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Minister Reid needs to explain his vague statement on press freedom

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Senator Ruel Reid actually started out fine in his statement on press freedom in Jamaica last week.

Jamaicans, he said, “can be justly proud that our long-standing practice of allowing our free press to operate in a manner that promotes free discourse in support of our traditions has been recognised outside our borders and [is] being praised”.

Senator Reid, who has executive responsibility for the information, education and youth portfolios, was referring to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders' assessment that Jamaica ranks among the countries that most respect freedom of information.

That is indeed a measurement worthy of acknowledgement, especially given that Reporters Without Borders — one of the world's leading NGOs that defends and promotes freedom of information — tells us on its website that “at the turn of the 21st century, nearly half of the world population still lacks free access to information”.

The upshot, as Reporters Without Borders correctly points out, is that those people are deprived of knowledge that is essential for managing their lives and are prevented from living in pluralist political systems in which factual truth serves as the basis for individual and collective choices.

While there have been attempts, from time to time, to muzzle and threaten journalists in this country — like that march on the Gleaner by the People's National Party in the late 1970s and the Jamaica Labour Party's march on the Jamaica Observer in the early 2000s — successive Governments have generally upheld the ideal of press freedom.

So, Minister Reid, we believe, was on sound footing when he argued in the Senate last Friday that we should “value this tradition and be on alert to resist any attempt to undercut this freedom”.

However, Minister Reid then ventured into the area of social media and, maybe wittingly or unwittingly, brought two separate issues under one umbrella — the use of the Internet and social media to influence behaviour, and freedom of the press.

While we acknowledge and share the concern about the spread of “fake news” on social media and the threats to national security that some users of these platforms can pose, we can't see the link with press freedom.

That is why we in the media, led by the Press Association of Jamaica, need Mr Reid to clarify his proclamation that “There is a clear need to find a new balance between privacy rights and legitimate security concerns”, and that “the Government itself must move beyond its traditional focus on increasingly narrow and static infrastructure issues and address the consumption and influence of content.”

We look forward to his explanation, given our understanding, and strong commitment to the fact that press freedom basically offers to mankind avenues to truth and that any challenge to that ideal is an attack on the fundamentals of democracy.

Senator Reid might have misspoken or he might have just been reading a statement prepared by a technical officer not fully au fait with how tenuous this business of press freedom is.