Questions for our ‘Fourth Estate’

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July 26, 2019
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July 26, 2019

Questions for our ‘Fourth Estate’

In the very recent past, the issue of ‘Press Freedom’, as is currently practised, has generated a great deal of attention and diverse opinions. This is nothing new. It comes to the fore ever so often. I thought as a journalist of several decades I should say something.

When I was Managing Director and Editor in Chief of the Sun family of newspapers in Antigua and St Kitts in the early part of this century, we editorialised on the issue this way: “Freedom of the press is a phrase that can have several connotations and in many instances some can be diametrically opposed to each other. Media houses all over the world are many times pilloried for using ‘freedom of the press’ as an excuse for making dangerous forays into the world of slander and defamation.”

Such is the case in Trinidad and Tobago, where media houses, especially in radio talk shows, continually cross the imaginary line which separates fact from fiction and then hastens to claim that they were simply “reporting the news”. This practice has led to several journalists and talk show hosts ending up in court to face libel and slander charges.

As the paper put it, this freedom we so glibly talk about, “does not stand alone. It is always accompanied by responsibility. It follows therefore, that freedom of the press must ‘walk’ conjointly with ‘journalistic responsibility’ when it comes to informing and/or educating the various publics which it serves.”

It continued, “A responsible journal ensures its integrity by being a genuine social and corporate partner, moving at all times toward a goal mutually beneficial to all partners. A responsible newspaper must at all times, see itself as a purveyor of information that will satisfy the needs of its readership, not with malicious gossip and craftily created untruths, but rather solid fact which can stand the scrutiny of investigation.”

Unfortunately, there are publications in this land which seem bent on destroying the good name of Trinidad and Tobago by continually publishing in its columns, gross misrepresentations and innuendoes all geared towards maligning either somebody’s good name or hurting the country’s already battered image.

Then there are radio stations which seem to be vying for the title of who can say the nastiest things about people and institutions. And this happens every single day.

Although we don’t have real ratings in this country, we know the radio signal is wide, varied and international through the Internet and this has generated some serious disagreements between individuals and among groups —not a nice thing for a developing nation.

The Sun editorial said also, “We believe it is time the authorities take a serious look at what’s passing for good journalism in the local media. We need media that would educate the public in the nuances of governance, economics, politics, sports and community, not the constant hammering away at the personal lives of public figures and the constant degradation of the country as it tries to regain a solid footing in the region.”

“But be warned,” the editorial pointed out, “this paper is not calling for censorship. There is a very critical difference between censorship and freedom of the press used fairly and critically. We are all for constructive criticism. We are all for generating issues for public discussion to be fleshed out in the world of argument. What we are against is the use of newspapers’ columns to denigrate and malign people and institutions trying to build this country into the paradise it could truly be.

“We are fully aware of the cut and thrust of competitive journalism. We encourage that. But we abhor when a partner journal jumps out of the box and uses devious means and concocted stories to try to forge ahead. We urge that the media, which insist that sensationalism is the way to go, desist from that practice and let’s walk the road of cooperation in an effort to raise the consciousness of our people and eventually the country as it strives to achieve its economic and social goals,” said the editorial.

There is need, therefore, for us to be partners in the development of Trinidad and Tobago but this cannot be achieved if some radio stations and newspapers vow to continue on the path of sensationalism and third-rate tabloid journalism.