WHY SHOULD A FREE PRESS BE OF IMPORTANCE TO YOU?
Written by George Grant and Margaret Francis on August 16, 2018
During his tenure in office, President Donald Trump has become known for his unrelenting attacks on the media. While his rhetoric has been aimed primarily at the U.S media, its effects have been far-reaching and has been felt even in developing countries such as mine — Grenada!
In all fairness, attacks on the media have been prevalent in this region, long before The Don’s accession to the U.S Presidency. But his apparent propensity for broadsiding any media practitioner who dares to voice dissension with his unorthodox style of governance appears to have re-energized efforts to silence the few in the Caribbean who have had the intestinal fortitude to stand alone when their peers whimpered into submission at the slightest threat!
I recently learned that the Boston Globe had embarked on a drive to get newspapers across America to respond to Trump’s war on the free press by simultaneously publishing editorials on August 16 about “the dangers of the administration’s assault on the press” — a call which was echoed by the Managing Editor of Caribbean News Now, Barry Randall.
I shared that cry with a colleague journalist in New York, and wasn’t at all surprised at how promptly she agreed to pen a piece for today’s coordinated publication. It is with great pleasure that I now share that piece with you:
On a recent jaunt through St. George’s, I ran into an old friend and journalist colleague. As one is wont to do upon seeing a long lost friend, we took some time out to catch up on each other’s lives. During our conversation, I learned that he was no longer working in the media. Instead, he was eking out a living doing marketing for one business and performing odd jobs here and there. The most disconcerting part of our conversation was his disclosure that his current circumstance was not of his own choosing but rather the result of political pressure and interference. Unfortunately, his story is not unique. Grenadian journalists and media institutions who question or criticize government’s policies or are perceived to be anti-government often find themselves afoul of the law and targets of political attacks and reprisals.
Unlike many countries, violence against journalists and media workers is not prevalent in Grenada. However police detention and interrogation of journalists for reporting on government corruption have occurred. For the most part, threats to press freedom are more likely to be subtle. More often than not, these acts of aggression come in the form of threatened and actual defamation and criminal libel lawsuits; exorbitant license fees; selective approval of broadcast licenses; government criticism of “unfavorable stories;” and delays, dismissals and denials of information requests. Additionally, political pressure on media practitioners and advertisers; punishment of whistle blowers; excluding individual journalists from government press events encourage the practice of self-censorship due to fear of reprisals.
These practices can also be the kiss of death for media outlets as recently happened with CHIME FM, one of the few independent voices on the island. The station was forced to close its doors following years of government harassment and intimidation. In its four years of operations, prior to its closure, CHIME FM had its license arbitrarily suspended based on false accusations of operating without a license and broadcast interference with aeronautical frequencies; its systems were infected with malware and its transmitter was tampered with; and it lost much needed revenue due to political pressure on advertisers.
This latest incident with CHIME FM comes at a time in history when fake news and “alternative facts” abound; and media and journalists around the world are increasingly coming under political and economic pressure. In Grenada where independent voices are few and there is no elected opposition, the need for ensuring freedom of the press has never been greater. According to Freedom House’s worldwide press rating scores, Grenada’s press freedom rating has shown a steady decline since 2002. The report cited libel lawsuits against journalists, suspension of programs deemed unfavorable to government, and threats by the government to bring “the full force of the law” against anyone publishing such stories as reasons for the decline.
So why should we care about freedom of the press? Because as citizens it is our duty. Because remaining silent makes us complicit when press freedom is attacked. Commenting on the importance of freedom of the press to any society, the late British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill summed it up this way: “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. Where men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen”
In addition to its role as protector of citizens’ rights, a free press is also an important factor in developing democratic systems and in educating and empowering citizens to ensure governments are transparent and accountable. For citizens to demand responsibility of and make decisions about their government, they must be informed. This is the role of a free press-to document and provide access to the information citizens need to ensure the success of a free and democratic society.
In summary, as the Charles Koch Foundation rightly states “freedom of the press is not just about protecting journalists, television stations, newspapers, citizen reporters, and bloggers. It is also a protection of the individual’s right to access what is needed to make informed decisions and guard against abuses of power.”