Thursday, 15 March 2018

Media and the Role of a Public Ombudsman

This is a presentation made in Saint Lucia on June 30, 2003 - 15 years ago - when I was asked to talk about the interface between the media and offices such as that of an Ombudsman. I believe it urges early contemplation of a variety of media issues currently of major concern.

There is not a lot I would revise, but there are certainly issues I have thought much more about over the years. 

Nature and dimensions of the media industry in the Caribbean

This aspect of the discussion requires an exploration of several internal and external dynamics and the manner in which they relate to each other and would require a far greater amount of time and energy to adequately address. It is, however, a most important element of our examination of the role of the mass media in entrenching the functions of official institutions such as the Office of an Ombudsman. And so, I would prefer, to offer just a few general comments.

An initial set of observations we may wish to make would include comments on: the changing media landscape with special reference to the use of new technologies and the corresponding emergence of non-traditional media institutions; patterns of media ownership in the context of neo liberal government policy; the impacts of these developments on access to the mass media by Caribbean people; standards of professional performance in the media and the direct and indirect impact of emerging social policy initiatives on the free press.

The Changing Media Landscape

The rapid growth of new information technologies has served to dramatically diversify the existing range of mass media platforms. There are now debates, for example, on where Internet-based media ought to located on the national media landscape and whether persons involved in such activity can be considered a part of the cadre of mass media professionals.

There are also issues related to intellectual property and access to the material being disseminated via these media. Development communicators, in particular, have been concerned with the possible linkages between these new media and their traditional counterparts.

Patterns of Media Ownership

This area of concern owes much to the traditional dominance of broadcast media in the region and the manner in which neo-liberal macro-economic policies have recently influenced a widening of access to ownership of radio and television systems. The current worldwide debate on the use of broadcast ownership policies, as opposed to direct content regulation, in order to promote diversity is not entirely irrelevant, but is certainly not an immediate concern in most Caribbean jurisdictions. In many instances, though, the continued insistence on state dominance of the broadcast sector poses a singular threat to promotion of diverse views and the development of alternative sources of information and opinion.

Standards of Professional Performance

There has been intense and recent debate on the building of higher standards of professional performance in the Caribbean media. This relates only in part to the emergence of new technologies, but is by no means exclusive to it.

Governments, private enterprise, social organisations and the media themselves have often initiated such discussions. For the most part, media institutions have not responded very proactively to redress striking deficiencies in the quality of resources resident in their newsrooms and production departments. This stresses the need for journalists and media workers to intervene on their own behalf through the development of professional organisations with a mandate to pursue new opportunities for training and professional enhancement. The ACM sees this as among its major priorities.

Emerging Social Policy Initiatives

The several social crises that have accompanied Caribbean societies into the new era have been met by a string of corresponding social policy initiatives. Many Caribbean societies are, for example, debating cultural policies and new directions in training and education. New policy frameworks are also being devised to attend to issues such as conflict and the disintegration of so many of our societies.

These initiatives have not been having a neutral impact on the free press. Cultural policies to counter the impact of what is described as the penetration of non-Caribbean cultural value systems have led to the proposed imposition of measures such as broadcast content quotas and other such threats to the free operation of media enterprises. The ACM is, in this regard, keeping a close eye on official content-related interventions in the broadcast media including the somewhat misguided attempt to impose indigenous content quotas.

Matters of social cohesion also, for example, led in Trinidad and Tobago to formulation of equal opportunity legislation which, in its initial design, dramatically threatened notions of free expression and, by extension, the practice of the free press. In Jamaica, proposed anti-corruption legislation was eventually amended when it was brought to the government's attention that restrictions on media reporting on corruption investigations considerably hampered the work of the free press.

The region has also recently been characterised by a new era of politics with an unprecedented string of changes in government and, in some instances, a rotating of roles between government and opposition. Exposure to this apparent level of political vulnerability is, in my view, partly responsible for what can only be described as a new wave of subtle but dangerous threats to free expression and the free press in our countries.

Implications for enhancing the work of the Ombudsman

Now, where does all of this leave the Ombudsman? For one, I believe the unfolding scenario pretty much leaves us on the same side of the information fence. If there isn't a sufficient and effective basis for asserting a change in the culture of silence and secrecy afflicting our societies then we may as well just pack up and go home.

