Above: Unesco World Press Freedom Day 2018 graphic. Courtesy Unesco.
By Wesley Gibbings
A version of this commentary previously appeared in the T&T Guardian.
So today, May 3, we observe World Press Freedom Day. Wait and see. It will mainly be journalists who will be believing this has anything to do with them. It always seems that so many people along the communication spectrum do not understand that the interests of journalists and journalism run so wide and deep in any society.
Much of this has to do with the fact that people don’t often realise that good media practice is a social asset. Its value is way in excess of the ability of the industry to thrive on the production of meaningful content.
It was Washington Post journalist Paul Farhi who once argued, in an obvious state of pique, that a generic, amorphous entity called “the media” did not exist and that the label was in fact an all-purpose smear used by people not moved by any obligation to make intelligent distinctions about what they read, see or hear in the public space.
Today, in T&T, we suspect this to be a fact of our own existence. Journalists have become used to the observations of both the well-meaning and those inspired by ill-will that “the media” are capable of stimulating utmost evil, despair and destruction.
Now, don’t get me wrong; all institutions such as these are capable of causing harm. In fact, an overarching commitment of the journalist’s creed implies a requirement to cause no harm.
But I have even heard and seen broadcasters and newspaper columnists and others employing mass communication platforms complain about the impact of “the media” on behaviour, on official policy, on the price of bread. “The media”, of course, comprising everybody else except them.
There continues to be a kind of intellectual sloppiness which renders people incapable of disaggregating media content and recognising the media’s implicit complexity as the sum of many diverse, inclusionary and constituent parts.
It is thus the role of those now committed to promotion of media and information literacy – currently conceptualised as a discrete programme under the banner of UNESCO – to begin the hard work of explaining to people that while a media industry exists, and journalism remains a function of such an industry in all its current manifestations, there is actually no such thing as “the media” in the sense employed by many.
Confusion over the essential qualities of media also earns special credits amid what is now being widely described as “fake news” – aka propaganda or, more accurately, deliberate untruths implanted on mass communication platforms seeking traction by the unsuspecting. The fact is, the term is also an oxymoronic expression also meant to be a slur on journalism with which you disagree.
It’s a phenomenon connected to the situation in which opposition politicians somehow beome convinced that press freedom is a requirement of modern society while their colleagues in government belatedly discover a false balance between freedom and responsibility.
It is however true that to be responsible, you must first be free. How, for example, can better journalism thrive in the absence of open access to officially-held information? How can such information flow if protections for those with information to share in the public interest do not exist?
The freedom enlightened media legislation and regulation bring can contribute more than anything else to responsible behaviour by journalists and other media players.
Yesterday, the Media Institute of the Caribbean (MIC) convened a regional training initiative in Jamaica for media professionals with an interest in investigative journalism and those who are attempting to gain a foothold in this special branch of the profession.
This is a singularly important exercise in the context of a communication environment that does not routinely conduce to either openness with the provision of information or to enthusiastic candour with the resulting revelations.
This year’s global theme for WPFD is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law.” Within this is an open acknowledgement of the need for more, not less, journalism and a better understanding of what constitutes “the media” and all they purport to bring.
Wesley Gibbings is a former president of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers. He is a veteran journalist who is committed to the promotion of press freedom and freedom of expression throughout the Caribbean. You can follow him on Twitter at @wgibbings.