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Press Rights: If Only the Truth Were Known...

Press Rights: If Only the Truth Were Known...

by John Maxwell

This article originally appeared in the Jamaica Observer.

"Employers should have no power to influence how the truth is presented."

As I've said many times in this column, journalists, whose main job is to advance and protect the human rights of other people, are among those whose own human rights are most in question.

For journalists, freedom of speech is more limited than for most. In the western world journalists can mostly say what they want, as long as they agree with the positions of their publishers. As readers of my column know, I have had several disagreements with Butch Stewart, publisher of this newspaper, but I haven't yet been stopped from airing them or from criticizing him. Recent examples include my disagreement with the Observer's non-publication of a public opinion poll before last year's elections and my criticism of Butch Stewart's pre-election gift of $10 million to "NGO communities" just before the elections.

Contrast that with what happened at the Trinidad Guardian 12 years ago when the newspaper's controlling shareholder, Anthony Sagba, decided that his newsroom was not competent to comment on the propriety of relationships between the Guardian's parent organization and the government of Trinidad. As a result of that decision, 10 journalists left the paper and its reputation for journalistic probity was severely damaged.

The Gleaner, at the time, defended Mr. Sagba as having made a "management decision" and advised the journalists to cool it because it wasn't their business. I commented in this paper that the Gleaner's argument was hogwash.

"Owning a newspaper gives him no more human rights than any other member of the public."

Mr. Sagba had no more right to tell his journalists what stories they could print than he would have had to walk into one of his company's supermarkets and walk out with a ham without paying for it. Mr Sagba, a shopkeeper by trade, should know that. Owning a newspaper gives him no more human rights than any other member of the public. And since newspapers are not human beings, they can have no human rights.

More than fifty years ago a reporter named Rupert Nash Herbert and I were the prime movers in organizing the Jamaica Union of Journalists. The Gleaner refused to deal with us citing its "solus" (monopoly) position in protection of the public interest against politicians, trade unionists, journalists and others intent on subverting the natural order.

They even managed to influence the Registrar General, Mr. J. McDonald Sudu, who refused to register the trade union until threatened with mandamus proceedings by our attorney, Peter Evans.

Nothing we did could convince the Gleaner to negotiate with us. They dispatched those members of our executive who were members of their staff on assignment to journalistic Siberia: Alvin Wint to Montego Bay, Dudley Byfield to Mandeville and Wilmot Perkins to Morant Bay. They did not dare touch our president, a light skinned Jamaican lady named Aimee Webster.

Because of the Gleaner's stance, Premier Norman Manley promised to legislate the compulsory recognition of trade unions. Unfortunately this did not come to pass for another 16 years, when Michael Manley was Prime Minister and enacted the Labor Relations and Industrial Disputes Act. This was in direct response to the Gleaner's refusal to recognize another journalists' union, this one led by Ben Brodie.

Jamaican journalists have good reason to be wary of their employers who have never been defenders of the essence of press freedom and freedom of expression. They will defend their corporate right to speak, but not mine nor that of any other independent journalist.

In 1964 the Gleaner's Editor, Theodore Sealy, who also happened to be president of the Press Association, declared that the government had the right to discriminate against me, using public funds, because I had taken to "offensive extremes" my "defense of the public interest."

"Employers will defend their corporate right to speak, but not mine."

And the Gleaner's Managing Director, Gerry Fletcher, a vice president of the Inter American Press Association then meeting in Montego Bay, led their unanimous decision not to interfere in the dispute between my paper, Public Opinion, and the Government. They said they saw no question of press freedom involved. Prime Minister Bustamante, his Attorney General Victor Grant, and several of his ministers were publicly calling for me to be jailed and for one of my contributors to be deported. The Financial Secretary, Arthur Brown, was directed to issue a circular forbidding any government department or any entity in receipt of any government funds, including the Jamaica Agricultural Society and the University of the West Indies from advertising in Public Opinion or doing any business with the City Printery which owned the paper.

That PAJ coup

Last weekend members of the corporate media helped engineer a coup which unceremoniously bundled out the president of the Press Association, after five eventful years. Desmond Richards, according to the official count, received 12 out of 149 votes in the presidential election, although we had previously been informed by the presiding officer that only 137 people were entitled to vote. In fact 136 voted for the new President, Byron Buckley. I said I was reminded of elections in Tivoli Gardens, West Kingston, when Edward Seaga was the resident pasha.

I myself had been seriously heckled when I attempted to suggest before it was officially accepted that all was not kosher with the voters' list.

My reasons were simple.

The Secretary of the PAJ and candidate for president, had managed to recruit the support of the managements of the Gleaner, the Observer, Radio Jamaica and Nationwide News and to get them to pay more than half a million dollars as registration fees for over 200 new members.

According to the constitution of the PAJ, applicants for membership must possess certain qualifications and be approved by the Executive Committee. I have not got an answer from the Secretary (now President) to my question as to when did the Executive approve the new members. And these new recruits, without any legal right to be present, were vociferous in trying to deny me my right to ask these questions.

"We are here to vote, lets get on with it" was the general sentiment.

And vote they did.

Some people were seriously upset at Desmond's not shaking the hand of the new president after the election. I thought Des was wrong, but I understood his chagrin.

"As journalists we are enjoined to accept favors from no one."

As an Honorary Life Member for more than two decades and with the added distinction of having been the only member ever to have been expelled - a decade before that - I enjoy a somewhat privileged historical position. Having become a member of he PAJ (1953) before all others now alive except fellow Life Members Fred and Cynthia Wilmot, I found the entire proceedings farcical and sad. And this is especially because Desmond had rescued the PAJ from wreckage and made it into a prize worth having.

The key tenet of the journalistic ethic in my view, after the duty to tell the truth, is the duty at all costs to preserve, protect and defend one's own integrity. As journalists we are enjoined to accept favors from no one, lest even the merest suspicion of undue influence may be adduced from our behavior.

And, since journalists' first duty is to the truth and the defense of the public interest, not even the favor or influence of one's employer is justifiable.

The public have a right to the truth, the unalloyed, unvarnished truth, however discomfiting or unpalatable to some. In an ideal journalistic world, employers should have no power to influence how the truth is presented or to be able to protect their friends and associates and their interests.

There is, alas, no such ideal world, although in France and the Netherlands after the Nazi occupations, journalists insisted and got rights to freedom of expression even against their own employers. Incidentally, this question was one of the precipitating causes of the US embargo against Cuba, when newspaper employees demanded the right to add corrective ‘coletillas' to false news carried by their papers.

When our disastrous experiment with imperial capitalism comes to its inevitable end the world will no doubt attempt to produce a public service press, beholden to nobody except its owners, the public interest.

Sadly, that day is not just around the corner. Meanwhile we tolerate the Judas goats like Judith Miller of the New York Times and the other journalist hucksters who have sung us into war, global warming, unsustainable development, competitive expenditure, sub-prime disasters and other catastrophes which could have been avoided, had the truth been made known.

Integrity in journalism is as essential as the integrity of the public water supply.

John Maxwell a veteran Jamaican journalist. He has covered Caribbean affairs for more than 40 years and is currently a columnist for The Jamaica Observer. He can be contacted at jankunnu@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Copyright ©2008 John Maxwell

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