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Caribbean region doing well with press freedom – disturbing trends emerging, however

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Tue, May 20, 2014

Much has been said in some quarters about the supposed lack of press freedom in this country. This discussion about the threat faced by the media is particularly virulent on radio call in shows and on the social media site Facebook.{{more}}

Careful observers would note, however, that such allegations rarely come from persons who actually work in the media in St Vincent and the Grenadines; we should be careful to match facts with allegations and not to confuse personal opinions with reality.

Take for instance, the 2014 Report by the international organization Freedom House, which has been in existence since 1941, and which makes assessments of the status of press freedom around the world. This recently released Report, to mark World Press Freedom Day, came with some results which do not match the much-maligned image of St Vincent and the Grenadines in this sphere.

The Report, titled “Freedom of the Press 2014” ranks 197 countries globally, according to how the organization perceives their status in regard to press freedom. It paints a none-too-rosy picture of global developments, stating that press freedom is “at its lowest level” over the last decade. Interestingly, the region most at fault is the one which had held out so much promise after being dubbed by the western media as “the Arab Spring” – the Middle East.

Of the 197 countries ranked, only 63 were regarded as having a “free press,” meaning that the citizens of these countries enjoy “robust coverage of political events, minimal state intervention and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.” Caribbean countries have come out with flying colours in this Freedom House analysis, with St Lucia leading the way, ranked 12th globally. To the chagrin of those who feel the media in this country is muzzled, SVG is second highest in the Caribbean, jointly with Jamaica, ranked 18th of the 197 countries in the entire world. Indeed, those who peddle the “lack of press freedom line” will be hard-pressed to explain why our country has a better rating than the supposed bastions of press freedom, Canada (26th), the USA (30th) and the United Kingdom (36th).

Much of the “bad press” about SVG is based on misconceptions that Prime Minister Gonsalves, in particular, is seeking to stifle criticism by the number of defamation suits that he has pursued, and won, against persons who make public statements which they were not able to prove. But freedom of the press is not a licence to slander, does not justify irresponsibility, or give anyone a “right” to engage in character assassination. We must make a clear distinction in this regard.

While we must feel proud of upholding our democratic credentials, as a country and as a region, we cannot be complacent. Disturbing trends are emerging in neighbouring Barbados, where in recent times, journalists have been arrested and charged, not for defamation, but for publishing stories frowned upon by the authorities. Just two weeks ago, a ban was placed on the Nation newspaper from covering events of the Barbados Central Bank. These attacks on the Nation meet with our condemnation.

So too, globally, we note with sadness, the ultimate price that journalists pay in some countries, just to let us know the truth. The last two years, 2012 and 2013, have been the worst for journalists in strife-torn areas of the world. 119 of our colleagues lost their lives in the noble pursuit of press freedom last year.

While acknowledging our freedoms in this country, we must stand in solidarity with our embattled colleagues, and encourage our own journalists and media houses to steadfastly uphold the principles of the noble profession – to strive to be fair and just, and to eschew defamation and character assassination, replacing them with fearless and principled coverage and unbiased criticism.

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