The RSF (Reporters Without Borders) recently released the latest annual world press freedom index. Norway came in at number 1 with Finland and Sweden ranked number 2 and 3 respectively. Jamaica was ranked number 8 out of the 180 countries analysed by RSF.
[Press Freedom – “intends to reflect the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations, and netizens have in each country, and the efforts made by authorities to respect this freedom.”]
The UK Independent newspaper then ran the headline.. “UK (33) ranks below Jamaica in press freedom”. But anyone with an understanding of how the media in Jamaica and the UK works knows this perception of press freedom for both countries is just false.
I am not surprised that Jamaica scored so well on the RSF index. Given that there is hardly any investigative journalism or fact checking of the influential classes, what has Jamaica’s media got to fear?
The index is not an analysis of Jamaican journalists. But it is worth saying that Jamaica’s journalists are generally of a high standard. Despite the many restrictive obstacles that prevents them from being far more effective and relevant to Jam public.
Observers of Jamaica’s media know that much of what is reported is just speeches, government statements and PR placements. There are also reports on violent crime. But crime reporting has fallen off dramatically since 2017.
(e.g. Last Saturday’s local evening news on CVM TV was made up of 5 reports, all of which were literally comments by 5 government ministers)
The lack of investigative journalism has worried many Jamaican and international observers. Jamaicans constantly complain -via radio phone-in shows and through letters to newspaper editors – about the lack of investigative reporting.
The Jamaican media tends to report on corruption only when such allegations are revealed by government watchdogs such as the auditor general. But the media rarely initiates their own independent reporting of such corruption or major conflicts of interests.
- Jamaicans recently saw the sudden resignation/sacking of Ruel Reid as education minister over corruption allegations. But the media has yet to report any revelations on why Reid left the government so dramatically.
- Why has there been such media silence since Reid’s resignation which happened in March?
- Is the media being restrained for fear of libel or other external/internal pressures?
- Earlier this year it was revealed by the government that 70 tonnes of spoilt rice imported from Guyana was confiscated at the ports. It is not the first time this kind of faulty food imports had happened, but journalists have never felt free enough to disclose the name of the company importing this dodgy rice. Instead the media describe the company as “a local distributor”.
- What does the media fear if they reveal the name of “the local distributor“?
- Some sports journalist have admitted that they do not publish negative reports on powerful local sporting figures – especially those in administration – for fear of losing access to interviews and press credentials.
- Wikileaks has generated much interest globally. The website contains the most comprehensive documentation of Jamaica’s politics ever seen in the public domain. But…
- Why has the media steered clear of the Jamaican content on Wikileaks?
- What is the media afraid of in not revealing content that would shed greater light on the real Jamaican politics since the 1970s?
For too long, Jamaica’s 150 year old + libels laws were stifling robust independent journalism as the media feared litigation at their peril. Lawsuits which would never apply to the journalism carried out in many developed countries.
The kind of corruption, inappropriate behaviour and criminal activity exposed by the UK media just could never happen in Jamaica. Such probing journalism in Jamaica would have dire financial (possible human) consequences for those media houses.
Certain libel cases over the past 3 decades sent shivers across the Jamaican media landscape including:
- Anthony Abrahams’ libel win against The Gleaner which resulted in award of $JA80 million (£1.2 million) in 1994, but settled at $JA35 million (£533,000 )
- Former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson’s libel win against journalist Cliff Hughes which resulted in an award of $JA12.5m in 2014.
In 2013, the Jamaican parliament passed the Defamation Act which repealed criminal libel, and was well received by local and international journalist groups. But the media in Jamaica today still walks at fine line for fear of upsetting the well connected. Lawyers are always at the ready should the media “step out of line” and besmirch their clients. Even well-meaning charities such as the Heart Foundation of Jamaica are not exempt from possible legal action if their fact-checking could harm a major brand.
A 2010 document from the US State Department reflected on Jamaica’s media…
“Jamaica’s libel laws have a chilling effect on investigative reporting by the press and hinder the media’s ability to bring corruption and criminal activity to light. A duty to inform subjects of media reporting prior to publishing puts the subject of a story on notice and provides them with an opportunity to seek an injunction to stymie publication. The risk of costly court-awarded damages also discourages media owners from aggressively pursuing the types of stories that would bring information about corruption and criminal activity to light.” –
2010-2019: no real change.