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OUR CARIBBEAN: Rights of media and people in the Caribbean

Rickey Singh

OUR CARIBBEAN: Rights of media  and people  in the Caribbean

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IN JUST OVER A WEEK the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), perhaps the world’s best known watchdog on Press freedom and protection of the rights of journalists, will hold its first ever congress in the Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago is the venue of choice for deliberations and decisions over three days to guide future programmes and initiatives.
In pre-congress media statements the IPI has placed much emphasis on its continuing campaign to terminate criminal defamation laws, with a particular focus on the  Caribbean region.
It claims that regional governments have “actively exercised libel laws over the past 15 years – even as such laws have fallen into disuse in other parts of the world”.
It is, of course, important to stop governments from using the punitive weapon of criminal libel that some of them resort to when challenging abuses of Press freedom by journalists and media enterprises that they claim are irresponsible.
But the delegates and observers at the June 21-26 IPI?Congress – which has its theme Media In A Changing World – should know that our Caribbean region, as a microcosm of the world’s peoples and cultures with diversified media ownership and practices, also faces other challenges that impact on Press freedom and the wider issues of freedom of information and freedom of expression.
These would certainly require a collective effort by governments to end what is more than an anachronicism, the colonial-inherited Official Secret Acts that continue to frustrate the region’s media in the challenge to help ensure an informed populace for a better society by unhindered access to information in the national interest.
Jamaicans still discuss the unprecedented libel costs, the first US$1 million and subsequently US$3 million that the Jamaica Gleaner had to pay in two separate libel cases.
Guyanese are familiar with how the weapon of criminal libel has often been wielded against the media, particularly during the near 25 years of governance by the People’s?National Congress (PNC).
Criminal defamation laws have often been summoned to rescue the integrity or heal the hurt of leading citizens in Trinidad and Tobago, among them media moguls and politicians.
Of more concern are the recent police raids on newsrooms and harassment of journalists in cases that affected the Caribbean Communications Network (CCN) and Newsday in that CARICOM partner state.
Such developments should not be ignored by the IPI Congress.
Irrespective of ownership structures – private, state-owned or diversified – the media in general must be held accountable for acts of irresponsibility that not only make a mockery of the fundamentals of Press freedom in damning the integrity of individuals, but also jeopardize the social, economic and political health of a nation.
• Rickey Singh is a noted Caribbean journalist.