The truth is, notwithstanding our creative candour as expressed in the calypso and chutney and other cultural expressions, our small, essentially authoritarian societies all eventually resort to silence over the risk of change. Witness the conspiracy of silence over the abuse of women and children. Witness the institutionalisation of discrimination. Witness the presence of the untouchables in our societies. We know them all very well. They run free and they run rampant. They cross the political divide. They are among us. We see them on the television and they are in the newspapers all the time.

In some respects, the role of the media and the role of the Ombudsman are almost identical. Some jurisdictions have entrenched free press and free expression provisions to ensure that, at least prima facie, the media enjoy the benefit of constitutional cover for their work. By comparison, such constitutional protections are not in all instances provided Ombudsmen and their equivalent.

The fact that there are these mutually inclusive objectives but uneven capabilities ought to mean the emergence of a level of collaboration which does not now exist. But this cannot happen if there is not a greater level of confidence in and respect for our respective roles.

Regional networks and outlets

I am assuming that this sub-heading of the task I have been assigned refers to regional media outfits that might be pre-disposed to outputs from the respective Ombudsman's offices. But it might also relate to existing information networks with explicit developmental objectives and which bring professional communicators with their counterparts in the regional press.

I can be of much more use in making suggestions with respect to the latter group. In this regard, the Information for Action group ( devised by development communicators in environment and health and Caribbean journalists about three years ago, might be a useful platform for messages related to the work of the Ombudsman.

There are also several international efforts that routinely feed information to regional and international journalists and communicators on development issues that can be of use. The Drum Beat Forum ( of the Development Initiative partnered by institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation, BBC World Service Trust, The CHANGE Project, CIDA, Exchange, FAO, Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs, OneWorld, The Panos Institute, PCI, Soul City, The Synergy Project, UNAIDS, UNICEF, USAID and WHO can also be quite useful.

Regional and Individual Country Issues

This sub-heading would require a session of far greater duration than this current one to do justice to the subject of free press issues in the region. What I can offer though would be a general comment on the state of the free press in the region.

I am convinced that even as there exists relative peace between the major social actors and the press, there is a pervasive, underlying ambivalence on issues of the free press that will eventually land us in a lot of trouble very soon. I am observing the diplomatic, official silence on the recent jailing of journalists in Cuba; the absence of any direct reference to attacks on the press in Haiti at multi-lateral discussions with this new CARICOM ally and I am very uncomfortable with the ease with which it had been possible to use immigration regulations, that are ostensibly in transition pending a CARICOM single market, to expel journalists and media workers from some of our jurisdictions.

As mentioned before, we also need to be equally nervous about the slew of social policy objectives supportive of notions of development that threaten free expression and the unhindered work of the mass media, based on misguided notions of an explicit developmental role for the press.

Monday, 19 February 2018

My Country's Great Hope

The great hope of youth in pan - (not about journalism) first published in the T&T Guardian on February 7, 2018

* Panorama is the annual competition involving steelbands from all over the country. It is keenly contested with strong community support.

Every year, at Panorama competitions, we hear the best steelbands in the world playing arrangements by the greatest arrangers on instruments blended by the leading pan tuners anywhere on the planet. On the instruments are the best players interpreting songs that could not have been composed anywhere else.

In defiance of assertions even from the people who manage the steelband movement, the young are streaming through the creative gates – as players, composers and arrangers. We perhaps also need greater interest in pan tuning – a lucrative pursuit with fewer than 100 competent tuners operating professionally worldwide. Yes, worldwide!

Why then can’t we concede that pan, in all its aspects, is the best thing we do in T&T and that we need to work much harder on activating its inert potential as a social and economic good?

It’s almost like the point I made about street food entrepreneurship in T&T a few weeks ago – that familiarity and commonness have conspired to generate private and official contempt.

I recall a discussion I had with the late, great journalist Keith Smith as we walked along Independence Square in search of snacks around 1986 or 1987. “Keith,” I said. “Don’t you think we should stop focusing on oil (natural gas wasn’t as important then as it is now) as the main driver of the economy and pay greater attention to the economic value of pan?”

Silence. Then the terse response: “You think people will take anybody on with that?” It was a response that belied his well-developed views on the instrument as an agent of positive social and economic change, but also pronounced, albeit provocatively, on the question of how we perceive of national development and the factors that drive it.

