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Press freedom must be protected

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, May 14, 2017

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Wen coco ripe, im mus buss — Jamaica ProverbTranslation: When the cocoa (cacao) ripens, it bursts.

Explanation: It is easy to identify the intentions of an individual by his/her actions.

The fact that Jamaica moved up two places, from tenth last year to eighth on the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, was greeted with muted fanfare locally. The 2017 World Press Freedom Index, published by press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, ranks Jamaica ahead of countries such as Belgium (#9), Luxembourg (#15), Germany (#16), Canada (#22), and the United States (#43).

Jamaica's ranking is immensely significant for many reasons. It is critical that Jamaica continuously nourishes and cherishes press freedom. In recent times we have witnessed or read about too many instances where some who suffer with a colonial and rancid belief that they have a responsibility, if not duty, to think for others, have tried to usurp the effervescent flow of free expression that infringes no laws of the land. Even a single instance where press freedom is threatened is one too many.

Torching of The Voice headquarters

Recall: “The brutal attack took place during the State of Emergency when the JLP's [Jamaica Labour Party] candidate for South West St Andrew, Pearnel Charles, had been thrown in detention camp, and Joseph McPherson, editor of The Voice, was entered as a last-minute opponent of Portia Simpson. Shortly after the nomination, McPherson and his paper were made the subject of several attacks, and once he had to be rescued by a helicopter. The Maxfield Avenue office was put under siege, invaded, and a number of employees tortured and otherwise brutalised.” ( The Gleaner, November 5, 2006)

These attacks culminated in the torching of the building that housed The Voice.

Recall also the murder of Earl Woodburn, an employee of The Voice, who “...had been abducted at Pretoria Road and then his savagely mutilated body was found on St Joseph Road, then a serious garrison area of the People's National Party.” ( The Gleaner, November 5, 2006)

Michael Manley and his mob

Recall also “the time that Prime Minister Michael Manley adjourned a Cabinet meeting and, along with Tony Spaulding, P J Patterson, and others, led a mob on The Gleaner because they did not like what the paper was publishing. The theme of that threat was, 'Next Time, Next Time!' This was interpreted to mean that if they ever thought it necessary to revisit The Gleaner it might be more than shouted words. The same prime minister publicly referred to the newspaper as the 'Call Girl of North Street', and he described the editors, writers and publishers as 'pimps of imperialism' ”. ( The Gleaner, November 5, 2006)

The PNP's media economic starvation strategy

“The Administration of the 70s went further. They withheld government advertising from The Gleaner and diverted business to the Daily News. In addition, government ministries and departments were instructed not to buy Gleaner publications. So tight was the squeeze that, in July 1978, The Gleaner had to seek financial support by offering to the public $4 million of debenture to help deal with its obligations.” ( The Gleaner, November 5, 2006)

The late Ken Jones, journalist extraordinaire, chronicled in this newspaper and in the Old Lady of North Street, how journalists like Wilmot Perkins, David DaCosta, and John Hearne, after his political Damascus Road experience, were “witch-hunted in the 70s”. Hearne's only sin was that he went to Trench Town and other places in Kingston and saw how the PNP was systematically displacing people to achieve political advantage — a strategy People's National Party (PNP) thugs termed “scatta dem” (political cleansing). He wrote about it in The Gleaner. Thereafter, he became persona non grata and a marked man by Michael Manley's party supporters. Hearne was also beaten at a PNP conference.

Wilmot Perkins was fired from the now defunct Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation by the PNP, simply because he made comments which they did not like. It is a fact that when the PNP found out that Perkins was benefiting from the monetary proceeds of the radio serial, The Fortunes of Flora Lee, written by his wife Elaine Perkins, that was aired on Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), they halted its broadcast.

The programme was supremely popular, but that did not matter to the PNP. It was a beautiful love story, without a scintilla of any reference to party politics or anti-PNP rhetoric, but that did not matter to the PNP. The PNP's primary concern was not the economic viability of the JBC, but uniformity of political viewpoints. They generously used a similar failed strategy that brought Jamaica to her economic knees before she was rescued on October 30, 1980 by Edward Seaga and the JLP.

National Hero Marcus Garvey warned us that we cannot understand the present unless we understand the past. Recall that Byron Balfour suffered instantaneous dismissal from his place at JBC because he reported something the PNP did not like. ( The Gleaner, November 5, 2006)

Our continued strides up the rungs of the World Press Freedom Index have been achieved through great sacrifice on the part of many. It must be guarded jealously. No single media entity should be allowed to become a predatory monopoly. The PNP tried this sinister strategy in the 70s.

