As Journalism Week 2013 wrapped up, guest speaker at the Press Association of Jamaica’s awards dinner Professor Errol Morrison challenged the press to devote more time and energy to covering science, technology and innovation issues in Jamaica and the Caribbean.
“Without STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) we will be hewers of wood and drawers of water,” he said.
He’s right. We don’t spend enough time looking at research and development, science and technology. The same, I know, has been said of agriculture and climate change, to name just two other examples.
Now these are not always sexy issues. They are probably not going to be leading the newscasts. But there is a lot of room in media for all types of issues, discussions and treatments.
As Observer columnist and University of the West Indies research fellow Claude Robinson said at a PAJ forum earlier in the week, “we are not cheerleaders” but at the same time, he said that we have a duty to tell the whole story of what is happening in our country. I’m not advocating acting as unpaid publicists, but I take Claude’s point that we need to look beyond the surface. There is always scope for critical analysis and close examination of issues in all areas of national life. The challenge for us is to deal with these issues and tell these stories in interesting and creative ways, that will let us keep our viewers, listeners and readers.
So let me take up this challenge. Let me put this on my “To Do” list for 2014. I’m a big list maker. Let’s see if I can, at the end of 2014, tick this item off.
CARICOM’s first statement was unacceptably weak, as I said here, but now seems determined to take a principled and strong stand against the decision.
The regional grouping called the ruling “abhorrent and discriminatory” and said it was “especially repugnant that the ruling ignores the 2005 judgment made by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) that the Dominican Republic adapt its immigration laws and practices in accordance with the provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights.”
CARICOM has announced that it “will suspend consideration of the request by the Dominican Republic for membership of the Caribbean Community” and will “review its relationship with the Dominican Republic in other fora including that of CARIFORUM, CELAC and the OAS.
“It cannot be business as usual,” says CARICOM.
The group also says it supports the visit of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights to the Dominican Republic and will request an advisory opinion from the Inter American Court of Human Rights. CARICOM is also considering introducing a Resolution at the United Nations General Assembly condemning the ruling.
Kudos to CARICOM for now adopting this strong, principled stance. It is to be hoped that the group follows through on the tough talk and does indeed introduce a resolution at the General Assembly as suggested.
US president Barack Obama, it was reported at the beginning of the year, had given the fewest press conferences in his first four-year term than any of his several immediate predecessors. Wow, that sounds concerning. After all, this is the President of the United States. The land of the free and the brave, the land where freedom of the press is a constitutional guarantee!
So in four years, how many are we talking about? Maybe one every quarter times four? Sixteen – that sounds about right. Try again. Obama gave SEVENTY-NINE press conferences in four years (that’s about 20/year), and yes, he gave fewer than George W. Bush who gave 89, Bill Clinton stood formally before the press 133 times, George H.W. Bush who gave all of 143 press conferences, but he was ahead of Ronald Reagan who trailed the pack with a measly 27 (that would still be nearly seven per year). Obama was, however, reported as giving 408, that’s right, 408 sit-down interviews with journalists, more than Bill Clinton and George W. Bush combined (for the comparable period) Apparently, he prefers that form of communicating with the press.
He also gives off-the-cuff interviews at photo ops and public appearances, like all the Presidents do (I think that means they are impromptu, as in not pre-arranged) albeit ONLY 94, fewer than his predecessors, George W. Bush (307) and Bill Clinton (493).
That’s called taking media seriously. That’s taking the public seriously.
There are many shameful examples of how we have treated our children. Only a few of these are ever made public. The Jamaica Observer reported on one case of a 14-year-old who ran away from home and ended up locked away in an adult correctional facility for a year.
“The police told my grandmother to leave me at the station. They never told me where I was going. When I reached and saw the big gate, I said me just go way fi two day and me a go prison?” she said.
Talk to lawyers in the system, and they will tell you about the injustices, large and small, that children suffer when they come into contact with the justice system. Children locked up for minor offences, forced to miss school, subject to the less than stellar conditions in our correctional facilities. Jamaica’s Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon-Harrison told me in an interview of examples where child defendants and victims attending court have to hear their names bellowed out by the police officer on court duty, in the same way adults are treated. She also spoke of child victims in court being carelessly placed next to family members of the defendants accused of abusing them.
“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
And of course, it is the poor and uneducated who suffer most. After all, parents with more money can afford to hire lawyers to protect the interests of their children. Many of our poorer children appear in court unrepresented.
This is one of the many issues tackled in the new Child Justice Guidelines issued by the Office of the Children’s Advocate, published in association with UNICEF. Guideline 13 states that:
“The Office of the Children’s Advocate or Duty Counsel on the Legal Aid list is to be immediately contacted by the police where a child suspect is arrested and does not have legal representation.”
“The court should guard against and prevent the intimidation and harassment of witnesses by lawyers through methods such as (a) asking irrelevant questions, (b) confusing the child with repetitive and/or rapid questions, repeated interruption to responses or by demanding unrealistically specific times and details (c) shouting at the child.”
On the questioning of children, Guideline 27 (2) states:
“Given that the attention span of children can be limited, the court should curtail lengthy questioning sessions.”
Guideline 21 (1): “Children should be transported in vehicles with adequate ventilation and light, and in conditions that in no way subject them to hardship or indignity.”
In relation to Decisions and Sentencing, Guideline 28 (2) says:
(b) Restrictions on the personal liberty of the juvenile should be imposed only after careful consideration and should be limited to the minimum possible time…
(d) The emphasis of the court when dealing with child offenders, should always be the objective of rehabilitating the child.”
