The Caribbean outlook on World Press Freedom Day

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World Press Freedom Day 2023, marks 30 years since the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed an international day in honour of press freedom. Celebrated annually on May 3, this year’s theme is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights.” Its purpose is to draw global attention to the fundamental need for the freedom of expression.

That there needs to be a day dedicated to the acknowledgement of the importance of press freedom at all speaks to the fact that it continues to be under threat globally. The 2023 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize was awarded to Niloofar Hamedi, Elaheh Mohammadi and Narges Mohammadi, three Iranian women journalists whose work acted as a boon to the protests that erupted over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in September 2022 after being detained for allegedly violating hijab rules. The trio, currently imprisoned in their country, continue to pay a heavy price for their reporting.

In the Caribbean, harassment of journalists takes on a slightly different tone, though jailing journalists in the region is not without precedent. One noteworthy instance was then Grenadian prime minister Maurice Bishop‘s 1983 incarceration of journalist Leslie Pierre, who ran the opposition newspaper The Grenadian Voice. Pierre stood in strong defence of press freedom; Bishop alleged that Pierre “engaged in acts of violence to overthrow the government.”

Most recently, several media houses, newspapers and journalistic organisations have spoken out against not only the manner in which questions, from women journalists in particular, have been dismissed by members of both Guyana's government and opposition, but also against the cyberbullying and other forms of abuse being doled out from their political supporters.

A statement from the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) strongly condemned such attempts at intimidation, and called on the government to “immediately set the tone for a cessation of such acts that ultimately serve to fertilise the ground for an escalation [that] can ultimately lead to physical harm”:

These are not isolated cases […] The ACM believes that there is no coincidence between the posture of senior political operatives and content in the State-owned media as well as a Facebook profile that is believed to be controlled by an associate or associates of the governing party.

The ACM and IFEX-ALC are calling for cooler heads to prevail and for politicians to exercise restraint and encourage their members and supporters to do the same.

Although Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) assessment of freedom of the press in Guyana is that “while media professionals have faced legal intimidation and suspensions, they are rarely the target of physical acts or violence,” it noted in this case that such behaviour and “scare tactics” are not befitting of “a signatory country of the Media Freedom Coalition.” Guyana is one of 51 members of the MFC, which advocates for media freedom and the protection of journalists. RSF's observations led the organisation to conclude that verbal intimidation was especially prevalent when journalists raised questions pertaining to Guyana's major oil find and related environmental issues. It also addressed the “larger issue” of government control of many of the country's media outlets.

Guyana is ranked 34th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index. The highest ranked nation in the English-speaking Caribbean is Jamaica, which came in at Number 12, followed by Trinidad and Tobago (25th) and Guyana.

The writers of one Letter to the Editor of Stabroek News connected the dots with this year's World Press Freedom Day theme:

Attacks on journalists doing their job of ensuring accountability and transparency of public and state authorities and institutions are unacceptable and are strongly condemned as are attacks on environmental justice and human rights defenders and on ordinary Guyanese exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression, association and information.

While the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonprofit that promotes global press freedom, reports that the journalists killed in 2022 increased by a startling 50 percent from the year before, the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) noted with concern that just over 10 percent of those deaths occurred in the Caribbean nation of Haiti.

MATT also said that local journalists are well aware that freedom of the press “continually comes under threat from the institutions over which it acts as a watchdog,” saying it has been “continually vigilant over the media’s access to state-held press conferences and information in the population’s interest” and remains “watchful over the potentially chilling effects of problematic items of legislation,” including the Cybercrime Bill.

Stressing the need for “Caribbean decision-makers to utilise the rapid advances in Social Media as a mass communication tool to facilitate the two-way flow of information” on all matters of public interest, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers summed up the regional outlook this way:

In the absence of freedom of expression, more often than not through the media, the public cannot be properly educated and informed about the other human rights to which they are entitled.

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