Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States from 1801 to 1809, said this about the freedom of the press and its relationship to the functioning of democracy: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
That was in the days when the press meant newspapers and newspapers were the press.
He extended that sentiment, however, to say that “it should mean every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” President Jefferson, along with Franklin Delano Roosevelt - president of the U.S. from 1933 to 1945, are listed among those whose comments rank among the 25 top quotations on the relationship of freedom of the press to democracy.
Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy, U.S. broadcaster Walter Cronkite is recorded to have declared. Mr Cronkite was the pre-eminent television news anchor in the U.S., on CBS News, when this network ruled the airwaves, certainly in the 1960’s and ‘70s. At the height of his prominence he was judged to be the most trusted individual in the U.S. - period.
Those of you who don’t or might not know or have heard of him, would most probably be familiar with Megyn Kelly, the former Fox news anchor who is on her way to a new career on NBC News, and who famously tangled with one Donald Trump in the early days of the campaign, which saw him eventually assume the presidency of the U.S. and occupation of the White House.
The global consequences of Trump’s attacks on the media are more serious than we imagine. In a recent press release, Reporters Without Borders detailed the astonishing impact that Trump’s words have on media freedom in all corners of the globe. Predators of press freedom around the world have used the term “fake news” in order to silence media outlets that they find uncomfortable, even going so far as to quote direct statements from President Trump as a means of justifying their draconian policies.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has openly lauded President Trump’s disdain for the media. He had a spokesperson issue a warning to foreign media outlets that the government would “trash” those that endanger “peace and security” in Cambodia. He referenced to Trump’s treatment of the press as a justification for the warning.
In Ivory Coast, it has become the norm to inflict serious penalties on journalists who write critically of the government. Many journalists have been taken into custody on charges of disseminating “fake news.”
Russia has implemented similar legislation. The Russian telecoms regulator is drafting a decree designed to block all content that contains “false news.” This bill gives the government the power to censor any content they see fit.
In Madagascar, a new communications code has been adopted, that refers to the criminal code in its criminalisation of the profession itself. It includes serious fines for criticising and defamation of the government, referring back to the dissemination of false news.
The list goes on.
President Trump has initiated a war against the media that authoritarians all over the globe can now take full advantage of, by creating oppressive policies that restrict the circulation of “fake news.”
The war against truthful reporting must be stopped.
Let’s help Reporters without Borders preserve the integrity of journalism and protect reporters from repressive policies around the world that attempt to silence and censor their honest work.
Pervaz Musharraf, the former military leader of Pakistan, was moved to ask, coming towards the end of his term in office, whether democracy was more important than the country. He was under attack for some of his more repressive actions.
My response to him would have been an unequivocal yes, because for me, a country where there is no democracy is not a country in which I would wish to live.
I could not live in the Grenada of 1979 to 1983, because there was no free press there. In fact, it was one of those cases in which the term “free” and “freedom” was used to camouflage the very repression and the censorship that authoritarian regimes use to maintain in power.
So, you had a state radio called Radio Free Grenada, and a then-long-standing West Indian newspaper, founded by an anti-colonial statesman and journalist named T. Albert Marryshow, was taken over and co-opted for the propaganda purses of the regime led by the late-Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard and was renamed the Free West Indian.
I might interject at this point that the collapse of the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) in Grenada, the killings of Bishop and virtually half of his then-cabinet, the seizing of power by the supporters of the hardliner Bernard Coard, the U.S.-led invasion and the subsequent events, leading to the restoration of democracy in Grenada remains one of the biggest stories in my near half century as a reporter.
They were hiding information from their own people. They were determining what people should and should not be privy to. The Prime Minister had been under house arrest for two weeks before people in the population knew anything. They were arresting and detaining journalists covering the demonstration at which some of those details were being revealed. At the height of the PRG’s reign in Grenada, the country’s two most prominent journalists, the late Allister Hughes and Leslie Pierre, had been in detention, for the crime of insisting on reporting as they saw it, rather than on what the government wanted.
There is no free and independent media in Cuba. Based, therefore, on the premise of the first part of the title of this discussion, you would have to agree there is no democracy there.
Democracy assumes government of the people, by the people and for the people, with all the imperfections that go with that. It assumes acceptance of the supremacy of the Rule of Law; adherence to the basic rights and freedoms of individuals, including the right to a fair trial; to protection under the law; to the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. It presumes basic freedoms such as that of association and assembly, of conscience, of religion and of choice, including that of the party of one’s choosing. It presumes freedom of speech and of the press.
In the United States, the 2nd Amendment - the right to remain silent, is sacred in the justice system. The 1st Amendment is even more sacred. It says the Congress can pass no law abridging the freedom of the press. Just think about that for a minute. It is the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But here’s Megyn Kelly, on the relationship between the current occupant of the White House and the press freedom principle. “Donald Trump and the 1st Amendment. It’s not a beautiful match. It’s not a match made in Heaven. You know, between the free speech right that he has not defended, and the freedom of the press that he has not defended.”