Far more eloquent expression and a much better conceived formulation of such an argument would later come from public intellectual, Lloyd Best, who argued that the panyard offered a space capable of delivering service both as an “economic zone” and as “an education plant.”

Best, of course, was all the while conscious of the fact that deep-seated prejudices existed then, as they do now, against the steelband movement, based on nonsenses about which I constantly remind people in this column from week to week – the supposed “failed” status of one group, the need for urban, middle class validation etc. and so forth.

Arima Angel Harps arranged by 23 year old Aviel Scanterbury
Very little of this has to do with Carnival per se. In fact, a valid argument can be advanced to suggest that Panorama can have a stultifying impact on the development of the instrument – all things being equal. There is also a strong case to support the view that increasing the platforms for delivery of a greater variety of musical genres will have a positive impact both on its economic prospects and on the creative values that drive the instrument’s development.

The growing involvement of young people in the culture of pan brings cause for great confidence, but is problematic because it runs against the grain of the established developmental orthodoxy of our time which grants limited space for innovation and the dimensions of human interactivity that never existed before.

I constantly make the point among old-stagers like myself that there is no comparison between the analog disciplines of our time and the digital reality of today. This is important, I believe.

Today’s young people occupy dimensions provided by digital space we 50 and 60 and 70 year olds never dreamt of in our youth (I turn 60 this year). The mindset is different. There is nothing obsessively linear about their thought processes or in how they conceive of the things they create.
They are capable of occupying time and space in ways we never thought possible.

For this, our society applies punishment and estrangement instead of encouragement and reward.

The young music arranger brings riffs, melodic twists and harmonies to his/her craft that are borderless and defy the parameters of the judges’ traditional score sheets. Too close to Panorama finals to get into the details, but I have noticed the slow but changing tide in favour of the new.

At the semis a week and a half ago, two journalistic colleagues confessed to their tears when the first bands entered the Panorama stage. This drew my own admission of overwhelming joy and hope and the trickles that run down my own cheeks.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Understanding Violence in my Country

The Gun to our Hearts (first published in the T&T Guardian, December 6, 2017)

Last week, my take on the current, extended wave of criminal violence invoked a metaphorical gun to our collective heads. I related my doctor’s tale. His deep sadness. The pervasive air of impunity, and the desperate prescriptions for brutish vengeance.

Then came Saturday and the lead pellets in little Candy Loubon’s body. On the front page of Monday’s T&T Guardian, the two year old is lying in hospital with two fingers in her mouth, a yellow-sleeved IV needle in her heavily-bandage left hand and a tiny neck brace that prevents her from nodding ‘yes’ to anything. Candy’s eyes are fixed on Kevon Felmine and his camera.

It is the look a stranger gets from a child, just seconds from the crucial breaking of the ice and a transition to either smiles or tears. You can almost tell from her eyes, that Kevon, hard-nosed reporter and decent human that he is, had planned to extract a giggle, a show of scant teeth, a shade of laughter, anything but a look of pain.

The late, great Guyanese poet, Martin Carter, spoke of a “festival of guns, the carnival of misery” – a period in which “the stranger invader (is) watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.” None better than Candy’s image to capture the gun to our hearts and aimed at our dreams.

We should know that none of this started two and a half years ago, around the time of Candy’s birth. Or even after five years or tranches thereof - depending on the twisted imagination of the mindless partisan. It is in fact the rot of social and political aimlessness, and a descent as much rooted in authoritarian prohibition and religious fervour as in the creative disorder of a nation adrift.

How many in the jail cells weren’t whipped and slapped? How many didn’t go to school or church or temple or mosque?

And so pathetic and puerile has been official edict that prayer and flag and ritual are routinely proposed to simulate the impact of reason and science and interventions fed by fact. It cannot be that we are truly serious.

Within these very pages, some weeks ago, we explored the trauma of an angry society. People moved to irrationality, displaying an inability to confront conflict and change. Witnesses to growing impunity and inequity. Emerging from the darkness in Candy’s brace – incapable of signaling ‘yes’ or even ‘no’ to changing circumstance.

