Stock-taking time for media
-- focus on fifth regional conference in Antigua By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
May 12, 2002

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WE IN the media accept as part of our social responsibility functions to monitor, report on, analyse and comment on events and developments in the society, and particularly on how lawmakers and governments are honouring decisions taken.

The region's media, print and electronic, that all major stakeholders of society are increasingly acknowledging as a vital partner in responding to the problems and challenges of our time, need to do as much stocking taking in the implementation process of decisions as governments.

What is of particular relevance in making this observation is the wide gap that currently exists between decisions at annual regional meetings of major and influential media owners, managers, editors and other key players of the media industry and disturbing lack of implementation of those decisions.

Involved are some critical issues of direct importance to the media enterprises, the practitioners of the journalism profession and the society at large.

They include creation of national/regional media bodies to which representations can be made by both the public and the media personnel; ethics, education and training and effective monitoring of press freedom.

With the demise of what existed as the Caribbean Broadcasters and Publishers Association (CPBA), emerged what has become an annual media event, Caribbean Media Conference (CMC) -- not to be confused with the Caribbean Media Corporation currently struggling for survival.

The inaugural conference took place in Jamaica in 1998 with a combination of organisers and sponsors, among them the Caribbean News Agency and Caribbean Broadcasting Union as they then existed, and with UNESCO providing, as it still does, some financial assistance.

Well, the owners, editors, managers and other senior personnel of the media industry of the Caribbean Community will be having the fifth of these annual conferences this week on May 16-18.

The venue this time is Antigua and Barbuda where the current climate of hostility between the government of Prime Minister Lester Bird and the private media 'Observer Group' is far from what's desirable.


There are no functioning media organisations in Antigua and Barbuda, either at the level of owners and managers or journalists and other media workers.

The venue is even more strange when it is considered that for the first time the host, The Observer Group, which owns and operates the 'Daily Observer' and 'Observer Radio' has made a virtue of its hostility towards the Bird administration in St. John's.

There have been many battles with a current very threatening confrontation over allegations by the 'Observer' against the Prime Minister that could spill over into more verbal clashes this week, whether before or during the gathering of the region's media personnel.

I have no doubt that at least one of the influential members of the Derrick family, owners of the Observer Group, will seek to justify the stand being taken against the Bird administration in explaining the Group's role as "champion" or "defender" of press freedom and freedom of expression.

The Derricks doing their "freedom" thing may very well please their guests of like minds. Or even those simply too cynical about some of the strange happenings in "Birdsland", where a Texan multimillionaire reputedly wields enormous, some say obnoxious, influence to even bother about the validity or distortions in the case(s) to be presented by the Derricks and/or their spokespersons.

An evidently good idea, associated with the Gleaner's Oliver Clarke, who has also acquired the reputation of a prime influence-peddler at the annual conferences, the CMC has evolved as a forum for the big decision-makers of the region's media industry to exchange ideas.

A spirit of camaraderie is always evident. Never mind the failure to follow through on decisions and resolutions.

The Conference Manager for this year's event, Annette L. Nias, has been working feverishly to make it a success. She has always been cooperative in responding to inquiries.

But there could be no indication earlier last week as to how many of the more than 300 invitees will indeed show up for the conference. I regret my own unavailability.

What is more important than the number of participants who will be there from the opening session -- expected, but no longer certain, to be addressed by Minister of Information Guy Yearwood -- to the final "wrap-up" business session, is the critical assessment of what progress has actually been made since the inaugural conference in Jamaica in 1998 and the subsequent ones held in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Grenada last May.


Perhaps this is where UNESCO can play a helpful role, as one of the consistent sponsoring partners of the annual conference, either by conducting its own evaluation of what resolutions have actually been implemented; or request that this be done in collaboration with other organising and sponsoring organisations.

The current yawning gap, to put it mildly, that prevails between rhetoric and action, between inspiring discussions and decisions and the implementation process, can hardly be flattering to the major decision-makers of the region's media industry, both public and private.

If this reminds readers of the behaviour of the political directorate of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), then the decision-makers of the region's media should not be offended in being reminded of a sorry reality in our own profession.

It is left to be seen whether this week's fifth conference will make a difference in terms of the mechanisms or procedures established for implementation of resolutions either reaffirmed or new ones to be introduced.

It has been noted that, as was the experience of earlier conferences, the 'Declaration of Chapultepec', an initiative of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), is being given a significant spot on the agenda against the background of continuing efforts to mobilise support to have Caribbean heads of government sign on to the Declaration.

Prime Minister P.J. Patterson was among the first of CARICOM leaders to have done so. A few others, including President Bharrat Jagdeo, is expected to sign on May 24 when an IAPA delegation turns up in Georgetown.

But some heads of government of the Community continue to harbour reservations while others are seeking "further clarifications".

Basically intended to promote and defend press freedom and freedom of expression, the Declaration, which is non-binding, embraces 10 principles.

Now is not the time to go into the history of the origin of the Declaration as an initiative of IAPA, which has had its own controversial periods in post-independence Caribbean political developments, including Jamaica. Or, why the region's media owners and managers never considered it necessary to have come forward with a 'Declaration' rooted in our own socio-political history and environment.

What is more relevant is that those heads of government signing the Declaration also bear in mind that the CARICOM Charter of Civil Society, that preceded the launching of the annual CMC, and which deals with press and other freedoms, fundamental human rights and good governance, are not honoured in the breach.