recognised by courts, advocacy groups, and inter-governmental organisations for decades.
Jamaica has consistently ranked extremely high on the press freedom index developed every year by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, and successive governments have made few overt moves to curtail that freedom. This does not mean we can relax our vigilance, as freedom of expression is easily, and insidiously, undermined.
Having grown up in a country in which we can fire off letters to the editor on every conceivable topic and call up local radio programmes (constrained only by the restrictions of defamation law), not to mention speak our minds at community meetings to political representatives and government officials, it becomes easy to take our freedoms for granted.
In the criticism of Jamaican journalism for not being better than it is, in the rush to dismiss local news output as inadequate and superficial, it's easy to forget how critical it is to have a free and open media. It's easy to forget the good work done, in condemning the poor.
It's easy to forget that Jamaican journalists have been responsible for many important stories about waste and corruption in government, stories about the plight of suffering citizens overlooked and ignored by the systems of government that exist to help them, stories about ineffective and unresponsive government agencies, and that Jamaican media have given a voice to a diversity of views on society and government policy, many sharply critical of government, and have held politicians to account.
This is not an attempt, today, to defend the quality of Jamaican journalism. We can always do better and must always aim to do better.
But what we are doing is critical in a democratic society. So no, the work of journalists cannot be equated to the work of other business operators, for the purposes of the concerns we have raised about the Data Protection Act. These include the certain chilling effect of the criminal penalties, fines and imprisonment, which could be imposed on journalists and media houses, the requirements to register and provide particulars of reasons for the collection and use of information, the lack of protection for journalistic "sources" and the dangers to the financial viability of our media houses.
It's not the same because journalism occupies a special place in democratic societies and discussions about protecting the profession must begin with this realisation.
In October 2017, the Financial Times published an article titled "UK Warns Data Rules Used to Stifle Journalism." The article said, among other things that:
- " the tactic of invoking data protection rules to squash coverage is also being used against investigative journalism"
- "editorial legal director at The Times and Sunday Times, said: "We are getting told when we go to subjects for comment that we can't process their personal data, which raises the concern that post-publication we might be mired in a costly action"
- "some subjects named in the Sunday Times's 2015 investigation into blood doping in athletics — which involved the records of 12,359 blood tests taken from more than 5,000 athletes — tried to use data protection laws to prevent their personal information being released"
"even where unsuccessful, the time and costs involved for media companies in defending such cases could stifle free speech, lawyers warned"
Impacts on the much smaller media houses in Jamaica could be disastrous.
Now would be a good time to tek sleep and mark death.
Dionne Jackson Miller
President, Press Association of Jamaica