The Guidelines, issued under the Children’s Advocate’s powers under the Child Care and Protection Act, were launched on Universal Children’s Day, November 20, the day the United Nations Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1989. The new Guidelines are not legally binding, true. But neither were the Beijing Rules, and they have created a highly respected framework for the treatment of children who come in conflict with the law. With the necessary groundwork, so too could these Guidelines.
The Jamaica Observer recently wrote a story noting that although Jamaicans all over the world are now going crazy over Tessanne Chin, who has reached the top ten on the US talent competition The Voice, her debut album three years ago was ignored. Based on comments already coming in, let me point out that I am not just talking about album sales, since I agree that we don’t buy a lot of albums. If you are honest, you’ll acknowledge that Tessanne was not regarded as one of our top artistes, ie in terms of headlining shows etc.
So how come a singer whose music was being overlooked here at home is suddenly the toast of Jamaica and the diaspora? Here are five suggestions:
We’re spoiled. There are talented singers on every street corner in Jamaica. Talent isn’t enough for us to sit up and take notice.
Tessanne’s music is different from that of our top female artistes, such as Queen Ifrica, Etana, Tanya Stephens – unfortunately, the market doesn’t always immediately get “different.”
The context now is different. She’s representing Jamaica abroad – it’s not really about Tessanne, any Jamaican on that stage would get the same reaction.
We frighten fi foreign ie we tend not to notice many of our people until they are first recognized by foreigners. We need the outside validation to acknowledge how good they are.
We’re waggonists! Tessanne is the latest. most popular wagon around, so we all jumped on.
Mr. Golding and Dr. Elliot are public officials. There is a special defence in the US against a claim of defamation for statements carried by the media about public officials.
The US Supreme Court in a seminal case called New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) held that “a State cannot…award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves “actual malice”–that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”
Facts of the Case
The case involved a newspaper advertisement carried by the New York Times in 1960 about the non-violent civil rights protests. The ad, placed by civil rights activists stated, in part:
“In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” on the State Capitol steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truckloads of police armed with shotguns and tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus. When the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to re-register, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission.”
“Again and again, the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. They have bombed his home, almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person. They have arrested him seven times–for “speeding,” “loitering” and similar “offenses.” And now they have charged him with “perjury”–a felony under which they could imprison him for ten years. . . .”
An elected official who supervised the police department claimed that the ad suggested that he was responsible for the events in question, and filed suit.
There were factual errors in the ad, for example, the name of the song and the reason for the students’ expulsion. In addition, the police were at the scene, but did not “ring” the campus and Dr. King had been arrested four times, not seven.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court, in a powerful judgment, declared the paramount importance of allowing criticism of public officials.
Mr. Justice Brennan in delivering the opinion of the Court said:
“(W)e consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
The Court went on to state that requiring anyone publishing criticism of a public official to guarantee the truth of every fact being asserted would inhibit such criticism and lead to critical statements being withheld, even if they were true.
“A rule compelling the critic of official conduct to guarantee the truth of all his factual assertions–and to do so on pain of libel judgments virtually unlimited in amount–leads to a comparable “self-censorship.” Allowance of the defense of truth, with the burden of proving it on the defendant, does not mean that only false speech will be deterred. Even courts accepting this defense as an adequate safeguard have recognized the difficulties of adducing legal proofs that the alleged libel was true in all its factual particulars. ..Under such a rule, would-be critics of official conduct may be deterred from voicing their criticism, even though it is believed to be true and even though it is, in fact, true, because of doubt whether it can be proved in court or fear of the expense of having to do so. “
The Supreme Court therefore held that public officials cannot be sued for damages for defamation in relation to statements about his official conduct unless there is proof of actual malice, that is that the statement was published even though the publisher knew it was false or recklessly disregarded the possibility of it being false. The issue of reckless disregard would relate to the levels of investigations carried out by a media house, for example.
“The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with “actual malice”–that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
In a nutshell, therefore, media houses publishing stories in the United States critical of government officials in Jamaica are virtually immune from defamation claims, unless, as stated, actual malice can be proven, which is usually exceptionally difficult.
The Sullivan defence is well known to local media houses, after all, they have lobbied the Jamaican government for years to have it enshrined into our own legislation – lobbying that has been steadily and steadfastly rejected.
So when our local officials make statements about suing US media houses, for goodness sakes, let us at least educate the public (and maybe the officials themselves) about the unlikeness of any such claim ever being filed, and why.
I had a post all written on my problems with how politicians view the media. Then I deleted it all. Every party in government (in Jamaica at least) thinks the media are against them. That’s a necessary part of the sometimes antagonistic relationship that will inevitably exist between the people governing a country, and the people watching and writing about their governance.
But a little tension is not always a bad thing. Joining hands and singing Kumbaya is not always a good thing. You can’t necessarily see what hand the other guy is playing if you’re sitting at the same card table.
I googled “media and politicians a necessary tension” and found this from the University of Missouri, about the US political system. It’s a good read. Check it out.
” Many journalists see themselves as protectors of our system of government—”watchdogs of democracy”—and in many ways the framers of the (US) Constitution would agree. Of course, when this role is pursued with passion, it is bound to annoy those in power from time to time, and there is often tension between the press and the politicians whom it covers.”
The consequence of that tension is often complaints, to editors and media mangers. But you know, the complaints, although sometimes overblown and ridiculous, are also important. They keep us on our toes. After all, we are not infallible either. So that tension? That’s an important part of life in a democracy. Let’s all try to remember that.
NB: the Jamaican constitution does not provide special protection for the press. Despite intense lobbying from the media fraternity, the legislators decided that the press did not need additional protection other than the right to freedom of expression provided to every citizen.