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Holness Government's conto

Canute Thompson

Sunday, July 15, 2018

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The members of the Andrew Holness-led Administration and their PR agents may have been blundering in recent weeks and mishandling various matters concerning the country's governance, but they are not political neophytes.

This Administration seems bent on undermining our democracy. The key pillars of every democratic society are:

• an independent judiciary;

• free and fair elections;

• independent law enforcement;

• vibrant Opposition parties;

• vocal civil society groups;

• critical faith-based organisations; and

• a free, independent and assertive press that is capable of, and committed to, speaking truth to power and keeping the Government on its toes.

 

Both the recent attempts by the Government to seek to upend the post-Cabinet press briefings and the apparently pro-Government reportage by a well-known journalist of the Petrojam scandal highlight the need for the society to demand of the Government that it upholds the principles of transparency, and that journalists be fair, critical, and fearless.

The need to protect democracies is not merely about a commitment to create and maintain space for philosophically adversarial engagements between those who hold power and those over whom power is exercised. The need to protect democracy and free speech is about improving the quality of life of citizens. Former deputy secretary general of the United Nations Louise Fréchette made this point back in 2003 in her speech to mark World Press Freedom Day. She stated that a free and independent press was the lifeblood of strong, functioning societies, and a lifeline to progress itself.

In 2006, Helene-Marie Gosseling, director of UNESCO, made same a similar assertion, arguing that media freedom is an “indispensable cornerstone” of a comprehensive and hopefully more effective international development strategy. She emphasised the strong correlation between freedom of expression and improved quality of life.

It is the context of the threat facing our quality of life that the refusal and equivocation of the Holness Administration concerning post-Cabinet press briefings are to be seen. One of the clear and unmistaken characteristics of the Holness Administration, and Holness in particular, is the penchant to utter sacred words and lofty ideals without having any compunction about violating them the next moment.

Countless examples come to mind. On Sunday, July 8, 2018 I discussed how Holness violated his own standard on accountability. In enunciating that standard, Holness called for the firing of Richard Azan, in 2013, for comparatively minor violations. But in 2018 Holness was silent for weeks on the Petrojam matter, and when he spoke, he meekly negotiated with Wheatley giving up one segment of his portfolio.

Then there were the pre-signed letters scandal and the court case which Holness lost. But after apologising to senators Christopher Tufton and Arthur Williams, he went and filed an appeal, which again he lost. Following that loss, Delroy Chuck said Holness was not fit to lead the party or the country, but now Chuck is an ardent supporter.

In promising greater transparency in governance, the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) 2016 Manifesto stated that the party would “introduce mandatory disclosure of integrity reports by the prime minister, leader of the Opposition, and minister of finance” (p 15).

The party also promised: “Swift and appropriate sanctions will be imposed for breaches of the laws which relate to public service and governance, particularly as they relate to the Corruption Prevention Act, the Financial Administration and Audit Act, the Public Bodies Management & Accountability Act, Contractor General Act, and the Procurement Rules and Guidelines.” (p 16)

No word has been heard on these promises, and thus it is the breaking of solemn undertakings like these that justify the need for an independent and free press. For if the Government were allowed to cover up whatever has occurred at Petrojam we would, perhaps, never know about the waste, inefficiency, nepotism, profligacy, poor governance, unqualified managers, and possible corruption that has been taking place.

Now we are set to learn many things, including some explanations for the price of petrol. If the prime minister were allowed to have this Petrojam stench kept secret, and remain silent as he has with the $213-million used car matter, and the Cornwall Regional Hospital saga, or his “do nothing” decision in relation to the $600-million de-bushing scandal, then he and his Government would simply be emboldened to do as they wish with our rights and our resources — and therein lies the clear threat to our quality of life. We demand better!

 

False binary choice

Pursuant to its clear attempt to evade scrutiny and control the narrative of public discourse, the Government has created a false binary choice between social and traditional media with respect to post-Cabinet press briefings.