Instead, the quick resort to “we” and “them” and violence as if it persists in its own solitary right – a scar without an initial wound. How does the noose or whip really differ from the cutlass or gun in other hands other than being united by the cold blood of revenge of one kind or the other?

Here we are, looking and looking for different faces, different skins, and different places of abode. Punishment barely distinguishable from revenge, yet reaping the whirlwind of collective neglect.
There must have been that moment when we determined that the best way out was through mindful violence. That because “we” can never be “them”, through pedigree, since victimhood remains the psychological domain of one and not the other.

Through this, some have lost the love of our land perhaps forever. Trapped though, by a thin strand, by all there is on offer in this tiny space – bounty upon bounty of music and dance and art and poetry everywhere as in Candy’s infant eyes on the front page of the newspaper.

In this resides our hope, if there had to be any. Those who speak of a “lost generation” do not know what they are talking about, are trapped by the message of terminal political wounds and are out of here anyway.

We who choose to remain do well to look and recognise the guns to our heads and are ever mindful of those aimed at our hearts. To do otherwise would be to die.

The Gun to our Heads (first published in the T&T Guardian on November 29, 2017)

So, my GP for more than half my life is moving out of an office he has occupied in east Trinidad for over 30 years and is devoting all his professional time to patients at his facility in the west. “Abandoning the East-West Corridor proletariat?” was my cheeky question last Tuesday.

Medical doctors have a way of lowering their heads and looking at you from above the upper rim of their glasses. There was a sadness I had never seen in the eyes that appeared from behind the glare of thick lenses. “Have you ever had a gun aimed at your head?”

The following day, a relative was posting on social media about the disappearance of equipment being used to prepare her new home. Then, to keep things rolling last Thursday, Beetham Highway became a crime scene somewhat reminiscent of March 23, 2015 – albeit at the hands of different players.

In the midst of it all, a thread of despair kept turning up everywhere like a pervasive spider’s web. “The guns,” my friend Elizabeth Solomon declared, “are pointing at all of us.” To me, this question raises at least two additional challenges: Whose (metaphorical) guns? And, once we have determined who “we” are: What do we do about this?

Prime Minister Keith Rowley appeared to have his finger on some important elements of the puzzle when he spoke on Friday, following an intemperate outburst the day before.

Some opposition wags, increasingly inclined to gloat over misfortune, held on to Thursday’s blunder even after the PM went on to present his take on one important element of the task before the entire country – that of the universal nature of personal responsibility.

It was an important intervention against the backdrop of the perception that application of the rod of criminal correction is viewed as being uneven across social divides. However insufficient the analysis, it was a significant observation.

However, by his own admission at the press conference, the prime minister had yet to consult meaningfully with senior security officials on a specific course of action to deal with still smoldering remains on the Beetham Highway.

It is important in such matters not to approximate what Canadian journalist, Andrew Nikiforuk, derides in a recent column as the increasingly popular, and deceptive, political creed of “deliverology.”

I am not good at MBA gobbledygook so I do not pretend to understand everything I have read on the matter, except that it sounds like an excellent strategy to promote a notion of accountability even as little can be expected to be eventually delivered.

Last Sunday, I also listened to what Jamaica PM, Andrew Holness, had to offer at his JLP congress. We always seem to trail Jamaica when it comes to such matters – on both the good and the bad points. (By the way, Holness also wants to outlaw all corporal punishment).

He conceded that the heavy-handedness of state security in the past had not only earned negative global attention, but had also not sufficiently addressed the problem of inner city violence and crime.
Holness held out greater hope for the island’s experiment with Zones of Special Operations (ZOSO) which, he claimed, had already started yielding results. The enabling legislation is worth a read, since it addresses serious human rights concerns invoked at the time of our ill-advised and bungled state of national emergency in 2011 – “deliverology.”

Another important initiative in Jamaica, which I am certain has been raised here more than once, is the planned introduction of a comprehensive National Identification System (NIDS). Though quite (and understandably) controversial, a database built on information acquired through the NIDS system can provide law enforcement with a sound start in the pursuit of sensible policing.

Holness prescribed three key applications - the law, intelligence and citizen cooperation.
A few weeks ago, I reprised the late Lloyd Best’s admonition to apply “educated common sense” to our problems of the day. Between the anguish and fear, leadership here requires such a quality at this time.