Jamaica has been ranked high among global countries with regards to press freedom, according to the latest report released by the media watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index released Wednesday, Jamaica is ranked at number six, up two places from 2017.
RSF said this year’s report reflects growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism, pose a threat to democracies.
It said that the climate of hatred is steadily more visible in the index, which evaluates the level of press freedom in 180 countries each year.
“Hostility towards the media from political leaders is no longer limited to authoritarian countries such as Turkey and Egypt, where ‘media-phobia’ is now so pronounced that journalists are routinely accused of terrorism and all those who don’t offer loyalty are arbitrarily imprisoned.”
RSF said that “more and more democratically elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion.
“The United States, the country of the First Amendment, has fallen again in the index under Donald Trump, this time two places to 45th. A media-bashing enthusiast, Trump has referred to reporters as ‘enemies of the people’, the term once used by Joseph Stalin.”
According to RSF, Jamaica ranks among the countries that most respect freedom of information.
“The very occasional physical attacks on journalists must be offset against this, but no serious act of violence or threat to media freedom has been reported since February 2009, a month that saw two cases of abuse of authority by the Kingston police,” RSF said, adding, “the law decriminalising defamation passed by the House of Representatives in 2013 was a step in the right direction”.
RSF said that Trinidad and Tobago’s controversial Libel and Defamation Act was partly amended in 2014, but “malicious defamatory libel known to be false” is still punishable by up to two years in prison as well as a fine.
“Most media outlets are privately owned, but those regarded as favourable to the Government get the lion’s share of State advertising. Several pieces of legislation — the Cybercrime Bill, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Data Protection Act, and the Broadcast Code — could have a chilling effect on press freedom and free expression online if adopted.”
RSF said that last year, several reporters were physically attacked while investigating a story involving the owner of a private oil company, a rare example of violence against journalists unseen in the country in recent years. It ranked Trinidad and Tobago at 39th, down from 34th position last year.
Belize, where the index dropped from 41 last year to 47 this year, RSF said that coverage of political developments and criminal cases is controversial because the media are extremely polarised.
“This often results in legal proceedings that are long and costly for media outlets. Cases of threats, intimidation and harassment of journalists are occasionally reported. Due to inadequate infrastructure, Internet access is among the slowest and costliest in the Caribbean,” it added.
RSF said that although Guyana’s Constitution guarantees free speech and the right to information, officials often use its defamation laws, which provide for fines and up to two years in jail, to silence opposition journalists.
“The members of the media regulatory authority are appointed directly by the president. This restricts the freedom of certain media outlets which are denied licences. Recent attempts to improve regulation of the broadcast industry involved no consultation with any broadcasters.
“Journalists are still subjected to harassment that takes the form of prosecutions, suspensions and intimidation. A draft cybercrime Bill could penalise whistleblowers and media for publishing information collected ‘illegally’,” RSF said of Guyana, which climbed to 55 on the index this year as compared to 60 last year.
In the nine-member Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), RSF said journalism is not a prestige profession in those countries.
“Journalists get little training and often abandon media work because it is so badly paid. Many media outlets are under the direct influence of politicians, especially during elections, because officials can withdraw State advertising at any time, depriving them of income they depend on.
“In some of the islands, political parties even own or have major shares in media companies, compromising journalistic independence. The authorities are also monitoring social networks more and more closely, which encourages a degree of self-censorship.”
RSF said that there has even been talk of addressing so-called “fake news” in legislation, though no Bill has yet to be drafted.
According to RSF, which ranked the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Kitts-Nevis, Anguilla, and the British Virgin islands at 22 up from 28 last year, “democratic governments from several countries in the Organisation of East Caribbean States have adopted Trump’s favourite phrase when criticising the work of journalists.
“Given that criminal defamation still remains on the books in many Caribbean countries, the spread of Trump’s anti-media rhetoric could have very serious consequences for the local press,” it said.
It said the Cybercrime Bill St Vincent and the Grenadines adopted in 2016, a vaguely worded law expected to chill freedom of the press and expression online, is likely to be exported to other countries in the OECS.
“Like many of its neighbours, St Vincent and the Grenadines still criminalises defamation, and this legislation has extended this offence to include online content.”
In Suriname, where the index declined by one point to 21 this year, RSF said that with few attacks on journalists and a varied media landscape, the Dutch-speaking Caribbean Community country gets fairly good marks these days for its respect of information freedom.
But training and resources are lacking, and “public expression of hatred” toward the Government is punishable by up to seven years in prison under a draconian defamation law.
“The very controversial Desi Bouterse, who became president again in 2010, this time via the polls, and was re-elected in 2015, has managed to be amnestied for the 1982 murders of 15 political opponents, including five journalists.”
Despite the recent evolution of press freedom laws, Haitian journalists still suffer from a severe lack of financial resources, lack of institutional support and difficult access to information, RSF said.
It said some still suffer intimidation and aggression. The country suffered greatly from the 2010 earthquake and cyclone Matthew in 2016, which severely damaged existing infrastructure on the island.
Private media, which are very much in the interest of their shareholders, struggle to express their views without self-censorship. In 2017, a Bill on defamation was passed in the Senate, imposing heavy sanctions against journalists.
Source: Jamaica Observer