Less than a week after World Press Freedom Day, a threat — caught on audio tape and first thought to be against a Jamaican woman journalist — has caused outrage, partisan bickering on social media, and embarrassment about the island’s reputation for press freedom.
On the evening of May 1, reporters went to the Kingston headquarters of the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP), where a heated protest was taking place against the selection of a “rookie” candidate as party representative for a constituency in the next general election, which is carded for 2025. Most of the protesters support a long-serving incumbent in the constituency, and the candidate says he had been receiving death threats.
The scene was chaotic, and during the fracas, the threat — “Mi can rape you, enuh” (“I can rape you, you know”) — was caught on audio tape and subsequently played by a radio station whose reporter had been present. A Television Jamaica crew was also reportedly threatened by a supporter, who picked up a stone and began approaching a journalist with it before throwing it away.
One woman journalist said the PNP's Deputy General Secretary Dexroy Martin allegedly sought to chase her out of the area, shouting, “Come out of here with your green pants!” Green is the colour of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), currently in government. The journalist in question had been seeking a comment from a senior party member on the matter of the disputed candidate but was denied an interview. Martin subsequently apologised for his comments. However, it appears that he has not been sanctioned by the party for his behaviour.
The controversy has taken place against the backdrop of Jamaica’s slip in the annual Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index. Martin had himself tweeted about the country’s slide from 12th place in 2022 to 32nd place in 2023:
This is extremely sad and depressing https://t.co/Qppe79Q3Hp
— Dexroy Martin (@Joshua1v8) May 4, 2023
RSF felt compelled to weigh in on the incident:
#Jamaica 🇯🇲: RSF condemns multiple threats against journalists, including a threat of rape, outside the headquarters of the People's National Party (PNP) in Kingston. Jamaica has fallen 20 spots on RSF's World Press Freedom Index released last week. https://t.co/vCNjEa1FLi
— RSF in English (@RSF_en) May 9, 2023
Prime Minister Andrew Holness tweeted the government's official response on May 9:
#PressRelease: Government Rejects Attacks on Media Workers. pic.twitter.com/IguSk0JuiB
— Andrew Holness (@AndrewHolnessJM) May 9, 2023
The next day, speaking in the House of Representatives, Information Minister Robert Morgan, himself a former journalist, said “a new low” had been reached, asserting:
Sexual violence has no place in Jamaican society, and certainly not as a tool of intimidation against journalists.
He called for the aggressor to be identified and reported to the police. At the time of publication, this had not yet taken place.
In response, Leader of Opposition Business in the Lower House Peter Paulwell said he did not wish “to point fingers, but to accept that it should not have happened.” He promised the party’s cooperation in any investigation, concluding, “Let the chips fall where they may.”
The PNP issued a contrite statement apologising for the incident. Opposition Spokesperson on Information and Justice Donna Scott-Mottley stated:
[The party] unreservedly extends our sincere apologies to the journalist who was subjected to such abuse. We have spoken with her directly, as well as with her supervisors, and have expressed our regret for what happened and have offered our unreserved apologies. She has been assured of our commitment to investigating the matter fully and ensuring that the offenders are disciplined.
Scott-Mottley suggested to the Gleaner newspaper, however, that the internal party squabbles which sparked the protest are quite commonplace:
This is not unusual, nothing like that is going to be seamless … You are going to always find disgruntled supporters, and you are also going to find persons who simply take advantage of the situation to create mischief.
Political pundit Kevin O’Brien Chang echoed this point, saying the fact that supporters of both political parties are prone to unruly behaviour makes it even more critical that there be consequences:
Morgan made an excellent point
Both Pnp and Jlp find supporters hard to control at times
Jamaica is a give an inch they take a yard country
If they don't make an example of this man by charging him
Who knows what party supporters of either side might do next
— kevin o'brien chang (@kevinobriencha1) May 9, 2023
Several organisations, including the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ), issued statements condemning the incident. PAJ President Milton Walker said on radio that he was particularly concerned that the incident took place inside the party building; he also noted an increase in women media workers in Jamaica in recent years, suggesting behaviour like this makes them more vulnerable targets for harassment.
A few days earlier, commenting on the state of Jamaica's press freedom, the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) urged vigilance:
In Jamaica, while the incidents of assault on journalists are relatively few, one incident is far too many and must be strongly condemned. All citizens need to stand by journalists in Jamaica who put personal safety on the line in execution of their duty of keeping us informed.
Human rights lobby group Jamaicans for Justice issued a strong condemnation of the rape threat, urging the swift location of the perpetrator, a thorough police investigation, and delivering a “strong rebuke” to the “raw and senseless partisan politics” that inspired Dexroy Martin's approach to the journalists:
JFJ condemns the recent media threats and calls for JCF to investigate the threat of rape targeting a female journalist. pic.twitter.com/6mV5Uv2OBX
— Jamaicans For Justice (JFJ) (@JAForJustice) May 10, 2023
Apart from their sometimes uncontrollable supporters, this is not the first time that politicians themselves, on both sides of the fence, have been disrespectful and abusive towards journalists. A tit for tat discussion ensued on Twitter between rival party supporters. One tweeter, sympathetic to the PNP, referred to past incidents involving a Jamaica Labour Party minister well known for his aggressive behaviour towards journalists.
Even as President of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) Metry Seaga urged public officials to refrain from divisive comments, however, a narrative was being pushed that the rape comment was not aimed at the journalist:
#BREAKING: The Opposition @JamaicaPNP is suggesting that the rape comment made at its party HQ on Monday was not directed at a journalist. The party says “the comment was made as part of a separate conversation between two protesters from SE St. Catherine…” pic.twitter.com/1BGdDFwVNH
— Ricardo Brooks (@ricaaduh) May 11, 2023
The PNP claimed it had conducted further investigations and concluded that the threat of rape “appears to have been banter among friends.” The party still has not identified the interlocutors, but suggested they were possibly from the embattled constituency.
Many Jamaican netizens were incredulous, with one observing:
Utter mess. How could they think this was appropriate to publish. So many issues with this release’s messaging. Our political landscape is atrocious. https://t.co/LPYHwdxiSA
— Oneika (@neikzaz) May 11, 2023
so are they defending the rape comments?just because they think it was not towards the journalist..they're saying they're ok with it?? https://t.co/BGCDHHalrl
— Demar Anderson (@DemarAnderson3) May 11, 202
More than simply an issue of press freedom, many Jamaicans view the matter as a symptom of society’s underlying misogyny. Sports reporter Kayon Davis observed that the background to the threat is Jamaica’s “rape culture,” which has not been properly addressed and allows women to be intimidated by the threat of violence:
Let us condemn rape in general; this is not just about the journalist or the media. It had more to do with the rape culture in Jamaica, which has been overlooked for years. Rape is often used as a weapon against many women and girls; it's time to address it in a meaningful way.
— K-D (@KayonDavis) May 9, 2023
This turbulent chain of events not only reflects the contentious, often volatile nature of Jamaican politics, but also an undercurrent of the ongoing intimidation of women in society as a whole — some of whom happen to be fearless reporters.