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News and Views by Dionne Jackson Miller

pointed commentary on current affairs in Jamaica and the Caribbean

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Media

The Free Speech Debate & Charlie Hebdo

I’m blogging today at http://www.rjrnewsonline.com. Check out my latest post!

Photo by David Monniaux on Wikipedia
2006 protest march in Paris against Charlie Hebdo Photo by David Monniaux on Wikipedia

 

One of the cartoons published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo portrayed France’s black Justice Minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey. Would you regard that as racist?

Was it their right to publish that and other cartoons denounced by some Muslims as blasphemous of the prophet Mohammed? Should freedom of expression protect offensive speech? To a great extent, I believe the answer is yes. And yet, the debate over freedom of expression is a difficult, complicated and nuanced one. Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. And what if what appears to be an offensive statement is simply being misunderstood? Read more here.

Shocking Attack on Press Freedom in France

Image by Simon Howden at www.freedigitalphotos.net
Image by Simon Howden at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Today’s attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in which gunmen murdered 12 people, including eight journalists, four of them cartoonists, has led to outrage all across the world. Reports are now coming in of vigils being held in several cities including London, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie is trending worldwide, and messages of condemnation continue to pour in from journalists, world leaders and the public.

Among the most poignant memorials have been those crafted by cartoonists, including one cartoon depicting a gunman standing over his murdered victim saying “He drew first.”

There is little to add, except to salute our brave colleagues, led by editor and cartoonist Stephene Charbonnier (Charb) who is quoted as saying “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.”

The courage of the Charlie Hebdo journalists cannot be overstated, and we condemn their murderers and this despicable attack by those who would seek to silent independent and critical voices.

Below is a statement made by the Press Association of Jamaica.

January 7, 2015

 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 The Press Association of Jamaica wishes to extend its deepest sympathies to the people and government of France, on the occasion of today’s shocking attack on the staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

 The reports at this time indicate that 12 people have been killed including members of the press and two policemen, and several others wounded by gunmen who invaded the offices at the magazine earlier today. We deeply deplore the loss of life and the injuries suffered by all the victims.

 The PAJ regards this as an attack upon democracy and freedom of the press, which must be of concern to all who support these important values anywhere in the world.

 We stand with our colleagues in France as we condemn this violent attack and reiterate the importance of guarding democracy and protecting the press from intimidation.

                                                                    -30-

 Disclosure: I am the President of the PAJ. 

Lisa Hanna & the “Swimsuit Scandal”

Minister-Lisa-Hanna-Official-Web-471x600Lisa Hanna is Minister of Youth and Culture and a Member of Parliament. She’s also a former Miss World. She’s a beautiful, stylish woman whom the photographers love, and people love to talk about her. So when a gorgeous photo of the Minister at the beach in a swimsuit (come on, it was) hit social media, via her Instagram page, we came close to having to call in the Office of Disaster Management and Emergency Management to coordinate the resulting crisis. Read more at http://www.rjrnewsonline.com right here. 

I Was Chided For Focusing on Tessanne Chin

All US viewers are eligible to call 1855-VOICE...
All US viewers are eligible to call 1855-VOICE-02 – 10 times from 9:55pm to 11amEST tomorrow to support @thebestess @tessanne #tesstop4 #teamtessanne #teamadam #nbcthevoice (Photo credit: izatrini_com)

On Monday on my radio programme, I spent the first 45 minutes discussing the new law allowing  personal property to be used as security for loans, which, it is hoped, will help small businesses. We had a 6-minute international segment on Syria, then spent about 12 minutes talking about crime in St. James. That was followed – one hour into the programme – by a 9-minute interview with Michael Cuffe, Tessanne’s husband, who is in L.A. for the finals of the US talent show, The Voice, in which Tessanne Chin is competing. My half hour Hot Topic segment – after 7 o’ clock, was spent talking about the songs for the night’s competition.

One listener said she supported Tessanne but wished I had spent more time on crime in St. James. Another listener texted me a sad story about his niece who had been recently murdered and said that the story about Tessanne is a distraction from Jamaica’s real problems.

Yes, there were only two comments. I got many others congratulating Tessanne. So why mention them at all? In the first place, all views should contend, and I shared both comments on air. Secondly, they raise the question again of “What is News?” As a result, they represent a frequently expressed view, whenever I focus on something that is not “hard news,” that I am wasting time talking about whatever it is when we have serious issues to talk about.

Yes, we do. And we do talk about those serious issues. I have been doing talk radio for 17 years, and we talk, and talk and talk about the troika of news in Jamaica – politics-crime-economy. I have spent countless hours looking at those issues from every angle known to man. I have also discussed many other issues – education, the environment, children’s rights, issues affecting the disabled community, for example.

What is news? All those issues should, and do, make the news.  But the story of Tessanne Chin is also news. I spoke in this post about why an item about model/beauty queen/celebrity Yendi was news. Tessanne’s story is MUCH bigger than that story about Yendi.

A story like Tessane Chin’s is rare. A human interest story that has captured the interest

Photo by DJ Miller
Photo by DJ Miller

of all of Jamaica and the diaspora. A story of a talented, hardworking, humble Jamaican whose “Jamaicanness” shines through her every word and action. A Jamaican on the international scene who allows us to hold our head high.  Someone we are rooting for all the way. It’s a story that gives us a little respite for a few short hours, from the hardships of what it means to live in Jamaica.