At the time of writing, almost eight months had elapsed since the last post-Cabinet press briefing. It is to be recalled that in May 2018 the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) woke from its slumber and discovered that there had been no post-Cabinet briefings for six months. In response to the PAJ's query, the Government promised that these would resume “soon”. But six weeks after that promise the post-Cabinet briefings had still not been resumed. When the PAJ pressed again — and its tenacity on this matter up to this point is commendable — the minister with responsibility for information, Senator Ruel Reid, declared that when post-Cabinet briefings were introduced social media did not exist, and later doubled down arguing that the format for pressers will see changes, but could not guarantee either the format or frequency of these opportunities for the press to hold the Government accountable.

The question everyone must ask is this: Why is the Government reluctant and evasive about opening up to the media? What is there to hide? If the economy is doing so well, if crime is trending downwards, if we have over 90 per cent employment, and tourist arrivals are booming, why not have daily (not just weekly) press briefings to tout the successes. The Government's apparent ducking of the media simply does not make sense — or maybe it makes a lot of sense given what the Government may be trying to hide.

But there is no inherent binary choice between social and traditional media in providing the public with information. We can have both at one and the same time. If the Government wishes to be creative it could issue updates from Cabinet via social media, as well as traditional press releases, and then meet with the press and members of the public to field questions. Media practitioners, and others, may wish to tweet (some of) their questions ahead of the briefing and give the minister time to prepare. During the briefing itself the minister could take questions not only from individuals seated in the briefing room, but also from those logged in via social media, including Diaspora.

In my view, a weekly briefing is not enough. We should have at least two.

So there need not be a fight over whether to use social media or traditional media; all the country wants, and needs, is the unequivocal assurance that the Government will be open, responsive, respectful, and truthful in its engagements with the press and the public and that scheduled briefings will be regular and consistent.

 

Role of the media

I have suggested that governments which try to destroy democracies usually try to control the judiciary, the police, the electoral process, as well as try to silence opposing voices in Parliament and the public, but above all they try to control public discourse by either bullying or buying out the media. Our Government must show, by action not mere words, that it is truly committed to our democratic ideals.

It is instructive that in the same way the Holness Administration is flirting with the idea of doing away with press briefings (or modify the prevailing format), the Trump Administration has done its own fair share of flirting, not to mention his describing the press as the enemy of the people. One of the format changes the Trump Administration proposed was the elimination of on-camera press briefings, which it proposed in June 2017. In response a congressman tabled a Bill in July 2017 seeking to make on-camera press briefings the law.

We need to have a similar serious response to the attempt by the Holness Administration to water down or do away with regularly scheduled opportunities for the press and the public to question the Government. I urge the media, academia, the business community, and the Opposition, to push for legislation which will, among other things, make weekly or bi-weekly briefings mandatory; provide for members of the public to attend such briefings (not just representatives of established media entities); require the Government to produce documentation requested by the press (so long as they are not secret or classified); and to provide for sanctions for failure by the Government to be truthful, timely, and forthcoming.

The late Wilmot Perkins, who was an ardent critic of the Government, and especially People's National Party (PNP) governments. He defended his hostility towards various PNP administrations by arguing that there is an inherent tension between the role of the journalist and that of the Government. Perkins contended that the business of the journalist is not to be a public relations spokesperson for the Government, but a critic in defence of the public's interest.

Ann Cooper, former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, makes a similar point, arguing that wherever there is an independent media, there is bound to be friction with the Government.

As we resume these post-Cabinet briefings, one hopes that media practitioners will see themselves not as mere mouthpieces and apologists for the Administration, but advocates for the public's interest.

The public, I submit, should become suspicious about the motives and independence of any media organisation or practitioner who invests in carrying the Government's narrative. This does not mean we who engage in public commentary should not comment on the positive things, but the primary role of media in a democracy is to act as the fourth branch on government — offering checks and balances on all other three.

 

Threat of alternative facts

One reason the Government has been reluctant about directly engaging the media is because of its wish to trade in creating its own facts, aka fake news or alternative facts. This latest effort being made in this regard is in relation to the growth of the economy. Having promoted itself as the expert in growing the economy, and with the failure of “5 in 4”, the Government is now seeking to great its own growth numbers. So, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Audley Shaw says the construction sector is not growing at two per cent as reported, it is more like five per cent to 10 per cent. And minister without porfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister Daryl Vaz made similar claims a few weeks ago. Critical media will be needed to expose the avalanche of fake news that is coming.

 

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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