JIS News

As Jamaica joins other countries around the globe in celebrating World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Information Minister, Senator Burchell Whiteman says the country can be proud of its record of press freedom, stating that citizens continue to enjoy a media that is free to express critical views without any significant restrictions.
This is in direct opposition to what happens in many other parts of the world where journalists face violence, intimidation or arbitrary detention in direct reprisals for their work, with 20 journalists killed in 2002 alone.
Noting that there are many countries that would look with some degree of envy at Jamaica as a model for the cultivation and preservation of press freedom, Mr. Whiteman points out that governments over the years, have done very little to impede or prevent that freedom, but have instead respected journalistic independence and integrity, encouraged professionalism in all aspects of journalism and have supported competition in the media as a means of giving the public choice of information sources.
In addition, with the passage of the Access to Information Act in 2002, which repealed the Official Secrets Act of 1911, the media has been provided with access to information that is available in the government records and access to the structures through which government operates, including the Parliament, while there are regular reports of the decisions of Cabinet.
“It seems to me that in all of these ways, we are providing an opportunity for democracy to flourish and so on the whole, I would think Jamaica’s status in respect of world press freedom is good,” Senator Whiteman tells JIS News. With 14 radio stations, three television stations, three major daily newspapers and a number of community newspapers and cable stations, press freedom in Jamaica can be said to be robust and healthy. In fact, the P.J. Patterson-led government has been hailed by international organizations for its stance on media freedom, and the 2002 Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme, puts Jamaica’s press freedom ratings ahead of many developed countries, including the United States.
Jamaica has also been commended for upholding freedom of the press at a time when governments across the globe, including the United States, are using the war against terrorism as an excuse for controlling the press and in some cases denying access to information.
In fact, rather than withholding information, the government, since January, has implemented the Access to Information Act, which provides for the release of official documents but exempts the “opinions, advice or recommendations (and) a record of consultation or deliberations” of civil servants, including Cabinet members, from disclosure. As part of the process, an Access to Information Unit has been established within the Office of the Prime Minister with a tribunal put in place to hear grouses.
The Act is being introduced on a phased basis with seven ministries and departments now under the Act and eight others to come on steam next month for full implementation by June of 2005.
Senator Whiteman says that members of the public and journalists have been making use of the facility, with most of the requests for official documents in the Ministry of Finance and Planning relating to contract awards and expenditure on different projects and programmes.
Noting that the implementation of the Act was an important part of the democratic process, the Information Minister says, “there is a fit between those countries, which have adopted access to information legislation, and those that have a tradition of press freedom. Access to information and freedom of the press are pillars to building that kind of democracy, which we in our society have come to treasure and respect”.
But even as the government continues to facilitate press freedom through the passage of relevant legislation and opening the operations of government to public scrutiny, there are interest groups that are urging changes to the libel laws, a request Senator Whiteman says the government will not entertain at this time.
“There are interest groups, which would like to see the libel laws changed so that if a media house carries a story that comes outside of Jamaica or external to the media house, and is carried in good faith, that the laws would protect them against a libel suit. But given the nature of technology and the obligation for a media house to be as sure as it possibly can about its sources and correctness of what it reports, it is unlikely that such a request would be favourably considered by the government or legislature,” he tells JIS News.
Mr. Whiteman points out further, that if individuals, media houses and practising journalists really observe the principles that underline the laws of libel and slander, there would be no need for serious difficulty. “We have been perhaps unduly influenced by some of the more hard hitting and adventurous journalistic practices in other parts of the world, and have let our guards slip in relation to the protection of individual reputations and individual rights,” he adds.
In addition, he points out, there is also a view that once people are in public life, especially politicians, they cede their right to criticism and they give up a significant part of their personal privacy. He says that while people must be held accountable for their actions and how they conduct the business of the nation or the public body to which they have responsibility, everyone has a right to a certain level of privacy and one should look very hard at how they deal with the private lives of individuals, whether they are church leaders, politicians or businessmen.
“Let there be no misunderstanding; we are committed to preserving the responsibility of the media to exposing wrongdoing where it exists, but we must be careful about individual reputations and how information is used,” he stresses.
Governments on the other hand, Mr. Whiteman points out, must be very, very careful to recognize the value of the media in exposing wrongdoing, especially corruption.
Yvonne Sobers, Chairman of the human rights group, Families Against State Terrorism (FAST), agrees that press freedom in Jamaica is in a healthy state. “When I look at what happens in other places in the world, with journalists and human rights activists.I will say that we have a decent press freedom,” she says.
Mrs. Sobers hails the Access to Information Act as an important part of the process to enhance press freedom and to keep government true, but argues that the “boundaries need to be pushed further”, as despite the implementation of the Act, “there is still some holding back of information. People are saying that you have access but not to certain things. I would really like to see the blocks in the system removed, particularly with matters pertaining to justice”.
But the blocks in the system could be related to the fact that not all ministries and departments are a part of the Act at this time. Minister Whiteman explains that although the Access to Information Unit, through its public education programmes, “is careful to repeatedly indicate the ministries and agencies, which now fall under the Act, some of the applications for access relate to subjects, which fall under other ministries, and so we are not able to provide them”. “We have sought, wherever possible, to direct persons to other ways by which they could get the information, without having access to an official document. We have also had to say in some cases that a particular document is not available at this time because the law does not apply to that ministry and agency, but we will refer the application to that ministry or agency with the expectation that as soon as they come within the ambit of the Act, they can provide it in the form in which it is requested,” he adds.
For his part, Press Association of Jamaica President, Desmond Richards, lauds the government for broadening access to information, but calls for the fast tracking of constitutional reform and specifically, the constitutional arrangement governing the appointment of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), so as to make it possible for the DPP to report on his activities and that the general public can have a very clear idea of what goes on in that office.
Commenting on Jamaica’s record in terms of press freedom, the President says, “this is on a fairly high scale and I would give it nothing less that a B”.
He tells JIS News that there are still some impediments, but “those walls are coming down”.
“Journalists in Jamaica can access information and go about our jobs without serious threats, unlike our colleagues in other parts of the world. I would rank Jamaica fairly high on the list of countries with a free press,” the President adds.

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