And from a journalism point of view, it is a human interest story that also ticks all the other boxes of what makes news – proximity, impact, relevance, timeliness, conflict, unusualness, prominence.

And for bigging up this story, as a journalist, I make no apologies. Would that we had more of them.

NB see my other posts on Tessanne: Why the Sudden Love for Tessanne, and Ten Reasons We’re All Rooting For Tessanne Chin. 

Challenge to the Press

Photo by jscreationzs at www.freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by jscreationzs at www.freedigitalphotos.net

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.

From the news that UWI Physics lecturer Dr. Tannecia Stephenson, a member of the Climate Studies Group, Mona, has been appointed to a regional Science Advisory Team, to research on school leadership at the University of Technology to agricultural research at Northern Caribbean University, we have not been giving enough attention to a lot of the important developmental work taking place in Jamaica. We have not been giving enough room to some of our people to participate in public discourse.

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. 

How Many Press Conferences Did Obama Give?

President Barack Obama speaks at a press confe...
President Barack Obama speaks at a press conference on the H1N1 flu virus in the East Room of the White House. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Jamaican Officials and Their Far-Fetched Wishes to Sue US Media Houses

I wish my media colleagues would stop parroting uninformed statements from Jamaican officials about suing American media houses, without some context at the very least.

Remember former Prime Minister Bruce Golding claiming that he was going to sue US

Bruce Golding
Bruce Golding (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

network ABC for a report about him during the height of the Dudus issue? Now Dr. Herb Elliot is considering legal action against the Wall Street Journal for questioning his credentials, according to the Gleaner.

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.”

And also:

“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.

U.S. Supreme Court building.
U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Why I Decided Not to Write About Politicians and the Media

Photo by Stuart Miles www.freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by Stuart Miles
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

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.

Cameras Inside Caribbean Courts – If Only!

An English court room in 1886, with Lord Chief...
An English court room in 1886, with Lord Chief Justice Coleridge presiding (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United Kingdom continues to modernise its structures and functions. Would that we were doing likewise! Cameras are now allowed inside the UK Court of Appeal, and proceedings are being broadcast live. For the past two years, proceedings in the Supreme Court, the highest court in the UK, have been  streamed live on the Internet.

Not all of the proceedings are being broadcast. Defendants, victims and witnesses will not be shown on camera, but lawyers’ arguments and judges’ statements will be.

The UK  Courts Minister Courts Minister Shailesh Vara said:

“This is a landmark moment that will give the public the opportunity to see and hear the decisions of judges in their own words. It is another significant step towards achieving our aim of having an open and transparent justice system.”

 The Right Hon. The Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, in delivering the Birkenhead Lecture, on October 21, 2013,   also welcomed the move. He said:

“I and my fellow judges welcome the recording of the proceedings. We believe it will help assist understanding of the way in which the courts work and enable the public to see the way justice is delivered in an even more open and transparent manner than at present. I look forward to people to seeing the court as it actually works…”

In the US Supreme Court, transcripts and audio recordings are available to the public. 

English: United States Supreme Court building ...
English: United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C., USA. Front facade. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I look forward to the day when cameras and audio recording equipment are allowed into Jamaican and other national courts of the Caribbean.  In anticipation of the flurry of responses about the need to fix bathrooms, buy law reports and repair roofs and air conditioning before buying cameras, let me say I don’t think we have to wait until the government can afford to broadcast court proceedings, whenever that may be.  

National news organisations would be panting at the opportunity to televise some major trials. Procedures could be worked out to avoid having lawyers and judges tripping over cameramen. Arrangements could be made for a single camera to record, with the tapes to be shared with all interested media houses, or perhaps to provide access via web streaming. Protocols can also be worked out in terms of what may and may not be televised, as has been done in the UK. 

Newsrooms will have no interest in televising the vast majority of court proceedings. However, trials of significant public interest and those that involve important issues of law, constitutional or otherwise, should be televised, for transparency and better understanding of the court procedures. There are several important types of cases that do not attract security concerns, for example, apart from the constitutional cases I mentioned – think the landmark dual citizenship case – select cases in the Court of Appeal, and judicial review cases also come to mind. I don’t think blanket prohibitions are necessary.  This is not beyond us to figure out.

Our traditional methods of relying on accounts of the day’s proceedings from news reporters are no longer adequate in an age of increased openness and transparency. News reporting is severely restricted in terms of the time that can be allocated to any one story. On average, each day’s proceedings can consist of five hours of testimony and argument. A radio reporter will have about 90 seconds of air time into which to condense all that. A television reporter may have all of three or four minutes. Newspapers of course, have more space, but often don’t have as much impact, and certainly don’t have the reach of television.

So I think that the time has come to go beyond our customs of the past 100-plus years. We already have in the region, in the Caribbean Court of Justice, a court which has, through technology, thrown its doors wide open to the public. Proceedings are recorded for both audio and video, and during the Jamaican leg of the Shanique Myrie case, local media houses were able to air excerpts from the proceedings for the public to hear.

We don’t have to wait to do this until “we have the money.” Let’s make a decision that it’s important, enact

English: Sky News television camera.
English: Sky News television camera. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the laws needed to allow it to happen, and then work out details afterwards.

I join with the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales in saying that I too would “look forward to people to seeing the court as it actually works…”

PS: It’s NaBloPoMo in the US (National Blog Posting Month) so I’ve joined the challenge of posting every day during November.

 

 

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