Recall: “The PNP Government not only attacked sections of the press in Jamaica and what they called the 'foreign press', but also how they sought to become the dominant owner of the media in this country. They could not buy The Gleaner, but they did take over the Daily News. They controlled the JBC radio stations, and television, but also found it necessary to fire Dwight Whylie, who later told of differences occurring when he did not 'adopt a more positive attitude toward the PNP policy of democratic socialism'. They nationalised RJR, they changed the name and purpose of the Jamaica Information Service, and they even had the then president of the Press Association saying he saw nothing wrong with government ownership of the press; and that such ownership was not incompatible with the concept of a free press.” ( The Gleaner, November 5, 2006)

Great efforts were made by the PNP in the 70s to have journalists kowtow to PNP propaganda. Some were hauled “before the Bar of the House in an attempt to find out who was writing what”. So deliberate a strategy was this of the PNP that, “Dr Trevor Munroe could boastfully write in Struggle of August 1979, “It is the communists who at API, JBC, in the Daily News and in the Press Association are most uncompromising in beating back Seaga's lies and bringing the truth to the people.” ( The Gleaner, November 5, 2006)

We need to be constantly suspicious of any move by any Government, political parties, persons or sets of persons, whose actions implicitly and/or explicitly seek to stymie press freedom.

The JLP is not blameless either

The banning of Guyanese scholar, Walter Rodney, from re-entering Jamaica because of his political views in the 60s was wrong.

A march on this newspaper some years ago by JLP supporters because they did not like cartoons of Clovis and articles by veteran journalist Mark Wignall, that were critical of Edward Seaga and the JLP, was wrong.

It continues...

Last year, we saw the anti-press freedom tentacles of the 70s trying to reassert themselves. We need to remember that a scorpion cannot be anything but a scorpion. Rain beats a leopard's skin, but it does not wash out the spots. (Ugandan proverb)

Recall that twice last year PNP supporters verbally and physically attacked Nationwide News Network's ace newsman Abka Fitz-Henley:

Nationwide's boss, Cliff Hughes, confirmed on radio yesterday that he has sought the intervention of former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller in an effort to end what he said is the constant harassment of senior political reporter Abka Fitz-Henley.

“This followed Thursday's altercation close to Gordon House, when it is alleged that Fitz-Henley, who was covering the swearing-in of the members of the House of Representatives, was attacked by a number of 'orange-clad supporters of the People's National Party (PNP)'.

“According to Fitz-Henley, after covering the swearing-in, he was walking to a parking lot close to Gordon House, where his motor car was parked, when he noticed a group of 'orange-clad PNP supporters' standing in the vicinity of the vehicle.

“He said that one man, dressed in orange and white, summoned the crowd by shouting: 'Si him ya. A him a pressure Portia! A dem a pressure wi. Him a tweet out PNP business. A him!'

“It is understood that several other orange-clad individuals converged on the area shouting, 'No media round here!' as well as other comments unfit to be reported.

“Fitz-Henley said he turned around and walked back towards the entrance to Gordon House to seek the assistance of protection officers to retrieve his car. However, the protestors started throwing objects at him. He said that he was hit in the back by one of the objects which, he said, felt like a small stone.”

The Jamaica Observer reported shortly after the February 25 general election that Fitz-Henley had been assigned an armed private security guard during the election period after threats were made against his life:

Nationwide News Network (NNN) ace reporter Abka Fitz-Henley has been forced to travel with an armed security guard since recent threats against his life.

“The presence of his armed security was obvious when he turned up at Mona High School last Thursday to cover Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leader Andrew Holness and his wife, Juliet, voting at one of the polling divisions at the St Andrew Eastern cluster. Asked about his need for armed security, Fitz-Henley said that he had been advised against making any public comment on the matter.

“However, since Thursday, the Jamaica Observer has been able to uncover some of the facts leading to the decision by Nationwide to provide him with both armed security on assignments and at NNN.

“According to the information obtained by the Observer, Fitz-Henley had been receiving threatening phone calls for some two to three weeks prior to the general election. The calls included one from a 'male voice' which warned him: 'Gunshot fi yuh. Dead yuh a go dead. Stop f... roun' PNP business.'

“Another caller last week informed him that: 'Seh yu a investigative journalist an' all now yu nuh have nutten fi say bout di man house!'

“Fitz-Henley was also said to have received a voice message last week which stated: 'Come outta PNP business, mawga bwoy. Wi a go cut yuh throat, media bwoy.'

“It is also understood that two People's National Party (PNP) supporters confronted him at the party's news conference recently and sought answers from him about matters he had raised on radio.

“Fitz-Henley, the Observer was told, responded that he had no obligation to answer the questions. The persons reacted with a number of expletives, which led to other journalists who were present having to intervene.” ( Jamaica Observer, February 28, 2016)

Let's not forget, too, that former Jamaica Observer Crime/Court Desk Editor Karyl Walker was threatened with bodily harm for his reporting on the Vybz Kartel case. ( Jamaica Observer, April 14, 2014)

There is no democracy without press freedom. And there is no free press without democracy. Let us protect Jamaica's free press with every sinew.

Shoes alone know if stocking hab hole. — Jamaican Proverb

Translation: Shoes alone know if the stockings have holes.[Beckwith]

Explanation: The wearer alone knows where the shoe pinches. (Anderson, Cundall)

Garfield Higgins is an educator; journalist; and advisor to the minister of education, youth and information. Send comments to the Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.

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