Trinidad and Tobago is one of a handful of other democracies in the world where the freedom of the press is written into the constitution. It is a right that is untrammelled, I once heard businessman and former politician Ken Gordon repeat, again and again in an encounter with then-Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, during the famous stand-off between the government he led and sections of the media in 1996, when Mr Panday’s government openly declared open hostility against the Guardian newspaper and its then-Editor-in-Chief, Jones P. Madeira, for a headline in the paper that the government did not like. My own interpretation of what Mr. Gordon was insisting at the time, was that the freedom of the press in a democracy, ours in this case, was not to be conditional upon anything except the laws of libel and of defamation.
As enshrined in the constitution, the freedom of the press in Trinidad and Tobago is one of those rights which may not be abrogated, abridged, or infringed by any law.
What tends to happen in our case, and I dare say in other countries, including the United States, which for me remains a model in action of the robust operation of the free press, is that this or that administration, from time to time, or this or that government official, may take action designed to punish people in sections of the media, such as has been outlined earlier.
But we are witnessing an ever-unfolding scenario in which large sections of the press in the United States, and indeed in other liberal democracies around the world, are openly hostile to and opposed to the presidency of the current incumbent.
The Economist magazine ran, for instance, a front-page story this past January just after Mr Trump’s inauguration, declaring “An Insurgent in the White House.”
On the weekend of April 1, The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial entitled “Donald Trump’s Lies”. They actually called him a liar. You could see any media house in Trinidad and Tobago, in any country in the Caribbean for that matter, referring to our Prime Minister in those terms? It’s not our culture.
We have a culture of corruption, and the tolerance and accommodation of one of feting and merriment. Dr Terrence Farrell has told us in his recent book titled “We Like It So?”
In our media relations with newsmakers and news providers, we have a culture of settling for less. We should Settle for More. We allow persons to brow beat us into submission too easily. They tell us often what they want to tell us, not what we want to find out. We acquiesce too easily in people wanting “strict anonymity.” The term itself sounds weird, same as with a “full investigation” or a “thorough investigation” as though there could or ought to be any other kind. Sometimes people demand anonymity when making statements damaging to other people, and other people’s character. And we allow it.
These things add up to our own participation in the dilution of our own version of the freedom of the press.
People are discomforted with some of what we choose to cover - when we promote such issues as the rights of the accused, the human rights of persons in the community we now refer to as LGBTQI and the rights of people who wish to smoke marijuana, whether for medicinal purposes or not. The human rights of persons we now refer to as sex workers. The views of persons who feel that Tobago should secede from Trinidad.
The last time I spoke at a public forum on matters having to do with the freedom of the press, generally speaking, it was at a panel discussion organised by Dr. Farrell at his class at law school, and the issue was whether or not there was a war between the government and the press, or properly put, whether the government was waging a war against the press. Well, that was in 2012, and I happened to be the only member of the panel who argued the proposition in the negative, and I provided practical examples of how I was convinced then that what was being perceived as a war was nothing new and it was in keeping with what I referred to as the skirmishes that will take place from time to time, between the press and the government. I provided examples.
But as it turned out, mine was the only point of view that was not reported on, except for TV6, where I had worked before, but the report was designed to make the point that that’s what you would expect from a government man, which is what I was at the time.
Looking back on it, however, I have concluded that it reveals the existence of a healthy scepticism between the government and the media, which is how it should be.
I could share with you how sometimes I felt that others around me would be nervous, in discussing how they felt about the media, the very media which many people in the population were convinced had helped turn public sentiment against the PNM (People’s National Movement) and in favour of the People’s Partnership in 2010.
As a former Express newspaper and TV6 man, now inside the government, I had to remind myself on several occasions that a reporter named Sasha Mohammed,had been like a one-woman wrecking crew against the PNM and in favour of the opposition. There were people around me who now saw the Express as the enemy.
I had a long, involved discussion and debate with a particular minister one day, about the reporter’s attempts to get information matters at the National Gas Company. His instinct was to freeze the reporter out, on the basis of his conviction that she was out to hurt the government. I wrote him a long statement, telling him, in fact, that it was simply a part of the familiar reality that the reporter saw what to her was a good story and was trying to get at it.
But, I am comforted by the fact that there are those in the government today who see it the same way as that former minister did. Incidentally, or perhaps ironically, that former minister is a newspaper columnist today.
Let me end, however, by quoting Sir Trevor Mc Donald, who told young journalists in Trinidad just early last month: “You must educate people about what is going on.
“You can’t do what people don’t want to read about,” he said, “but you must have a news agenda and an interest in telling people what YOU decide is important for them to know.”
That, ladies and gentlemen is the essence of what is embodied in the idea that a free press is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy.
Andy Johnson is a senior journalist who has held various positions in Trinidad and Tobago’s print and electronic media. Founding president of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT), he has also held positions with Trinidad’s Government Information Services (GISL).