The press and human rights in Trinidad & Tobago

By Wesley Gibbings

This article, originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, is republished below with permission.

Feature image via Canva Pro.

It’s World Press Freedom Day today and it appears most people here don’t really care or understand what it’s all about. It also follows the observance, two days ago, of International Workers’ Day aka May Day.

Filipino journalist Juan Pablo Salud established a connection between the two when he posted to his Facebook page, “One fact you don't hear very often is that writing is labour, and writers — novelists, journalists, poets, essayists, playwrights, screenwriters, songwriters, social media content creators […] form part of the workforce. We are found in every industry, every human endeavor since the dawn of civilization.”

This made me recall the time when (as a reporter and trade union member) covering labour news, I turned to a news editor and said of a planned union demonstration, “Shouldn’t we be out there too?” This despite knowing intimately of the weaknesses and foibles of a labour movement proceeding slothfully into the future, to the extent that today it appears stuck in the tarpits of slow death.

Whatever the appropriate response, I believe press freedom is intrinsically aligned to a wide swathe of freedoms and human rights — conscientious commitments that distinguish us from other animal groups.

Press freedom, as one by-product of wider freedom of expression, plays a key role in ensuring that other rights are the stuff of lived reality. This obtains even as we recognise that all rights are for everyone.

These rights include the full gamut of civil and political rights, alongside the economic, social and cultural. It is impossible, or at least highly unlikely, to distinguish the conditions conducive to one from the other without at the same time denying the inalienability, universality, and indivisibility of such freedoms.

In countries such as ours — the products of colonialism, slavery, and other forms of coercion — we continually encounter the cognitive dissonance that emerges each time we speak of asserting human rights. There is this endemic, quick resort to prohibition and an absence of the habits of freedom.

There are also people who despise the (admittedly imperfect) press and would bask in its demise over narratives or perspectives being given time and space that are not in keeping with their own.

Another group includes those who do not appear to understand that press freedom implies the right of audiences/consumers to seek out, access, and procure content. Press freedom, therefore, is not only for the press.

All platforms can occupy space under the expansive umbrella of free expression, but the discrete elements (inclusive of amateur social media outputs in all their manifestations) are not all the same and distinctions are deservedly made.

Press freedom makes specific demands of mainstream, legacy media that do not necessarily extend to less formal platforms — whatever the common legal and presumed ethical obligations. This is, however, not to diminish the value of other channels.

The media’s validating role is also key to addressing disinformation and propaganda couched as independent news and information. Had things been different, considerable pandemic progress would not have been realised.

These things are being considered at a time when human rights and freedoms are being tested in unprecedented ways.

In the Caribbean, for instance, a scarcity of resources together with relatively weak social and political institutions conspire to undermine the prospects for peaceful and equitable growth and development.

Pandemic measures added considerably to the already challenging situation. We also face violent crime as a singularly critical threat to Caribbean civilisation, accompanied by an inability to properly understand and address it.

We have seemingly been moving from one crisis to the next, and the implications for media practice at times such as these are exceedingly difficult to negotiate.

US scholar Dr. Courtney C. Radsch, to whose research I have recently contributed, asserts, “When there is a fast pivot or crisis, media become even more politicised, and other institutions are affected in ways that put further pressure on independent journalism both inside the country and in surrounding areas, as well as in those that become migratory hosts.”

Additionally, in our neck of the woods, the indispensable role of reliable news and information in the achievement of even the most modest developmental aspirations is being undermined by brittle media infrastructure, endemic mis and disinformation, and governance systems that are distinctly opaque and unaccountable.

It has also not been helpful that politicians and their surrogates increasingly employ subversive tactics to undermine the credibility and value of independent journalism even as they ironically do so at their own peril.

At stake are rights in excess of those claimed by the media and journalists. We’d do well to remember this.

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