Jamaican press freedom

...nothing has been more important to our national democratic journey

Kevin Obrien Chang

Sunday, March 11, 2018

There are lots of exceptional things about Jamaica: global sprinting power, cultural and musical world force, spectacularly beautiful landscapes and beaches, we could go on. But one of the most remarkable aspects of this country is its press freedom ranking.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Jamaica ranks 8th out of 180 countries ( And all the countries in the top 10 are far richer than us.

Some might question these ratings. Does Jamaica really have a freer press than Canada (22), Britain (40), and the United States (44)? But, while we may quibble, Reporters Without Borders has no reason to be biased in our favour. And, whatever the doubts, there is no question that we have a much freer press than could reasonably be expected in country this small, poor and violent.

How this has come about is a complex question worthy of serious academic study. From my amateur onlooker status it seems a result of very brave journalists like Wilmot “Motty” Perkins, John Maxwell, and Ian Boyne, extremely patriotic media owners such as Oliver Clarke, Michael Lee-Chin and Gordon “Butch” Stewart, and unusually high-minded politicians.

When you consider there are only five dedicated news gathering organizations — Television Jamaica (TVJ), CVM-TV, The Gleaner, Jamaica Observer , and Nationwide News Network — our eight out of 180 ranking seems almost beyond belief. With such a shallow media pool and limited population size, there is obviously not a lot of money in the system. Our journalists are undoubtedly paid much less than any of their counterparts in the top 10.

Our media entities also probably mostly struggle to stay in the black. Newspapers and TV stations all over the world have seen readership and viewership and revenues fall sharply in the Internet age. The merger of TVJ and The Gleaner was a clear result of these market forces. And, while I have no access to actual numbers, you get the distinct impression that CVM and the Observer might be still alive due mainly to the national spirit of their owners. Quite possibly patriotism and self-interest are both intertwined here, as human nature and motivations are never straightforward things. But, whatever the inside story, it would after all be a massive blow to the national psyche if any of these entities ceased operation. For the difference between one and two national newspapers and TV stations is — in terms of journalistic freedom — almost infinite.

Incidentally the Observer is in the midst of celebrating its 25th anniversary. And kudos to owner Gordon “Butch” Stewart on this accomplishment. He unquestionably makes far more money from Sandals and ATL and his other enterprises, but the obvious pride he takes in his newspaper, and giving the country a serious alternative to the 184-year-old Lady of North Street is another indication of his active interest in his nation's welfare.

Nationwide News Network radio is itself an exceptional story, a testament to one man's dedication — some would say obsession — with providing his country with world-class journalism. Cliff Hughes has faced many struggles in keeping his brainchild alive, including losing a hefty lawsuit to a former prime minister. But he is perhaps the greatest driving force in Jamaica's press freedom ranking, not only hiring a crew of top-class reporters like Dennis Brooks and Abka Fitz-Henley, but forcing competitors like Dionne Jackson Miller to stay at the top of their game. And I would personally put Cliff up against any media person I have heard or seen on American or British radio or television.

But for all the contributions of our journalists and the patriotism of our media owners, we have to give our politicians credit. The “next time, next time” antagonism of the 1970s proved to be just a temporary aberration. We justifiably cuss them for their many shortcomings that have left Jamaica so relatively poor and so lamentably violent, but let's “Give Jack his jacket” and admit that our men and women in Gordon House have proven to be remarkably thick-skinned in allowing themselves to be mercilessly castigated on radio, TV and in print without trying to lock up anyone.

Last but not least are all of us Jamaicans who vigorously take advantage of the exceptional freedoms — certainly by average world standards — granted to us by our unusual confluence of circumstances. The talk show callers who lambaste one and all at the top of their voices are as important to our national debate as any journalist, media baron, or politician. They have taken political discourse out of the hands of the so-called educated elite and made it part of the man on the street psyche. For instance, my friend Devon may not have a university degree, but no one I know is more informed about or has keener insights into Jamaican politics.

Jamaica has come a long way since the great financial recession of 2008 that almost sunk the country in debt. With debt servicing having fallen below 40 per cent of gross domestic product, there are increasing glimpses of light in the tunnel. And we have managed to reach here without compromising our political system. No one is saying we have reached Scandanavian heights of robustly enforced checks and balances. After all, the last time a Jamaican Member of Parliament was charged and convicted was in 1989.

Yet, from a big picture view, the Jamaican body politic has probably never been more transparent and accountable to the public than it is today. While all sectors have contributed, nothing has been more important on our national democratic journey than our priceless freedom of speech.




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